Villaflor: What the Azkals can learn from Ceres debacle

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Monday, May 12, 2014


WHAT a heartbreaker, Ceres-La Salle FC’s 2-1 loss to HTTU Agabat of Turkmenistan last Saturday. The Bacolod-based club, carrying the Philippine flag, was seconds – yes seconds – away from qualifying for the AFC President’s Cup final stage when the unthinkable happened.

Ceres only needed a draw to advance and rewrite Philippine club football history, but an Agabat player had other plans for his club. Forward Muhadov Suleyman scored crucial goals in both the first and second halves, both in stoppage time.

Leading 1-0 courtesy of Carli de Murga’s strike in the 20th minute, Ceres would have been in a comfortable position going into halftime when Suleyman struck within two minutes of added time.

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But Suleyman’s killer blow, the one that crushed the nearly 6,000 fans in attendance at the Panaad Stadium, came just seconds before the final whistle, leaving Ceres no chance to turn things around one last time.

A CERES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS. Since there was no televised coverage, I had to rely on tweets for updates, but reading the one from @afc_prescup_B had a similar effect: “Goal for FC HTTU in added time. 2-1.” I felt a split-second tightening in the chest.

For those who watched the match in the stadium, I can only surmise it must have been more heartbreaking for them, Filipino football fans who were on the brink of a historic celebration. From euphoria to despair, how cruel can a game of sports get? But this is football.

The next tweet, of course, said something about the fans giving Ceres “a round of applause for a game well fought.” Had Ceres won, that would have been an infinite number of rounds of applause that could be heard up to this day.

I don’t know if it would make the fans, players and stakeholders feel any better, but maybe the club was just a victim of a circumstance, but a painful one, nevertheless.

LEARNING THE HARD WAY. Now, there might be something positive that can be gleaned from the Ceres debacle: it’s a cautionary tale to the Philippine Azkals as they seek glory in the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup group stage in the Maldives starting May 20.

“It’s not over until the fat lady sings,” the Azkals ought to be reminded. Until the referee blows the final whistle, anything can happen in a football game.

I’m in no position to say that the Ceres players, when both killer goals were scored, lowered their guard, lost their nerves, or just collapsed. Perhaps it might have been due to a lack of experience as a club, having been founded only in 2012, which means they can only get better.

Still, the unfortunate result, probably avoidable, is a fair warning to the Azkals, now under coach Thomas Dooley, as they aim to level up as a team.

NOT SO FRIENDLY REMINDER. As another warning, the Azkals should be reminded of the Challenge Cup debacle from two years ago: leading 1-0, the 2012 Philippine team was minutes away from snaring an elusive finals slot when Turkmenistan scored two goals in six minutes.

And just like that, the Azkals’ championship dreams lay in ruins, and they had to settle for third place. Turkmenistan eventually lost to champions North Korea.

Incidentally, HTTU Agabat plies their trade in the top league of Turkmenistan, whose national side, incidentally still, has been grouped anew alongside the Philippine team, ranked 140 by Fifa. Completing Group B are tough Laos (174) and an even tougher Afghanistan (128).

But here’s another point that Dooley must be drilling into his players right now: from the aforementioned results of both club and country, these Turkmenistani guys just don’t give up.

That means don’t let the national team’s lowly Fifa ranking of 156 fool you, unless you secretly wish for a sad case of history repeating.

(nsvillaflor@gmail.com)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on May 13, 2014.

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