Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Bleachers' Brew #284 In a year's time

This appears in the Monday November 7, 2011 edition of the Business Mirror.

With Simon McMenemy at My Dinh National Stadium before the Philippines-Vietnam clash of December 2010 in the Suzuki Cup. Even before the match, you could see that I was all pumped up and believing in a miracle. 

In a year’s time
by rick olivares

When it was formally announced that the Los Angeles Galaxy would be coming over to Manila to play an exhibition match with the Philippine Men’s Football National Team, I caught the Tweet of former Azkals head coach Simon McMenemy dated October 22 that read: “What a difference 12 months makes. Dec 5th 2010 Philippines 2 Vietnam 0. December 4th 2011 David Beckham and the LA Galaxy arrive to play in Manila.”

So much had changed from that fateful day. From the glaring lack of coverage and interest, the national team now was hot copy on and off the field. They appeared in television commercials, print ads, talk shows, and well, played some football in between. And the United Football League like many other football programs and leagues were the beneficiary of the sudden windfall of support. Prior to December 4, 2010, the only matches of the nationals shown on television were in 2006 and 2008. Now every move was videotaped, chronicled, and tweeted. 

I flicked open my laptop and looked at the pictures and videos of that day in Vietnam and a wave of nostalgia and emotional swept me.

Not much was expected from that team. Foes and everyone alike thought looked at the nationals as road kill. An easy W. But the year that had begun with Desmond Bulpin in charge and ended with McMenemy at the helm had seen marked change in their performance and team discipline. If previously the Fil-fors were segregated from the locals in their room assignments they were now mixed amongst themselves. That move had greatly improved the relationships and the team’s time together on the pitch had done wonders for chemistry. Aside from the training, what went largely unnoticed was that the core of the 2004 squad – Emelio Caligdong, Aly Borromeo, Anton del Rosario, Roel Gener, Ian Araneta, Peter Jaugan, and Chris Greatwich – were entering their prime.

From the 2010 Long Teng Cup to the Suzuki Cup Qualifiers, the team was playing much better.

So the team flew into Vietnam in stealth mode. Why not? A few days earlier, the team, playing with an incomplete lineup, was blown out by a Thai club in a friendly. At the opening press conference for the Group B competition, all the talk was how Singapore and Vietnam would advance from the group and how many goals they would score against the Philippines (and Myanmar to an extent).

I have to admit that I was bursting with energy over there. It was my first time to join the team outside domestic competition. I distinctly recall McMenemy asking me, “You have that much faith in us?”

I nodded. We were in a perfect situation to garner some huge points. The team was a good one, there wasn’t any pressure, and the opposing teams totally disrespected us. We drew against Singapore and people still thought it was a fluke.

The morning of the match against Vietnam, we were all down for breakfast when Ian Araneta went down and broke the news that Phil Younghusband was taken ill because of what we all thought was food poisoning. The trainers immediately went up and the news spread quickly amongst the team. A lump formed in my throat as the coaching staff and team manager Dan Palami quickly huddled to discuss it. Thirty minutes later, Phil came down and looked pale if that sounds even possible given his fair complexion. “I’ll play,” he pronounced and we somewhat felt reassured.

When the team bus left the Sheraton for My Dinh National Stadium to play Vietnam, the streets were lined with fans waving flags of the home side. The were stirrings already in the local media about the Azkals draw against the Lions and how the team featured a number of “Europeans.”

A crowd gathered outside the entrance to the parking lot as the team arrived. If the locals cheered the Philippines in the match against Singapore for sure they were going to do the opposite that day.

Carrying my SLR camera, I stayed behind the goal where the Philippines was shooting. I told McMenemy I hoped to take a shot of our goals that day. Come kickoff, the teams switched sides and I was caught in the wrong end. Since we were not allowed to move around once the game commenced, I stayed put.

There were a bunch of Vietnamese photographers behind the goal that Neil Etheridge was minding. A few of them were shouting, cheering their team on. Neil looked behind and saw me. “I got your back here,” I reassured him. Honestly, I didn’t sound too optimistic as my teeth were chattering from the cold December night.

Vietnam was peppering the Philippine goal with all these shots but the defense and Etheridge repulsed them. In the 38th minute, Chris Greatwich headed in a cross from James Younghusband for the first goal and I remember yelling my head off from behind the goal. Etheridge had gone upfield to celebrate with his teammates and I suddenly felt very alone and an open target from the massive crowd behind me. I quickly piped down and snapped a few pictures. We all watched the replay the following day and I will never forget what the television analyst said: “And the Philippines have gone in first and that is totally bizarre!”

At the half, I went up to the media skybox where I linked up with the Inquirer’s Cedelf Tupas. I was grateful for the warmth inside and its relative safety. I opened my laptop and like him, I began to tweet.

As Phil Younghusband put the finishing touches of a 94-minute (including added time) masterpiece, Cedelf, British writer Mike Church, and myself let out a loud whoop. The Vietnamese writers present closed their laptops and left.

And bedlam broke out on the pitch and the Philippine locker room. As everyone went mad inside, Phil was in the adjacent bathroom retching his guts out. It was a gutty performance by him and the entire team. Vietnam had come so dangerously close on several occasions but Etheridge was magnificent in turning them back.

In the post-match press conference, the room was packed with over 50 journalists. McMenemy answered every question and was gracious in defeat despite Vietnam head coach Henrique Callisto’s refusal to shake his hand after the match. As McMenemy exited the media room, we saw Callisto. I placed myself in between the two coaches in case a scuffle broke out. The vanquished coach threw a few choice words. Simon didn’t reply and instead shook his head. Cedelf and I hustled him out to the safety of the team bus.

As the team bus exited My Dinh, the lights were put out just in case some sour local fans decided to pelt the bus. The streets were still lined with people. More than what we saw going in. But their pre-game cheer was replaced by stunned silence. Suddenly Greatwich began to bang the palms of his hands on the window and began screaming, “Yeeeeeaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh!!! We woooooonnn!!!”

It was surreal. Some others were trying to calm Greatwich down and on the other side Phil had continued to empty whatever was left of his stomach into a bag.

When we entered the Sheraton, the hotel staff applauded and were all smiles. The Singapore players were there too to greet us. And their head coach Raddy Avramovic who had coldly dismissed all questions about the Philippines in the pre-tourney presscon was now hanging out with everyone  in the lobby (because there was free wifi there) and regaling us with football tales and advice.

You all know the rest – we drew with Myanmar and went onto the semifinals in Indonesia for the first time. When the team returned to Manila between the two legs, Azkals hysteria was in full swing.

Early in 2011, I told anyone willing to listen that this was not some fad since fads last about three months before it’s done. It’s been a year and the beautiful game or the national squad shows no signs of stopping whatever the result.

One year later, I am still covering the team now along with a host of others. The Ateneo Football League that I had long planned has seen a successful first season. And I’m now covering the UFL for AKTV. And come December, I am so stoked for covering and watching the Galaxy play the Azkals.

The press conference here at home (with me hosting it) before the team's departure for Vietnam. This was held at the PFF office. Note the El Habbib brothers and Coach Aris Caslib in the background. Great and memorable days.

This was during our first lunch at Nam Dinh where both the Philippines and Myanmar traveled to play. The meals weren't as great as what we had at the Sheraton but the street coffee was great. With Coach Simon, Edzel Bracamonte, Joseph Malinay, and Edwin Cabalida.

Below is the post-match presscon. I have to look for the video of the confrontation with Callisto at the hallway. It was hard to shoot as I had to come between the two men so nothing would break out. I have some 20 DVDs of video footage from those days in Vietnam and Indonesia including Simon McMenemy's pre and post-match thoughts. We spent some 30 minutes talking before and after every match. There are also extensive locker room scenes especially the halftime against Vietnam. The locker room was intense and I will never forget that. Everyone was quiet for a few minutes. No one spoke. When Simon finally did, he said: "We are on the verge of making history, gentlemen." And everyone began to scream. Dan Palami was going from player to player patting them on the shoulder egging them on. Diding Cabalida sat nearby thinking and thinking some more. "We have a chance!" he said. That was so incredible and I was thinking, "Jeezus, it's so cold that I can't feel myself anymore out there." And I was worried about the battery life of the camcorder. All this video has yet to be converted.

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