07 January 2012

Azkals and Madrileños in a Sendong Benefit Match

Television was good enough for me last year when Sri Lanka and Kuwait came for two memorable World Cup encounters. However, when it was announced that a little known third tier team from Spain called Internacional de Madrid was playing a joint Azkals-UFL team for the benefit of victims of storm Sendong, I felt it almost obligatory to go.

Football – which is my life and my passion – was to take a step up in its evolution as a sport in this country. It has developed a social conscience; and I wanted to be there.

Those who stayed away on account of the visiting team being a “mere” third division Spanish club do not know anything about European football. Even before Spain won the World Cup in South Africa, its football was already known to be of the highest technical quality. Its players – prior to Euro 2008 and the World Cup of 2010 – just seemed to possess a DNA-programmed choke-button in the bigger games.

Those who follow Spanish football know that it is not uncommon for third division teams to get favourable results against the big guns from the Primera Liga when they lock horns in the Copa del Rey – the King’s Cup or the country’s version of England’s FA Cup.

Even a Spanish third division side, therefore, was always going to be more than a capable adversary for what was called the Azkals Alyansa – a mixture of current national standouts and former players still involved in the United Football League – in what was supposed to be a friendly match. Internacional de Madrid did not disappoint. Its 3-1 victory was, perhaps, more emphatic than the scoreline indicated.

Friendly the match ultimately turned out not to be. It was fast; it was competitive. Tackles were flying in of the sort one expects to see more in a local English derby.

Regrettably – or, at least, from the home fans’ point of view – most of the football flowed from the visitors. The Azkals Alyansa team, it was immediately apparent, was still in holiday season mode and struggled to establish any sort of rhythm in the first half. The football was disjointed and the players seemed intent more on arguing than playing.

In fact, the football that the local team played in the first half was of the sort that Elton John, in his prime, would have branded utter drek. In 45 minutes of football, the team only managed one moment that had the crowd on its feet, an innocuous shot from midfield that Madrid’s 10-foot-something of a goalkeeper saved comfortably.

In contrast, Madrid quickly grasped control of the match. In typical Spanish style, the Madrileños built their attacks from the backline and played the ball on the floor. Their ball control was impeccable and the short passing delightful to watch.

It took a 15th minute penalty by Rufo Sanchez to put the visitors ahead; and were it not a friendly match, Eduard Sacapaño might not even have been between the sticks to try to save it in the first place.

The Azkals Alyansa backline was breached by as beautiful a defence-splitting pass from deep in the Spanish half as I have ever seen in my entire life; and Sacapaño should have seen red for bringing Madrid’s Daniel Fernandez down.

Fernandez scored Madrid’s second in the 32nd minute; while a bizarre goal made it 3-nil early in the second half.

An Azkals Alyansa player went down after apparently having been fouled; and while the entire team switched off, Madrid quickly picked the ball up and raced upfield to score. Ignacio Feijoo took the honours.

Anton del Rosario, playing in central defence in the absence of Aly Borromeo and Robert Gier, and the entire team protested vehemently but to no avail. To add to del Rosario’s misery, he was shown the yellow card.

Azkals Alyansa, to be fair, improved soon afterwards. The team started to gain more of a foothold in midfield and was starting to launch threatening forays into Madrid’s defensive end.

Crucial to the team’s improvement was Air Force’s Martin Doctora coming in for del Rosario and Carlos de Murga moving into central midfield. A natural central defender, Doctora quickly stamped his authority at the back and introduced himself to the visitors with some crunching tackles.

De Murga, meanwhile, gave the team rhythm by not only winning balls in midfield but also providing the distribution that Angel Guirado could earlier not provide. Guirado is always something of a puzzle. For such a huge man, he often plays as though badly in need of vitamins. This match was no different. Guirado was down on the grass almost as frequently as he was running on it.

Also crucial to the team’s improvement was Air Force’s local hero Chieffy Caligdong, who was starting to give Madrid’s rightback a torrid time with his unpredictable twisting and turning. From one of his crosses, James Younghusband scored with a looping header in the 62nd minute to get the crowd on its feet.

Ian Araneta also had the ball in the net soon after; but the pass that sent him through was incorrectly adjudged by the assistant to have been offside. That offside call had refresher-seminar written all over it.

Just as the match was really starting to take on a really interesting flavour, Caligdong and the rest of the more established national players were taken off to give chances to others. This probably made sense since the match was partly staged as a preparation for the coming AFC Challenge Cup; but it also killed the game off as a spectacle.

In the end, though, the result matters the least. By the time I arrived home, organizers were already announcing on Twitter that 2 million had been raised for the victims of Sendong. This, I do not need to say, is what really matters. That the national players who will be flying the colours in Nepal this coming March in the Challenge Cup got a really vigorous workout was just an added bonus.

I was already outside the stadium racing to catch my bus home when Gerry Marsden’s anthemic song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was played over the stadium’s public address system. Liverpool fans the world over recognize it as the club’s anthem, adopted in the sixties as symbolic of the people of the city and their undying love and support for their football club.

The song was a rallying cry for a people whose lives were at the mercy of the floundering fortunes of the docks of Liverpool and whose every day was immersed in duress. It was a song of hope; and the hope that the city’s football team represented.

Fittingly, it was also chosen as the song of hope for people in this country whose lives were mercilessly turned inside out by storm Sendong. Indeed, at the end of a storm, there is always a golden sky.





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