CARLY went down, I got up and screamed. So did Mark, Doreen and the rest of the Ultras and Azkals fans who trooped to the Semi Final bar for the historic match between the Philippines and Tajikistan. It was a roller-coaster ride; we had chances in the first half but looked nervy, while Tajikistan had a couple of open headers inside the box.
Still, we were confident. We won’t be denied but that confidence was shattered when Tajikistan scored on a penalty. No, not again.
Not again. But something happened. Despite being 1-0 down, there was a sense of belief that we would make it. Unlike in 2014, when we needed a win to make it to the Asian Cup, we only needed a draw.
Just one goal. We shouted.
Then it happened. Phil Younghusband found a running Iain Ramsay, who looped the ball back to Kevin Ingreso. I think the whole stadium gasped as his header floated past the keeper into the net.
Pandemonium. 1-1. The Asian Cup dream was alive again. Later, Patrick Reichelt, who traces his roots to Argao, got free in the box and was fouled. It was a soft penalty, I think, but who cares? Not the thousands in the stadium nor the thousands more gathered in sports bars around the country or huddled in front of their TVs or mobile phones all over the world.
Phil Younghusband, whose right foot has saved many an Azkal game, scored his 50th and most important goal ever to put the outcome beyond doubt. It is but fitting that Phil, the country’s leading scorer who has been with the senior team since 2006, scored the final goal. Then things got testy, de Murga was fouled, pushed in the head and I think not a fan in the stand was unwilling to stand up for de Murga. United in euphoria over the epic comeback, Dennis Villanueva did it for all the fans and got a red card. Inconsequential but it sends a message: hit a brother, you take on all of us.
And in 2019, “us” will include 679,819 Pinoys in the UAE, with 450,000 in Dubai alone, making the Azkals, the debutants in next year’s AFC Cup, the team with the most number of supporters.
Sure, the heavy favorites like Korea, Japan and Australia will bring with them their thousands of traveling fans but as those who’ve followed the Azkals story know, the team doesn’t bring fans, they have fans everywhere they go, even in Mongolia, North Korea, and the Maldives.
They’ll have more than half a million in the UAE.