the philippine azkals and their continuing search for home

Meet and Greet the Azkals Team

Image by budiputra via Flickr

ON BOARD FLIGHT 5J451, Philippines – The Philippine Men’s National Football Team are better known as the Philippine Azkals. The term “Azkal” is a derivation of the Filipino term askal which itself is an abbreviation of the phrase asong kalye. Many associate this phrase with the English word – mongrel – which is a dog born from the union of two different dog breeds – a half-breed. As has been pointed out, this does not necessarily have to be the case. An askal is literally a dog who lives out in the streets.

It is in this context that the Philippine Azkals were so named. The Azkals are in search of a home both literally and figuratively. In the literal sense, the team, unlike many other national teams, does not have a home field or a training facility that they can call their own. The country does not have a football-only stadium that can serve as a base for the Philippine Team. It practices where it can and usually at fields, or in football lingo – pitches – which the team can affordably rent. There are plans afoot to build a national football stadium with the help of FIFA and some sponsors. The plans are in its early stages and could take some time.

But perhaps, in a bigger contextual and figurative sense, the Azkals search for a home can be taken as their struggle to find a place in the collective consciousness of our basketball-crazy country. While the recent hard-fought successes of the Azkals would make it appear that they have been an overnight success, nothing could be further from the reality that has been.

Perhaps we could look back at the Southeast Asian Games of 2005 as the beginning of what we are seeing now. In those Games, the Younghusband brothers first came to the limelight in their first tournament donning the Philippine national team jersey. The brothers were then members of the junior team of Chelsea – a team in the English Premier League. They caused a mini-storm because they were good players and they looked good – as the old people used to say – “pang-matinee idol”. But the disjointed state of Philippine football stalled the momentum of that spark and descended back to obscurity over the next five years.

Then came the Suzuki Cup where the Azkals finished second while beating defending champions – Vietnam – along the way. And the rest is history albeit a very short history in many Filipino minds.

I have digressed and let me get back on point. The Azkals continue to fight for a place in the Philippine sporting world in its bid to gain acceptance with the Filipino fan. But what exactly have they done to deserve such a place.

I was fortunate enough to have joined the team in UlaanBataar, Mongolia for the second leg of their home and away series with Mongolia in the Asian Challenge Cup. On our way back from Mongolia, during our stopover in Beijing, Coach Hans Michael Weiss gathered the team together and warned them of potential naysayers trying to pull them down for the loss to Mongolia. Yes, the team lost but advanced to the next round of the competition in Myanmar due to having scored more goals in the two-game series against the Mongolians. Coach Weiss reminded the team of the obstacles they had to overcome just to even play the game in Mongolia. No amount of negativity should take away the grit and perseverance they showed in the lack of pre-game practice time due to misplaced luggage, immigration officials denying entry to a player twice to Mongolia, a family left in Japan and finally, an act of God.

The act of God was the earthquake and subsequent tsunami while the team was training in Japan. By some twist of fate, the team ended up being based in a practice facility in Gotemba. The team was originally booked to stay in the Fukushima facility of the Japanese Football Association (JFA). Fukushima, as we now know, is one of the hardest hit areas of the tragedies that have befallen Japan. It is also the site of the nuclear facility that is the focus of efforts in preventing an even larger nuclear catastrophe.

After the quake, the team was unable to reach Narita International Airport for their flight on the way to Mongolia due to the battered roads from Gotemba to Tokyo. The team had to make their way to Nagoya to make a flight arranged by the JFA. Through dogged determination the team did make their flight. Upon arrival in UlaanBataar, they find out that their luggage and equipment was not able to make it to Mongolia with them. Without their equipment, the team is unable to practice at the site of the match – a valuable component of game preparation. Still, the team did not let this let them down. Morale was still high.

Coaching is not just about strategy and tactics. It also involves a lot of management, including managing the players. Coach Weiss does all of this and appears to do this well. More than that, Coach Weiss goes beyond the now. In a meeting after the match, he again emphasized the need to build a robust and sustainable grassroots program.

The good thing about the players is that they seem to be aware of the weight of responsibility on their shoulders. That is the responsibility of doing well for the flag and being ambassadors for the renaissance of the game in the country. They are obviously not doing this for the money. They have been very approachable and patient in accommodating fan requests for photographs and autographs. No matter how tired or hungry they may have been, I have yet to see them turn anyone down. At the post-game meal, an official asked the fans to kindly allow the players to eat first before asking for the players to pose for pictures and sign autographs. Team Captain Aly Borromeo overheard this and said – “it’s okay”.

The thing that also impressed me and touched me was how the players felt about doing well for the country. On the ride back to the hotel from the stadium after the game, the disappointment about losing the game was palpable in the silence that pervaded the team bus – this despite advancing to the next phase of this competition despite the loss.  Aly Borromeo had this to say on Twitter – “Sorry Pilipinas, very disappointed with the loss today!”

And what can you say about team manager Dan Palami. Dan has been called the savior of Philippine Football – a moniker he rightly deserves. He has spent his own money to rebuild the Men’s National Football Team to what it is right now. More than that, he has been an inspiration to the players and staff alike who call him Boss. He has no airs about him and goes about his business, or crusade, in his focused and low-key way. Without him, there would be no Azkals to speak of.

Then there is the 30-hour odyssey of Ray Jonsson. Ray was to join the team in UlaanBataar from Iceland via Beijing. Upon his arrival in Beijing, Ray was not allowed to board his aircraft due to what can be termed as insufficient documentation despite earlier assurances that what he had with him were enough. Given the lateness of the day, Ray checked into a hotel at the airport for the night. After a long, sleepless night in his room, Ray tried again the following day to no avail. He was finally advised by Philippine Football Federation (PFF) officials to fly to Seoul to join a group of PFF officers, team managers and parents who were on their way to UlaanBataar.

It was in Seoul that I finally met Ray. My first impression was that this guy looks really tired and I realized why when he told us his story. Landing in UlaanBataar, Ray again had difficulty gaining entry to Mongolia but through the intercession of PFF President Nonong Araneta, he was finally allowed in. We finally get to our hotel past midnight of game day.

Ray played a great game. Coach Weiss named him our man of the match.

But Ray’s saga does not end there. On the way back, due to the limited overhead bin space in the aircraft, some of the passengers’ hand-carried luggage had to be taken off the aircraft and checked in. This included the bag of sportscaster Chino Trinidad. Upon landing in Beijing, Chino belatedly discovers that his passport was in the bag that was off-loaded in UlaanBataar and was eventually and mistakenly unloaded in Beijing instead of being checked through to Manila. Chino was asked to retrieve his luggage. Ray Jonsson, a Bisaya like Chino, volunteered to go with Chino just in case he was forced to stay and miss our flight. At least may kasama daw si Chino. Chino missed the flight. Fortunately, Ray made it back in time and was given a boisterous round of applause by the team when he entered the plane.

Ray Jonsson is my hero. He didn’t have to do what he did. He could have easily have flown back to Iceland not once but twice, but as he said – “I wanted to play for the country”.

So what exactly have the Azkals done to deserve our support? All of the above.  The Azkals’ literal home – a training facility they can call their home may be a ways off. But – haven’t they done enough to deserve a place in our consciousness, if not our hearts? I believe they have.

Welcome home Azkals!