20 November 2016

Travelling 7.5 Hours to Watch Singapore Park the Bus against the Philippine Azkals

The match had started by the time we sat ourselves inside the Philippine Sports Stadium.

Stuck in horrendous traffic as we were as we inched our way along that space-time continuum that is EDSA, I wondered out loud to my travelling party why the INC could not have found a property to build the Philippine Sports Stadium somewhere closer. Our trip from Lipa to Bocaue ultimately turned out to be a 7.5-hour ordeal, with just a few brief stops along the way to stretch our legs. As if to prove that time is, indeed, relative, our return trip in the dead of the night took exactly 3 hours.

To make things worse, the FIFA protocol had already started as we walked towards the stadium from the parking lot. For reasons only the organizers can explain, we had to exchange the tickets we purchased from Ticket World for stadium tickets. Go figure. Apart from this being an utter waste of paper, it delayed our entry into the stadium even more.

Then there was this poor disinterested lady scanning the tickets at the gates who seemed totally oblivious to the long queue of fans anxious to get inside and rally behind the Azkals. To be fair, she probably needed help. Still, she was so slow I wondered if she was doing the mannequin challenge.

Inside the stadium, it was curious to say the least to be told by a steward that the section printed on our tickets did not exist, but pointed us towards the left where he said we could seat ourselves. Because his instructions were vague to begin with, we just sat ourselves at the first free row of seats we came upon. We realized that we were at a more expensive section and were prepared to leave if any rightful ticketholders came.

Nobody did. The rain and the payday weekend made EDSA this unrelenting funeral procession. A family of five including a baby in a cart sat themselves in front of us with just a quarter of an hour of the match remaining. How unfortunate was that?

While the drumbeats made for a festive atmosphere, in truth these could not conceal the sad fact that the arena was abjectly underpopulated. Nobody needs to tell me that we are not a footballing country; but we are still a nation of more than 100 million people. The simple truth of the matter is that our historic first hosting of the regional championship has been miserably under-marketed.

My local club travelled 7.5 hours to support the Philippine Azkals.

The game itself was 11 minutes old by the time we sat ourselves. It was scrappy, poor even. Obviously we did not have the same personnel who so famously upended the North Koreans in a World Cup qualifier last March. That our team was not a settled side was only all too apparent in a first half littered with poor passes and long speculative balls.

Yet, off-color and undermanned as the Azkals were, it was easy to see early on and even before Singapore had a man sent off that we were winning the midfield battle. We were struggling to create chances as the feisty Singaporeans used all the tricks in the book to prevent our boys from establishing their rhythm. On the other hand, Singapore was faring even worse and could hardly even get a spell of sustained possession in our defensive third.

I know there were moans of discontent after consecutive losses to Bahrain and DPR Korea last October; but unstated from those friendlies was that even way below our best, two of the continent’s traditional powerhouses could not rout us. We even managed to nick a goal from each. In other words, our squad is now of the sort that can cope reasonably well despite the absence of our first-choice players and enjoys a favorable mix of experience and youth. While still below full-strength, we are still arguably stronger than we were in the last AFF Championships two years ago.

Against Singapore, young Amani Aguinaldo was simply immense! He had the experienced Khairul Amri in his pocket for the entirety of the match. At one point, he let out this beastly alpha male growl after dispossessing Amri right under where we sat, to the appreciation of the spectators in our section of the stadium.

In midfield, Phil Younghusband and Manny Ott alternated in protecting the rather unorthodox central defensive partnership of Aguinaldo and Jeffrey Christiaens, the latter just recently recalled from the cryogenics station. Aguinaldo had the busier night keeping Amri shackled, but Christiaens, who does not quite have the passing range of Daisuke Sato, was nonetheless defensively tidy in an unfamiliar position.

In real time, Hafiz Abu Sujad’s foul on Younghusband did not seem to have been worth a red card. The foot was high, yes; but the challenge did not look malicious or premeditated. Having seen the replay, yes it was a red twice over. Jackie Chan could not have executed that kick up Younghusband’s chest better had he tried.

The most depressing consequence of Sujad’s dismissal was that Singapore clammed up in the second half and gave a peerless display of time wasting and parking the bus. The 70%-30% possession statistics said it all. Roland Müller in the Philippines goal had so little to do it crossed my mind to throw him an mp3 player so he could entertain himself.

That Singapore was being so negative was an unwitting statement of respect for our team. Not too long ago, the Singaporeans strode onto the pitch as though a match against us was something of a minor inconvenience.

Which is why, I thought out loud to the gentlemen I had travelled to the match with, were it up to me I would have sent Younghusband upfront to spearhead the attack. It was not so much that we were not creating chances and just that the player who has a proven record of knowing which side is goal-side was lying deep in midfield most of the time.

Then again, it was never up to me; so like everyone else, I consoled myself that a point from the opening match is of course better than none. With the exception of Thailand in 2014, most AFF champions also tended to start slowly and then grow into the tournament. In Vietnam two years ago, we started with two wins, including a 4-nil rout of Indonesia, and then started to fade as the tournament went along.

Perhaps the goalless draw with Singapore is portentous of good things to come? I certainly hope so and would dearly love to remember this tournament for something other than spending practically half of one day in a vehicle trying to get to a match.

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