MANILA, Philippines – A fairy-tale ending.
Four years ago, Philippine football was in a similar position: the Azkals made it all the way up to finals of the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup to face a clean sheet-Palestine team.
From the miracle of Hanoi to that point, the Philippines believed that they were on their way to the AFC Asian Cup if they became the first team to defeat Palestine. However, it was the 59th minute goal of Ashraf Nu'man that crushed the hearts of many Filipino football fans and the Azkals themselves, sending the popularity of the sport spiraling down.
The tale (that is not yet over)
On Tuesday, March 27, 2018, it was time for the Azkals to leave behind those painful memories, and sink in to savor the moment that they have now: another chance for the Asian Cup.
Everything felt so surreal and feelings were racing everywhere in Rizal Memorial Stadium's grandstand. After a scoreless first half, the bomb was dropped when Tajikistan won the penalty after Kevin Ingreso made a hard foul on captain Davronov Nuriddin. It was Nazarov Akhtam who owned the spot as he converted it in the 64th minute.
Down one-nil, it seemed like hope was lost as the Azkals continued their attempts of breaking down the Tajikistan defense. For the fans, thoughts were circling: 'will this be another heartbreak for the Philippines?'
Unexpectedly, these negative thoughts were halted in the 73rd minute as Iain Ramsay's cross found Ingreso. Making up for his huge error, Ingreso headed the ball into the back of the net. It was silence for a split-second, then the crowd erupted with cheers for the man of the match who equalized it at 1-1, as only a win or a draw can catapult the Philippines to the Asian Cup.
"I actually couldn’t believe it. I was crying, tears came out, the players were telling me that they knew that I have character," recalled Ingreso of this moment.
However, it was not enough to draw and the Azkals could not have ended the night better. In the 89th minute, Tajik goalscorer Akhtam brought down Patrick Reichelt in the box which awarded the penalty kick to the Azkals.
Prior to added time, it was captain Phil Younghusband who would take the spot kick. Found in his sweet spot, the captain charged towards the ball and mercilessly converted the penalty for his half-a-century international goal and the victory.
It was a night of celebration for our Philippine Men's National Football team and for Filipino football fans alike who were either witnessing history from the comforts of their homes or braving the packed grandstand that ensured that the Filipinos were the 12th man of the match. (READ: Philippines 2, Tajikistan 1: Postgame thoughts on a perfect night for Pinoy football)
Rebirth of Philippine Football
For Younghusband, the night hit 3 birds with one stone.
For his personal one, he has now become one of the football greats of the Philippines and was even likened to world stars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo with his 50th international goal that capped the match.
Although Ingreso's header already allowed the Azkals to qualify for the Asian Cup, it was Younghusband's goal that made it a win for the Philippines.
Younghusband was part of that 2014 team that experienced the Asian Cup eluding them. To be part of this 2018 team today, he considers the Asian Cup berth in 2019 to be the greatest milestone in history – of the Philippines and of his own career.
"It's an incredible feeling and the only thing I could think about right now is the qualification. I'm not going to think about the result of the game, I am not thinking about the 50, I'm just thinking about the team all the hard work and that were going to the Asian Cup," said Younghusband.
As the team is given time to rest and celebrate, the only long-term benefit that Younghusband could think of is the "resurgence" of Philippine Football because of this win. Having broken the fans' hearts in the 2014, Younghusband experienced the Azkals' lowest point. Now, Younghusband could only hope to see the Azkals and Filipino football go nowhere but up.
"I hope that this is the catalyst for more growth for Philippine football. Hopefully now, with 2010, we got a lot of support from the private industry and hopefully this can be another resurgence of Philippine football, get people to talk about Philippine football again," said Younghusband.
On the pitch, Younghusband could already feel the presence of a 12th man because of the fans. By playing at home, the cheers of the crowd fueled the Azkals to rally back from the deficit and close it for the Filipino fans.
"It was unbelievable. That was what we hoped for. Just looking up, we were one-nil down and you could hear them cheering for us. So for every tackle, for every header, for every shot, that made a difference for us coming back."
Hats off to the Azkals and let us savor this moment. – Rappler.com
More commonly known as “Bee”, Beatrice is a multimedia sports reporter for Rappler, who covers Phillippine sports governance, national teams, football and the UAAP. Stay tuned for her news and features on Philippine sports and videos like the Rappler Athlete’s Corner and Rappler Sports Timeout.