Football, soccer as we know it, is the most popular sports in the world and everybody plays the game from vacant parking lots to open fields from the four corners of the planet. However, the game is a really an enigma in a country that placed basketball in the sports pedestal.

The basketball-crazy Philippines has always been the football minnows even though the country is one of the pioneering football country in Asia. Unfortunately, soccer has never took root in the 7,107 islands and until today, the Philippine football team never became a serious contender in various football tournaments. We have yet to qualify the FIFA World Cup or even won a major football event for quite some time.

The Azkals, as the Philippine football team is popularly known, has been reinforced by Fil-foreigners with extensive football playing experience. The likes of Fullham goalkeeper Neil Etheridge and the dynamic Younghusband brothers with the help of English coach Simon McMenemy have turned the fortunes of this struggling team.

The recent edition of the AFF Suzuki Cup has become a coming out party for the Philippines because for the first time, we have a football team that is contending for the title. Unfortunately, the corrupt sports organizations and non-existent soccer programs may put the Philippine football team under tremendous pressure. We don't have the international-accredited stadiums that FIFA wanted and our grassroots program is in shambles because of the political infighting. Sponsors are rare since major corporations only supported sports like basketball, boxing, and to a certain extent, billiards.

The Philippine football team is on a tall order to become champions of this tournament because they have to get past the eye of a needle to book a semifinals seat. Though the Azkals' qualification was not really impressive as marked by draws with Singapore and Myanmar, the lone bright spot was a surprise victory over defending champions Vietnam in their own stadium.

The victory over Vietnam have made many soccer fans overnight as the 23-man squad became celebrities overnight. Media has started to notice the exploits of these gallant men. The adulation of the Smart Gilas Pilipinas basketball team may have spilled over to the Azkals. However, the unfortunate state of football in the country is the fact that we keep on relying on Fil-foreign players. Its not because local talents are not good but they have teams to play on the domestic scene and we don't even have our own professional league here. Aside from that, the Etheridges and Younghusbands that will beef up our national squad is way too costly unless Manny Pangilinan would personally bankroll the Azkals just as what he did for Smart Gilas.

Tomorrow's semifinal showdown with powerhouse Indonesia, which swept the eliminations against Laos, former champions Thailand, and regional rival Malaysia, is one of the anticipated match of the tournament. Aside from matching up against a formidable opponent, the Azkals would be on a disadvantage because they can't host the opening leg of this home-away series since the Panaad Stadium in Bacolod City is deemed 'not playworthy' for this all-important semifinal fixture. In other words, the Philippine football team will have to play its “home” game at the 90,000-seater Gelora Bung Karno stadium in Jakarta.

The Azkals, named after typical street dogs, typified strength and resilience despite great odds. Whether they would win the tournament or not, the Philippine football team would instill some sorts of football renaissance in a country in need of sporting heroes.

Our fearless forecast, the Azkals would probably hold the Indonesian team to a scoreless draw in the first leg and may have chance to pull a mighty upset in a one-nil win in the return leg.

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{picture#} JP Canonigo is a historian, professional blogger and copywriter, online content specialist, copywriter, video game junkie, sports fanatic and jack-of-all trades. {facebook#} {twitter#} {google#}
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