Azkals-Bahrain post-game thoughts: an evening with the Ultras
MANILA, Philippines - This article will be a bit different from the usual post-match wrap ups that I write. There won't be any tactical analysis of any sort. Because, on Thursday, June 11, I got to take an Azkals home game in as a simple fan for once.
The last time I did that was in December 2012 for the first leg of the Suzuki Cup semifinal, a goalless draw against Singapore. Since then I've been working during every single home game.
But once told that I'd be calling the Yemen game and not this one, I knew that I could once again be a proper fan in an Azkals game, and at the gleaming new Philippine Sports Stadium as well.
To further max out my fan experience I arranged for a small tailgate party at the Petron on NLEX near the stadium. It was great to see other friends just coming in and having a few adult beverages with us. We even invited complete strangers who were in Azkals attire.
PFF Technical Director Aris Caslib also dropped by. I dragged him over to the tailgate and introduced him to the bunch as “the guy who started all of this” because, well, it's true. Caslib coached the Azkals during 2004 and 2007 AFF championships and also mentored the 2005 SEA Games side. Since coach Aris was working, accompanying some sports science students, he politely declined our offer to sample the vodka, Patron, and Captain Morgan.
At six pm I leave the party to go to the stadium for one small piece of work: to double-check the graphics of the broadcast. Even though I'm a wee bit buzzed I am able to spot and correct one mistake: Stephan Palla is from Austria, not Spain.
I'm also able to see the players alight from the bus and give them high-fives.
Shortly after seven pm I take my seat in Section 121, behind the west goal, with the Ultras Filipinas. UF is a supporter's crew patterned after the ultra-hard core fans of other nations and clubs. I change costume from my retro 2007 Azkals replica to a black shirt, like all the other Ultras.
The Ultras are a rowdy, energetic bunch numbering maybe close to a hundred on that night. There are flags, scarves, and a few banners. The cheers are relatively simple and catchy with the exception of one very long Tagalog one. But being an Ultra is no picnic.
What basically happened that night, from my point of view, was a two-hour long Zumba class where you also lose your voice. Being an Ultra is a workout. You jump up and down a lot, stand with arms linked on shoulders and shuffle left to right, and also do a lot of raised-arm clapping, an activity that is much more tiring than it looks. After thirty seconds I want to bring my hands down.
There's also this business of turning your back to the pitch while linking arm to shoulder, and then hopping up and down madly. Apparently this is a common move in European terraces.
All of this is done while cheering.
Ale-ale-e-ale-oooo! Ale-ale-e-ale-oooo! Pilipinas malupet! Pilipi-na-as malupeeeet!
What about the game? What game? Under these circumstances, YOU CANNOT REALLY WATCH THE GAME. Because the Philippine Sports Stadium has a track, our section is very very far away from the pitch. The players are distant blobs of white and red. I cannot make out the tactics and can barely make out the players.
But that's okay, because when you're an Ultra, you're there to cheer, not to watch.
The highlight of the first half is when Shane Clemente, about eleven years old, gets on somebody's shoulder and, with a Philippine flag draped on him, plays the role of the “capo,” or leader, by leading everyone in an “Azkals we Believe” chant, his tiny voice cutting through the night air.
Clemente is also one of the members of the Little Azkals that toured the UK two years ago.
I grab a drink at the half and hurry back to my seat. Then a few minutes into the restart, magic.
I sort of remember the first goal. I can't recall the build up, all I remember is seeing a white blob, Misagh Bahadoran I think, poke a ball somewhere out there and seeing the net flap. Then all the players started celebrating. That's when I knew it was a goal, and bedlam erupted in Section 121. Hugs, high fives, tears, shrieks and what-not.
The second goal was a similar story, but I added one element: I slam-danced into the other Ultras standing beside me.
Once the final whistle sounded and the 2-1 win was confirmed, we kept on cheering, because that's what Ultras do. The players came over and thanked us for their support. Daisuke Sato picked up a scarf and whirled it in the air, chanting along with us.
Pilipinas!!! La la la la!
We had beaten mighty Bahrain. A huge upset. The biggest one in our nation's history maybe. I knew that our group was the Group of Death, but I didn't know that our Azkals were one of the teams that made it so.
(FULL REPORT: Azkals stun Bahrain 2-1 in World Cup qualifier upset)
After the game I headed on up to parking lot E, where my football friends were waiting. The coolers were there, and the drinks continued to flow. We chatted and talked about the game. Lots of laughter.
Being a football fan can be full of heartbreak. But on that unforgettable night, there was nothing but pride, passion, and unalloyed joy. It's a shame that, with the stadium only one-fourth full, there weren't quite enough people to share it with. While the PSS is a great venue, its location means too many Filipinos just couldn't join the fun.
I'm hoping our next home game can be held either in Rizal Memorial, Panaad in Bacolod, or Abellana Field in Cebu.
That would be on September 8, against Uzbekistan. Save the date. I hope to see you all there.
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.
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