18 September 2012

From Calamity Sabio to Gandalf

It is difficult these days to conceive a Philippines backline without the reassuring presence of central defender Jason Sabio. Others may find his patented long throw remarkable; and indeed, there can be few things more unnerving for opposing defenders than the sight of Sabio running to the touchline to take the throw.

My appreciation for Sabio, however, is mostly for his defensive abilities; albeit, the long throw does have its merits. Perhaps, he is not the Beckenbauer type of defender who can win the ball and take it into the heart of the opponents’ half, transforming instantaneously from defender to attacker.

As a defender, however, he is the sort that coaches love to have in their teams for no other reason than the fact that they are not only good at their craft; they actually love defending and keeping opponents out.

This may seem like a no-brainer; but suffice it to say that this is not always the case with defenders. There are enough out there who have illusions of grandeur at the wrong end; and often forget what they are in the team for.


In Mongolia for the return leg, Sabio deputised for Robert Gier, looked uncomfortable in the cold and even conceded a penalty with a rash challenge inside the box. Fortuitously, James Younghusband had given the Philippines a comfortable 3-nil aggregate lead before the Mongolians scored twice to claim an improbable second leg win.
No such illusions for Sabio, who may not be the archetypal cultured center-back but does his work effectively and with a minimum of fuss. In televised matches, most of the time he is hardly ever noticed. That is because he sensibly does not dwell on the ball.

Just a touch or two and Sabio gets the ball out of the danger areas. He is even not averse to simply whacking it, knowing as all authentic defenders do that opponents can do no harm when the ball is far from goal.

I have lost count of the number of times when my heart skipped a beat because of a goal-bound shot, only for Sabio to hurl his body along the way to block the ball. That muscled frame gets whacked in each game probably worse than a Pacquiao glove during a Morales fight. Courage, it must be said, is Sabio’s middle name.

These days, when the Philippines are playing, the first name that I always check for in the backline is Sabio, so reassuring has been his presence in the national team for about a year now. It came to the point when I was actually distraught that Sabio had gotten injured whilst the Philippines were in the middle of a promising campaign in the Challenge Cup.

I will be the first to admit, however, that I had not foreseen the quickness of Sabio’s development into an international class defender. In fact, I used to be dismayed not too long ago when he was called into action.

Perhaps, no other member of the Philippine Azkals arrived with credentials more curious than him. They said he played football in the States, yes; but the main talking point about him early on was a bachelor’s degree in Bio-Chemistry, acquired cum laude, no less. If that was not impressive enough, they also said that he was studying to become a lawyer at the University of Alabama as well.

I was suitably impressed; and indeed, how often even in academe does one hear of a Science degree as pre-law? However, the relevant question always was, could he play football?

Fortunately, with a Challenge Cup preliminary round first leg tie looming at the Panaad, there was not long to wait. That the lad could play was immediately apparent when Sabio came on for Anton del Rosario at rightback late in the first leg match against Mongolia.

He was quick, athletic and had more than decent control of the ball. That he looked nervous is probably something of an understatement. He looked tight as a bowstring and was something of a calamity waiting to happen.

In Mongolia for the return leg, Sabio deputised for Robert Gier, looked uncomfortable in the cold and even conceded a penalty with a rash challenge inside the box. Fortuitously, James Younghusband had given the Philippines a comfortable 3-nil aggregate lead before the Mongolians scored twice to claim an improbable second leg win.

The important thing was that we had booked our place in the elimination group stage proper scheduled in Myanmar and everyone could look forward to the familiar comfort of seeing Gier anchoring the backline.

In fact, in Yangon, Sabio did not play until the 3-nil victory over Bangladesh that booked the team a seat in the main Challenge Cup tournament scheduled earlier this year in Nepal. Official records show that he was even deployed in midfield.

Meanwhile, Sabio went into the books of Kaya FC and played in the UFL. And Aly Borromeo, national team captain and first-choice central defender, got injured playing in the UFL and had to stay out of the game for months recuperating.

While nobody could possibly have wished ill of Borromeo, indeed it is said that one man’s misfortune can be another man’s opportunity. Over a series of friendlies that the national team played late in 2011 and into early 2012, Sabio got an extended run at center-back.

This, apparently, was all that Sabio needed to not only to boost his confidence but also to show an entire nation what a rock he could become – given the right opportunities – at the heart of defence.

There was a momentary lapse of focus late in the home friendly against Malaysia that allowed the visitors to snatch what seemed to be an undeserved equalizer. However, Sabio kept his place in the Challenge Cup; in the June internationals away to Malaysia and at home to Indonesia and Guam; and in the three-nation Asean tour during which the Philippines kept two clean sheets.

Jasion Sabio, the nervous Philippine-born but American raised calamity waiting to happen in the Mongolia series is no more. He has morphed into a genuine international-class defender whose motto must surely be the words defiantly uttered by the wizard Gandalf when facing a demon from the bowels of the earth.

“You shall not pass!”

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