THERE are plenty of reasons to visit Bacolod. Personally, I love how the Negrense have a way with food. Right now I’m craving for chicken inasal at Aida’s Manokan. And kansi, particularly from Sharyn’s, which I haven’t actually tried despite the number of times I’ve set foot in the City of Smiles.

But if there’s anything that can match my craving for good food, it’s my craving for good football. The good news is top-level international football is coming to Bacolod next month when the Azkals kick off their World Cup 2022 Qualifying campaign.

The Philippine booters will face off against a formidable foe in Syria at the Panaad Stadium on Sept. 5, which is why our team needs all the support from the home crowd. By home crowd that means you, regardless of where you are right now in the country.

File that leave and book a trip to Bacolod and show the Azkals some love. In return, you’ll get to see an inspired home team doing its best to win and not disappoint thousands of fans who have come to watch them play.

But because this is football, there’s no such thing as a surefire win for our team. Besides, Syria isn’t just any team, and pushovers they certainly aren’t. For one, Syria (87) is ranked three dozen places ahead of the Philippines (126) in the Fifa Ranking. Further, Syria is the second-highest ranked team behind China (71) in Group A where the Philippines belongs, alongside the Maldives (151) and Guam (190).

I have no doubt that the Azkals can handle the Maldives and Guam with ease. Anything short of a win whether home or away would be a disaster. Syria and China, though, are a different level of Asian football, and the odds are stacked against the Azkals in its qualification efforts.

This is just Round 2 of the WC 2022 qualifiers for Asian Football Confederation teams, but according to the tournament format, only the top two teams in the group will advance to third round, as well as earn an outright slot in the Asian Cup 2023. What this means for the Azkals is that the best way for the team to increase its chances of advancing is to win all of its home games. This starts with Syria, which, like it or not, carries a far larger sense of purpose than any other team in the group: for all the despair that war has wrought upon this Middle Eastern country, battles won in the football field can at least lift the weary spirits of its football-loving people.

The Azkals, on the other hand, cannot afford a dismal performance in the qualifiers as that could adversely impact the sport’s survival here. After Syria comes an even stronger China, but beating both teams on Philippine soil is not improbable.

I believe that the Azkals defense can handle both teams, but as long as our team’s attacking front fails to convert attempts into goals, this World Cup campaign would remain futile.

What I understand, though, is that the Azkals are seriously working on their speed up front and shooting accuracy. Would that be enough to beat Syria and China? Perhaps the deafening cheers of the hometown crowd might give this version of the Azkals that winning boost. So please be there.