It Won’t Be Easy: Azkals vs White Wolves

It Won’t Be Easy: Azkals vs White Wolves

The last training session for the Azkals before the Uzbekistan match started out much the same way.

The players trickled on to the pitch one by one or in pairs grabbing a ball to kick around before warm ups. The coaches and Mr. Palami were already there, trying to get goals from right by the corners. It was incredibly humid at the Philippine Sports Stadium, the humidity heralding the coming onslaught of rain.

But the match commissioner for the game against Uzbekistan is incredibly strict, and he had the media and onlookers ushered out of the training area after fifteen minutes.

“The energy and the emotions are great,” said coach Thomas Dooley at the pre-match press conference earlier in the day. “I hope everything is right for us.”

Intense is probably the right word to use about the Azkals training sessions since before the Maldives friendly.

Sure the Azkals still joke around at training. Misagh still trash talks everyone and their moms about how they play. Rob mischievously dropped some ice down Neil’s shirt while he was being interviewed by a couple of TV outfits. They even gamely pose for and with the fans that drop in even before training is officially over. (Something that fans and supporters should never do, by the way.)

But there is an underlying current of intensity and seriousness surrounding the team like never before. It feels like the kind of thoughtfulness a student goes through before a major exam that he’s studied night and day for, but still…

“This is the game that you’re waiting for. You’re waiting for teams, they are above you… We are totally the underdogs.” Dooley knows what he’s talking about, he led the US to qualify for the World Cup Finals against perhaps virtually insurmountable odds.

The team knows this isn’t going to be an easy match. Phil Younghusband couldn’t compare it to any situation he’s been in before. He started out with a comparison to Vietnam in 2010 but stopped short. “We had no expectations then, but we sort of have expectations now,” said the captain with a wry smile. “We know what Uzbekistan have to offer, but we also know what we have to offer.”

The team knows this isn’t going to be an easy match. But that intensity at training also comes with a strange kind of confidence, even faced with an opponent 49 places ahead in the world rankings, whose player Server Djeparov has won the Asian Football Confederation Player of The Year Award. Twice. “(When out on the pitch) I don’t think about it,” said Phil. “I think about myself, my teammates, and us playing the best we can, and I know if we play the best we can, we can get a good result.”

The team knows this isn’t going to be an easy match. Onlookers have said time and again that this may be the best Philippine football team, ever. Dooley and Phil seem a bit wary to agree with that wholeheartedly. “I know that our team is better than last year,” Dooley says instead. “If I see every single player bring 100% of his skills, I think we have a great team: we play football, we can fight, we can run, the stamina is good. We don’t have to make us smaller, or bigger, than we are.” “For us to beat Uzbekistan I don’t think it will be a miracle, I believe we have the strengths in our team to get a good result,” Phil says.

The team knows this isn’t going to be an easy match, and perhaps Dooley said it best: “We expect them to play a great game, to show what football is all about. But we try to bite a little bit. We are the Azkals, so we try to come a little bit and bite left and right.”

The team knows this isn’t going to be an easy match. Do you? Perhaps the only really sad and worried look we saw during the preparations was when Rob asked about ticket sales. The Philippine Sports Stadium has a seating capacity of between 20-25,000. In the World Cup Qualifier match versus Bahrain, a little more than 6,000 people trooped to Bocaue. Will you still be cheering for the team when they’re down? We hope you do.

Because the team knows this isn’t going to be an easy match. And they’re going to leave it all out there on the pitch, for flag, for country, for their mom, for their dad, for you, and for me.

It’s us out there tonight and it won’t be easy. And we hope you’re ready too.

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