By Rick Olivares (Bleachers’ Brew)
In 2006, I was working for Solar Sports as Marketing Manager when the Philippine Football Federation came up to us to cover the home matches of the Philippine Men’s Football National Team for the ASEAN Football Championship.
The PFF sent three representatives – Joaqui Preysler, Ernie Nierras, and Ed Formoso. They had shopped it around to the major networks and hardly received an audience. There were a couple of Ateneo football guys at Solar Sports at that time and we needed no convincing. The collective response was: “let’s get this done.”
That was the first time that the Younghusband brothers suited up for the seniors squad and there was some excitement brewing about them coming over from England to play for the Philippines.
We covered them for that tournament as well as for the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup Qualifiers in Iloilo.
I remember that in 2006, after returning from Panaad, Bacolod, a press conference was held at the Mizuno head office at the Magallanes Village commercial center in Makati. I was the only sports journalist present for the press con. The rest were all lifestyle and fashion writers. Why they were there I have no idea. Of course, I lugged along a television crew from Solar Sports to cover the event.
Previously, I would also tow our camera crews to cover UAAP football. We would show highlights of the tournament. We even cut a few commercials featuring the Ateneo and La Salle football teams talking about the 2006 World Cup.
I’m never going to forget that presscon if only for the questions posed to the team.
“What Filipino words do you know?”
“Have you tried balut?”
“Why don’t you play basketball?
And here’s where it gets worse…
“What is your favorite color?”
I was appalled but I understood. Football just wasn’t something the public generally cared to read or watch on television save for the die hards.
I began a friendship with many of the players that lasts to this day and that helped in writing about them. However, I also began to write about the alleged corruption within the Philippine Football Federation. Little did I know that I would soon be banned not only from the PFF premises but from also covering the national team.
The coaches and players were instructed to seek permission from federation officials before I or any other media man could talk to them.
It became difficult to cover them with little or no access. Eventually, the coaches who followed – Aris Caslib and Norman Fegidero Jr. would talk to me but much of what was bandied about was mostly off the record. I’d spent huge phone bills calling Coach Nonoy in Bacolod and had to wait for Coach Aris to finish his training in San Beda before we’d get to chat.
That changed in late 2010 when the PFF lifted the ban and allowed me to re-join a vastly different team. Dan Palami was the team manager now and Simon McMenemy was the head coach. It wasn’t too long ago when I was chatting with Desmond Bulpin in Ateneo where the team would practice. But it came at a time when I was offering to get Gatorade to sponsor the team (this was right before the Suzuki Cup).
I recall that almost as soon as I joined GroupM, the international media agency that does the local promotions and activations for Gatorade, I began to push for the national team. It took months before they approved it and they did when I staked my job for the team.
Looking back, it seems prophetic now. I did say that this team was ready to take off. “Just you wait and see,” I said.
If that were the lotto I’d be in the Bahamas right now.
At that time before we set off for Vietnam, we held the team’s first ever press conference at the PFF headquarters. We came up with their first ever press kit. I got about 12 media colleagues to attend. Save for TV5 none of the other television channels attended. Some said they would go but never did.
Funny how after Vietnam all of them came running without further notice.
When we arrived in Vietnam, the team was still virtually under the radar. In the press conference that preceded the games, not one of the assembled 200 media asked any questions about the Philippines. The coaches of Singapore and Vietnam even discussed about how many goals they would score against the Philippines. They were that bold and brazen.
We all know how things turned out in those 10 days in Vietnam.
I’ve covered many athletes and many sports teams not just here in the Philippines but also abroad. Following the Philippine Men’s Football National Team is like following a live version of Sylvester Stallone’s fictional boxer, Rocky Balboa. It’s like, “Who knew, right?”
Right there and then, I got the feeling that I was in the midst of something special. The time was when the team would go to a match and on the way to the venue, they’d be talking about taking their lumps and going home. At that particular time in Vietnam, I wondered if the guys thought I was insane as I kept telling them that we were going to shock the world.
I mean plane tickets had been bought for return flights (back to England and wherever).
My confidence wasn’t misplaced. I thought that watching the team come together in the past year and how some were reaching their peak, they had finally become a team.
They are never going to win because of an individual. They will advance because of team play. That team had put aside whatever differences they had at that time whether it be cultural or skills. They hung out together not just on the dining table but also outside the pitch. No longer were the Fil-Foreigners bunked together with the locals in another. They mixed around, had fun, trained, and played together.
Inside the dugout during the halftime break against Vietnam, the team sat quietly as we had hung on to a precious 1-nil lead. The boys were sweating despite the cold weather. Not a word was said. McMenemy paced for a few minutes trying to collect his thoughts. And then he spoke. “We can do this,” he said. “We’re holding them. They’re desperate now and that means they are vulnerable to mistakes.”
I forget now everything else that transpired as the entire team began to talk and pump up one another. Dan Palami stood by the door and patted the players on their shoulders as they filed out. “We can do this!” he thundered.
In the 79th minute, Phil Younghusband added to Chris Greatwich’s 39th minute goal to put the match beyond reach. The first goal had silenced the capacity crowd at My Dinh. The second sent the crowds towards the exit.
The bedlam inside the locker room was raw and raucous. It was as if a championship had been won.
If the team was disregarded before. Not anymore. As soon as we arrived at the Sheraton in Hanoi where we were billeted, the staff graciously applauded. At the hotel lobby where the teams hung out (because of the free internet), they now began to mingle and exchange stories.
As Kuwait prepared for the Philippines in the second leg of the Asian Qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup, they scouted the Philippines in Sri Lanka, Manila, and Bahrain. They even watched the first practice of the team at Taha Field in Kuwait.
All of a sudden everyone is taking the Philippine team seriously. And quite honestly, I have never seen a Filipino team followed like this. Of course, there’s Manny Pacquiao but this one is different if only for the teenybopper set as well as the legions of women. In Kuwait, I went fan watching.
I would watch them – kids, men, women, and mothers – on how they reacted when the team arrived and I came away fascinated. I corroborated my theory with longtime sports broadcast journalist Chino Trinidad who also was in amazement.
The fact that expatriate Filipinos turned the Mohammed Al-Hamad Stadium into a virtual homefield for the Azkals says something. Only 4,000 tickets were allotted to the Filipino community but our kababayans found a way (the black market notwithstanding).
Having covered this team for a while now, and having seen many of the ups and downs, one thing is for sure. Football in the Philippines is here to stay. And covering the Azkals, as they are now fondly called, will no longer be dreary.
As the team was mobbed while at the Avenues Mall in Kuwait City to buy football gear, midfielder James Younghusband smiled and said to me, “I think it’s great that there are all these fans now. Oh, we love it for sure. They were there before but not like this. This is something you do not take for granted. I am going to cherish for a long time.”
So will I.