I started watching the Azkals (Philippine national football team) play ever since they started playing as a team. Small but terrible Chieffy Caligdong was the captain of the team. He was the focus of my attention because his love for the game was so infectious.

During the Peace Cup Tournament, just after he sunk in a goal, Chieffy flipped up his T-shirt, revealing an under shirt with the words “Jesus loves us!” He went running around the field very much like a satisfied child with a huge grin. He reminded me of a five year old boy who had just stolen his favorite chocolate cookies from a forbidden cookie jar. At that precise moment I became an avid Azkals fan.

As their growth progressed as a football team, I recognized the players, understood their respective positions in the playing field and noticed their particular skills.

My friends in Sun.Star Cebu might wonder how I could keep awake from 12 midnight to the wee hours of dawn just to follow the game on TV. May 24 and May 27 had my eyes glued to the TV screen as I cheered for the Azkals.

In the final game against the Palestine team, we lost. In fairness to the Palestine team they deserved the championship. To the credit of the Azkals team, they gave their all, even when they were running against time in the last two-minute extension of the game. They fought hard and tough in order to win. They never lost heart.

After years of watching them play, I recognize now the respective players by sight. The games in Maldives brought to fore captain Robert “Bob” Gier’s breeding and level-headedness, especially at critical moments when tense situations surfaced. Coach Thomas Dooley trained his team to perform well, using their talents to reach great results. Every single member of the team contributed not only their expertise but gave their hearts and souls in trying to bring the trophy home. They pushed themselves to the limit and no one can fault the individual players for not rising to the challenge. They played as a unit while carrying their love for the Philippines in their hearts.

Now allow me to diverge to speak of Pope Francis after he had hand-written a note with the Our Father prayer done in his native Spanish. He left the note in the cracks of the Western Wall (also Wailing Wall). He then embraced his Argentine friends, a rabbi and a Muslim in front of the Western Wall.

Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi then applauded the sincere act by saying, “We can love mutually and then embrace!”

After thinking deeply about my being such an avid fan of the Azkals, I tried to imagine the number of team players they’ve met in the different tournaments they’ve participated in. How many have they embraced and learned to like, respect and admire and become friends with? Can they too love mutually and embrace?

How much love have the Azkals received from the fans in the stands or in their respective homes as they watched their favorite players play? I know for a fact that the Azkals never take the support of their fans lightly. The players’ faces exude warmth and friendship as they go to the stands here in the Philippines after a game.

I realized that they cannot come close to Pope Francis’ natural response to love as Pope Francis emanates the essence of love. However, as ambassadors of good will, the Azkals have done a lot to give Filipinos a chance to see mutual love among the players as they support and help the new members added to their team and as they embrace new friends from different Asian countries in the football playing field.

The Azkals push themselves to the limit of their endurance, some players playing from start to finish, with other players taking falls and getting back into playing while grimacing in pain. We see what the Azkals are made of.

Coach Dooley predicts a bright future for the Philippines in football. He was happy with the way the Azkals played.

In the meantime, fans like me will continue rooting for them and being proud of how they’ve grown as professional football players. The more astute of fans have noticed that the Azkals no longer think as individual players but as one unit fighting together to make the Philippines proud of them! We reiterate: “We are so proud of them!”