Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Villaflor: The possibility of an upset


HOURS before the AFC Asian Cup 2019 match between the Philippines and global football powerhouse South Korea, SunStar Sports editor Mike Limpag asked me what I thought the result would be.

I said there’s a big chance for a draw, but there’s a bigger chance for a rout. None of those happened, we now know, but the result of last Monday night’s David and Goliath encounter did surprise many and shocked not quite a few.

But allow me to explain my pre-match thoughts. On paper South Korea, ranked 56th by FIFA, is far more superior than the Azkals, ranked 116th. With such a gulf in class, a rout seemed inevitable.

But football is a far more complex game that can’t be reduced into statistics. The sport’s beauty lies in its unpredictability and the drama it brings, where a loss at times feels like a win.

Indeed, the Azkals felt like winners in their first appearance in the Asian Cup, and the tournament favorites, the Koreans, who might as well consider themselves fortunate to have scored a goal and escape with a win.

Looking at the match numbers without checking the final score, one would conclude a bloodbath had just transpired on the Rashid Al-Maktoum Stadium in Dubai. Sixteen shots against six, 82% possession against 18%.

These were similar numbers I visualized before the match, numbers that pointed to a Korean rout. On the other hand, I just could not ignore the intangibles such as heart and a never-say-die spirit.

And true enough last Monday, the Azkals defended with purpose, thwarting wave after wave of relentless South Korean assaults. In the end, the Azkals defense was breached, but how close our boys were in leveling the score.

Time and again in football, a team can hardly touch the ball for an entire match and yet survive. And seeing that the Azkals’ defense was at full strength this time, I entertained the possibility of a draw. An upset was just out of the question, but how we of little faith would have loved to be proven wrong.

In the end, there neither was a rout nor a draw. The Koreans left the pitch with a sense of relief, while the Azkals emerged looking forward to Friday’s clash against China, this time armed with renewed confidence and a strong case that they can actually slay a giant in what could possibly be an upset for the ages.


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