MANILA, Philippines - In 2010, football fever swept the nation after the Philippine men's football team, then underdogs, made the semi-finals of the highly competitive ASEAN Football Federation Suzuki Cup tournament for the first time in history.
On their way to the semis, the Philippines also managed to pull off one of the greatest upsets of the tournament in the group stages, when they defeated defending champions Vietnam 2-0.
The Philippine football scene has never been the same since.
Over the past two years, the team's following grew exponentially, with an intensity that was unparalleled, surprising. Fans came to games in droves -- decked in face paint, team colors -- crowding stadiums.
And the Azkals became a household name, heroes in the eyes of fans whose admiration they poured out on Twitter and Facebook. Awareness of the sport filled corners of every island in the country.
All this, as the Philippines climbed steadily to its highest FIFA world ranking ever, comfortable and unprecedented at the 143rd spot -- second only to Vietnam in Southeast Asia.
Fast forward to November 2012. The Azkals are set to return to the tournament that triggered it all, and this time, the whole country is watching.
And so are the other teams in Southeast Asia.
Suzuki Cup, a biennial tournament that gathers the top 8 teams in the region, is known to be the most prestigious football competition in Southeast Asia. But the Azkals, more than ever, are ready to return.
They know they are no longer underdogs, but they also know what is at stake, and they're up for the challenge.
"Obviously we come in not as underdogs as we did two years ago," midfielder Chris Greatwich told Rappler.
"I think other teams are more aware of us and we've played a lot of Southeast Asian teams so the surprise element is obviously kind of out the window in comparison to what we had two years ago. But with the guys in the squad, obviously I expect us to do pretty well," he said.
This time, the Azkals want gold.
The squad enters the tournament fresh off a 1-0 victory against Singapore -- a team they tied 1-1 in the 2010 Suzuki Cup -- and after topping the Peace Cup, which gave the Philippines its first international football victory in 99 years.
Having been spoiled by the team's successes, the fans are more than excited about the Azkals' momentum. But they're not the only one. The Azkals themselves have raised their own expectations knowing what they are capable of.
"I want to win every game. Of course that would mean that we win the tournament. I don't want to go there and just play draws. It's not like I want to lose, that's not my expectation, and I think it's the same for the team," said forward Denis Wolf.
But as veterans know, the Suzuki Cup is a whole different animal.
Greatwich, who scored two goals in the 2010 tournament and has played in qualifying and group stages in the last 4 Suzuki Cups, said the atmosphere takes some getting used to -- something the younger players on the team should anticipate.
"It's a far more magnified situation in comparison to the other competitions they've played in," he said.
"It's only a partisan crowd in Thailand, it's going to be a hostile environment. We played in Indonesia, there were 90, 000 people and it was a very hostile environment. So the other players need to adapt to that, we need to be able to focus on the job despite being in that hostile environment," he added.
Newbie Demitrius Omphroy, who joined the team as a defender just a few months back, admitted that all the talk about the tournament is nerve-racking.
"Honestly I'm kinda nervous. I heard it's 70-80,000 fans and I've never played in front of that big of a crowd. I'm really excited but a little bit of butterflies though," he said.
But Omphroy was also quick to add that beyond the nerves, he was looking forward to experiencing the tournament for himself.
"I heard its one of the most amazing experiences some of these guys have ever had. And so of course, getting the opportunity to play for the Philippines, I wanted to be a part of that. So I'm here, it's my first time, and I'm excited."
Cause of faith
The confidence of the team to deliver in 2012 stems from something concrete: a deeper squad, a stronger bond, and added experience.
Defender Robert Gier, who competed in 2010, said he thinks the team is in better shape than they were two years ago.
"You know, just something about it feels more well prepared than last time. There's no doubt that we've had better training camps in the lead up to this tournament than we did last time. So we've had a lot more playing time together as well, that can only benefit the team in the long run," he said.
Veteran Greatwich agreed, citing the quality of players as a huge difference between this squad and the previous one.
"When you look at our team from two years ago, there were probably 14 guys who realistically were going to see the field. Now the coaches obviously got 30 guys they could potentially pick from, so just making the squad in itself is going to be an accomplishment," he said.
But on top of that, Greatwich considered the team's experience as its biggest strength. The players, he said, are slightly more tested.
It is an advantage for the team, a quality that will help them remain focused despite exhaustion and pressure.
"Compared to 2010, we were a relatively young squad, we had a handful of guys who maybe played in a couple of Suzuki Cups before. But now you look at the experience throughout the entire squad," he said.
"Whether it be experience with the national team or experience with the club teams abroad, or experience of playing at high level here in Asia, the team is certainly far more experienced than we were two years ago so that's probably our biggest strength coming into this tournament."
Best fans in the world
The Azkals are set to face a talented Thailand squad on Saturday, November 24, before playing Southeast Asia's powerhouse Vietnam on Tuesday, November 27, and Myanmar on Friday, November 30.
The team's morale and confidence are high. On top of that, there's a mentality among players that is striking, a mindset that understands what it means to step onto the pitch.
"Every single time I put this jersey on, I'm playing for the family, I'm playing for the country, and I leave it all out in the field," said Omphroy.
"There's no greater experience than that really and that's just the truth of it."
The sense of nationalism among players is perhaps what connects them best to their thousands of fans in the country. Fans who, the players acknowledged consistently, are extraordinary.
"It's like the supporters are totally different from Europe supporters especially here. It's 80% girls and women in the stadium - I've never seen anything like this," said Wolf, who played in Germany before coming to play in the Philippines.
"And it's always positive. When you concede a goal it's not like they stop supporting you. It's the best thing that could happen to us I think. That's what we need. We need the supporters. Without them we won't be as good as we are," he said.
And the fans are more than happy to oblige. More than a sport, the Azkals have become a source of national pride for common Filipinos who have found someone else to root for outside world champion boxer Manny Pacquiao.
Luckily the boys are eager to deliver. - Rappler.com