Chris Greatwich's goal to remember
MANILA, Philippines - The immediate reaction of most was a confused sense of excitement. The small contingent of Filipino fans onhand at National Stadium in Male' erupted in joy while the dedicated Maldivian loyalists in the crowd descended into stunned silence.
It was clear that the Azkals had just scored the go-ahead goal in the 104th minute of play of the AFC Challenge Cup semifinals match. What wasn't clear was which player had booted in the crucial score that would eventually lift the Philippines to a 3-2 win over the host nation.
Eventually it became clear that it was Chris Greatwich – the Westminster, England-born midfielder – who had been in the right place at the right time to tap in the game-winner.
And who else would it be?
Greatwich has been responsible for many of the Azkals' most memorable scores, particularly his goals against Singapore and Vietnam in their landmark 2010 Suzuki Cup campaign that ignited a football craze in the basketball-dominated archipelago.
Still, Greatwich feels that this moment trumps those from four years ago.
"I think this goal is the most important goal I have scored in my career. The goals in the Suzuki Cup and our team's performance that competition was the catalyst for the resurgence of football of football in the Philippines but ultimately I think this goal has more significance as it led us to the final of a major competition," the 30-year-old Greatwich tells Rappler.
After Greatwich was substituted in just minutes prior with the game deadlocked at 2-2, Greatwich's pregnant wife Samantha implored him to "score that winning goal" via Twitter, to which the husband dutifully complied.
The victory has propelled the Philippines to a finals showdown with Palestine on Friday, May 30. At stake is an invitation to the Asian Cup in Australia in January of 2015, a tournament that the Philippines has never previously qualified for.
'A lot has changed'
Much has changed for Philippine football since Greatwich first joined the Philippine men's national football squad in 2004. The country now has a professional league, the 2009-christened United Football League, where Greatwich plays for Kaya FC.
As football has gained ground in prominence domestically, the players who cap for the country and their preparation have improved too, says Greatwich.
"A lot has changed, most notably the caliber of players we have now throughout our squad," said Greatwich. "If you look at our 23-man squad, there is high competition for places on every position. Even the players who didn't make the squad would probably be starters back when I started.
"The other main difference is how we've been able to prepare. Going to Middle East for training camps and playing friendlies has been a great way to build a cohesive team which was never the case back when I started. We would get together locally and train one or two weeks before playing a tournament."
Under new coach Thomas Dooley, a former captain of the United States squad, the Azkals have evolved into a more aggressive team, Greatwich feels, focusing more on efficient passing and attacking.
"The coach has his own philosophy on how the team should play and I think we have adapted quickly," said Greatwich.
The team's inspired play has dared the team to dream bigger, none more so than their coach who competed at the 1994 and 1998 editions of the FIFA World Cup.
“We want to play at the next level, that is not a secret," Dooley was quoted on the Challenge Cup's website. "We came over here to win the Challenge Cup. We want to play at the next level which is the Asian Cup so we want to play against those big guys, not to win something, but to play with them and that is our biggest goal.
“When you play and believe in it you will be successful so that’s why we are going step-by-step. And right now the biggest thing we can do is write a new history in the next game so we want to prepare the team to write history."
Palestine has been formidable through four games in the Challenge Cup, but they're beatable for a motivated, coordinated Azkals squad. The two nations last clashed in 2012, with the Azkals triumphing 4-3 on the strength of a Phil Younghusband brace and a goal each from Angel and Juan Luis Guirado.
The Philippines is ranked 140th in the world, while Palestine is 25 slots lower at 165.
A win in this tournament just weeks prior to the World Cup will spark a resurgence in the Azkals-mania that was so instrumental to the grassroots progression of the sport that Pelé coined "The Beautiful Game."
"We have seen Palestine play a little bit and they are obviously a good team; you don't make a final of a competition without being one," said Greatwich. "We will watch video before our game with them and figure out the game plan." - Rappler.com
Ryan Songalia is the sports editor of Rappler, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a contributor to The Ring magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. An archive of his work can be found at ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.