‘Azkals Men of the Series’
In two games against a team ranked sixty seven notches above us in the FIFA World Football Rankings (as of July 2011), our opponent Kuwait managed to score five goals against us, while we could only managed one goal against them. I think it is only apt that the players that shone the most are the ones with the best credentials on paper: The second Division Bundesliga player Stephan Schrock, and the third-string Goalkeeper of Fulham in the English Premiere League, Neil Etheridge.
Schrock scored the only goal for the Azkals in the series, a fantastic 25-yard goal that caught the Kuwaiti Goalkeeper by surprise and slipped thru. That goal was important, as it gave the Azkals fans something positive to cheer about the Azkals. Instead of thinking, “wow, that Kuwaiti team was awesome”, people can think, “wow, did you see that goal by Schrock?” The Rizal Memorial Stadium erupted when that shot went thru.
Neil Etheridge conceded a total of five goals in the series, but he had stopped a lot more. And we’re not talking here about shot-straight-to-the-goalkeeper saves, but like jump-and-strech-your-soul-for-the-love-of-God saves. If the Goalkeeper had been made of lesser stuff, that Kuwaiti goal score would’ve been easily double what it is now. Had the 6’3″ Neil had been born and raised in the Philippines, he likely would’ve been one hell of a Forward in local Basketball, with his good height (by Philippine standards, anyway), fantastic reflexes and excellent decision-making. But thank God he is in Football. Thank God For Neil Etheridge In Football (TGFNEIF).
I felt we lost that series not because of our lack of defense, but due to our lack of ability to score goals. The Goalkeeper is about as best as you can realistically get, the guy plays in the EPL for God’s sake, so no complaints there. Yes, the defense could’ve been a little bit better, but the problem was they were just overwhelmed by too many shots on target from the opposing team.
“The best defense is a good offense”, and that quote applies best to this game. If we had scored 1-2 more goals in this series, then I felt that would’ve changed the complexion of the game. That would’ve made the Kuwaitis less confident, and less aggressive with their attacks, making them a little bit more defensive, a little bit more cautious, knowing that at any time in the game, we could go out and score against them so they need to try harder on defense. With them holding a bit back, then that would’ve put less pressure on our defense, with less shots on target from their side.
Not that the boys didn’t try on offense. It was very obvious that everyone in the Azkals played their hearts out, both on defense, and on offense. But while we had a lot of shots on target, we just did not have that extra skill to finish off a shot and turn it into a goal. And this is where Football becomes more of an art than science: It is very difficult to find a player and/or develop the skill that will enable players to score goals under a lot of defensive pressure, and with very little time to react and make decisions. Not at this high level, anyway.
We also got a lot of breaks: We played at home with a fantastic crowd support; The weather was just about right; It was raining, while the Kuwaitis were not used to the tropical downpours; Our offense was getting going, we had a lot of shots on target; And in the second half, they lost one player and was down to ten men due to a red card. Despite all of that, they still dominated us. In the end, we have to admit that they were simply just much better than us. They were better quantitatively and qualitatively at an individual level, and they played better as a team. We were just outmatched, and outgunned.
‘World Cup Dream is Over’
We always knew it was a long shot, but now that it is here, I can’t help but feel a tinge of sadness now that the Azkals’ dream of reaching the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 is now officially over. This is due to a number of reasons. First is the fact that from hereon, we will not be able to participate in the World Cup directly. The World Cup is the biggest single sport event in the entire world, but we will now have to cheer for other teams that have made it thru instead of our own.
The second reason is that the next opportunity we will have of a shot at the World Cup will be in 2015. Not next year, not in two year’s time, but in four years time. A lot can change in that time. Who knows how the Azkals will be like then? Will Football still be as popular as it is now?
My guess is that the Azkals now in their late thirties like Roel Gener will likely be not with the team anymore. Those in their early thirties like Gerry Lucena might, or might not still be with the team, depending on how things go. Those in their mid or late twenties like Caligdong and Guirado might be looking at their last chance at the World Cup. Those now in their early twenties like Neil Etheridge and Misagh Bahadoran will likely be at their peak form.
Whatever happens, only time will tell. In the meantime, for the Azkals, we will have to look at less prestigious but no less important international tournaments for the next three years; For the World Cup, we will have to start looking at the other countries that made it, in anticipation for that grand event. I like our fellow Asians, Japan and South Korea. But I also love our former colonial masters, the Americans, for the never-say-die attittude in the 2010 World Cup …