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, July 31, 2011

Ateneo-UP Round 1: Five

This appears in ateneo.edu

5
by rick olivares photo by nonoy lacza

Thinking of this year’s first meeting between Ateneo and the University of the Philippines, I couldn’t help that perhaps more than ever, it’s like a sibling rivalry.

Consider how the bloodlines have intertwined.

There are four Ateneans on the Fighting Maroons team: Miggy Maniego, Mike Gamboa, Martin Pascual, and Paolo Romero. Team manager Bert Mendoza and their team trainer are from the grade and high schools of Loyola as well.

Conversely, UP head coach Ricky Dandan and assistant Joey Mendoza have worked with the Ateneo Basketball School as well as the Lady Eagles for a number of years having come over along with former Maroons and Eagles coach Joe Lipa during the late 90s Ateneo basketball renaissance.

While the ties are there, I expected no quarter to be given between the two teams. And with the Fighting Maroons fielding three sparkplugs like Jett Manuel, Jelo Montecastro, and Maniego, I expected them to play with a lot of spunk and hustle. As for Romero, new to the rivalry but for the first time on the other side of the fence, the forward showed plenty of emotion after making a stop and a shot.

On the other hand, I expected Ateneo to come out like firing. Instead, it was as if they were strolling around nearby Gateway Mall. And the crowd, fattened by a three-peat, only got up (and riled up) when Maroons forward Carlo Gomez tried some rough stuff with Kirk Long and when he threw a punch at Nico Salva for which he got caught and suspended for UP’s next match against Far Eastern University. Oh, I also heard that since I had missed the last three Ateneo games that the crowd only got up when Kiefer Ravena dunked the ball against the University of the East Red Warriors who hung around for long stretches.

As bored as Ateneo looked on the floor – perhaps save for Long who always has abundant reserves of energy and Ravena – they stayed close to UP.

I thought that the Blue Eagles’ spacing on the floor made it difficult to throw double teams at Greg Slaughter as Emman Monfort and Ravena hit them with several hand-offs and a backdoor cut.

With fewer than three to play in the first quarter and Ateneo’s second unit in, they held the Maroons but were unable to put points on the board. As good as the Blue Eagles’ starting unit is, the bench has yet to produce consistently. I thought that Greg Slaughter gave the blue and white a presence in the middle, it has stalled the development of Justin Chua who had a breakout year in Season 73.

Of course, the season is hardly at its halfway point and even with the Blue Eagles’ current win streak, it’s still too early to draw sweeping conclusions. But the one thing I will stand by is how the boys at times seem to coast. (I see Greg Slaughter conserving himself on both ends of the floor though). It’s as if they have been served the same unappetizing appetizer and they’re juts waiting for the entrée that is the Final Four so they can kick in the afterburners.

Okay, I missed the La Salle match where they showed the Taft foes that what happens in the pre-season stays in the pre-season. So far they have been waylaying foes on the court and maybe the problem is more mental than anything but I’d still like them to be razor sharp.

As seemingly dull as Ateneo’s sword was after 20 minutes, they connected on 50% of their field goals while holding UP scoreless for over four minutes to take control of the game. If Alinko Mbah gave UP a fleeting lead to close out the first period, Ravena answered with a lay up at the buzzer to close out the half. The score was 42-31 in favor of the boys in blue and white.

Instead of going for the kill, Ateneo lapsed into its longer dry spell in the tournament thus far after going scoreless from the five-minute mark of the third quarter all the way to 6:47 of the final frame.

The Maroons scored eight straight points before Emman Monfort had enough. Monfort’s shot on Gamboa finally woke Ateneo from its siesta as Slaughter followed it up with an and-one and Long’s triple that broke the Maroons. The match ended 77-57 for Ateneo’s fifth straight win. For the first time all season long, all five Blue Eagle starters were in double digits as they pounded their Diliman counterparts 66-35.

Post-match, Ateneo head boss Norman Black talked about the defense holding when the well hit dry. At first, the Maroons were whipping the ball around and finding the open man. Once the defense got in the face of UP’s perimeter shooters while closing the driving lanes, the Maroons struggled to buy a shot.

When asked how he is able to generate some offense while playing lockdown on opposing scorers, Long acknowledged that it was always good to have a seven-footer guarding the lane because he could always funnel his man towards him. And besides, it takes the five men on the floor (as well as the bench) to win basketball games.

So warts and all as well as treys for daggers, I’ll enjoy number five.

Ateneo 77Ravena 15, Slaughter 14, Long 14, Monfort 13, Salva 10, Gonzaga 6, Golla 2, Chua 2, Tiongson 1, Pessumal 0, Cipriano 0, Capacio 0, Erram 0, Sumalinog 0, Austria 0.

UP 57Silungan 8, Manuel 8, Gamboa 8, Mbah 7, Maniego 7, Romero 6, Montecastro 6, Gomez 5, Pascual 2, Wierzba 0, Fortu 0, Juruena 0. 


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My only other Ateneo Blue Eagles piece so far this Season 74: 29.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Bleachers' Brew #271 Clutch 24 (on that awesome FEU-UST game)

This appears in the Monday, August 1, 2011 edition of the Business Mirror.



Clutch 24
by rick olivares with photos by brosi gonzales

The 24-second shot clock is unique in sports. It is the only one in sports where a team has to try and convert within the time allotted to them lest they be called for a turnover or the opponent takes possession of the ball. The time adds an element of drama that is heightened all the more with the game on the line. And that’s the territory where players develop their reputations and their legends begin -- in the clutch.

When you hear about Ryan Roose Garcia what comes to mind are those golden hands of his that seem to make scoring baskets ridiculously simple. He’s clutch and a big time player. No surprise there that he was named Most Valuable Player in last year’s UAAP tournament.

But you also know that he’s had tough days at the office. There were times when he couldn’t hit the side of a building even if his life depended on it and he’s been shut down by Ateneo’s Emman Monfort and a few others. So why is it that even when he is shooting 2-11 that he’s double-teamed with the game on the line?

Matched up against the University of Santo Tomas’s Jeric Teng (last Saturday July 30), another dynamo in the same mold, Garcia fared miserably. Teng, slightly taller, just as athletic, certainly just as quick but stronger, took him to school for the better part of the game.

The Growling Tigers took Teng’s cue as they played perfect pressure defense on FEU that at times it seemed like each Tamaraw was a quarterback facing a pass rush. Teng was especially spectacular scoring on Garcia on a variety of drives, post-ups, and pull-ups.

Tamaraws head coach Bert Flores knows that Garcia is a marked man that is why when he goes through games like this, he tells the combo guard to play the role of facilitator. A decoy if you will.

But the problem was, FEU couldn’t get their collective game going. They were held to five points in the second quarter in a low scoring affair while UST seemed on its way to another win.

Only the Tamaraws slowly whittled at the lead as the Tigers began to miss their shots and falter under pressure.

When Garcia laid the ball in off the window to notch the score at 57-all, there were 46.2 seconds left in the game clock.

But in a cruel twist of fate, Teng committed a most grievous inbound error that Tamaraws defensive guard Ping Exciminiano picked off for a quick layup that gave FEU a 59-57 lead.

Tigers head coach Pido Jarencio’s eyes bulged in horror. How had things turned so quickly? They were well on their way to a huge win. Gathering his wits, he called a time out but instead of executing, the Tamaraws forced a jump ball. Only they won the tip and Jeric Fortuna rattled in a line drive of a jumper that tied the match for the final time a 59-all with exactly 24 seconds left.

24 seconds: Cris Tolomia inbounds the ball on their side of the court with UST’s Kevin Ferrer surprisingly giving token pressure by the sidelines. Garcia curls around a pick to take inbound from Tolomia as Teng gives chase.

23 seconds: Garcia goes above the three-point arc to give him room to operate against Teng.

20 seconds: Garcia tries to crossover only Teng doesn’t fall for it.

12 seconds: Garcia makes his move so there is time for an offensive rebound should there be a miss.

9 seconds: Fortuna leaves Tolomia to play help defense on Garcia.

4 seconds: Tolomia fields a pass from Garcia and he finds himself with plenty of daylight to shoot. He rifles in a three – FEU’s 22nd attempt from beyond the arc.

2.9 seconds: The shot drops. It is only FEUs’ third trey of the match but it is the most important. The Tamaraws are up 62-59. With no timeouts left, Fortuna takes the inbound. Surprisingly no Tamaraw challenges him. The UST guard miscalculates for a second a launches a Hail Mary from beyond half court. Even as he lets go, the prayer has no hope of being answered.

Buzzer: The Tamaraws celebrate on UST’s side of the court as they circle Tolomia who finished with 10 points. Christian Sentcheu, FEU’s African player embraces the game’s hero. Tolomia is almost half his size but who cares?

Teng (a match high 23 points) puts his hands on his head and mutters the F-word twice. He bends over and holds his shorts as the sweat drips down from his face and onto the Maplewood floor of the Araneta Coliseum.

Jarencio shakes his head and wanders off to his team’s basket. In his six years as head coach of UST, he’s been Kramered and nailed by a (Kirk) Long shot. And now, he can add Tolomia to UST’s list of buzzer-beating infamy. “Bakit nag-double team,” he meekly asks to no one in particular.

He bent over in disbelief as a UST supporter came over and draped an arm over him. So spent was the Fireman, as Jarencio was called during his pro ball days, that he couldn’t join the assembly in singing the school hymn.

This was FEU’s second win of the season where they came back to win after being down for the first three quarters (they accomplished that feat was against National University just a few matches ago). In fact, they are the only team to have done so this season. And that has given them a 4-1 record while the Tigers fell to an even 2-2.

Last year, they also had two come-from-behind victories: an 84-80 double overtime win against La Salle and an 83-77 overtime triumph once more against the Bulldogs.

An elated Flores is quick to praise Garcia for his heady play – the layup and the assist – in spite of his harassed into an almost miserable afternoon. Flores, himself a former FEU cager, has been stressed out by the job. The strain is obvious in his face and while he has lost weight he has nonetheless retained his jovial nature. The thought of having the luxury of three (four if one would like to make a case for Exciminiano) all-purpose and clutch guards in Garcia, Tolomia, and Terrence Romeo, brings  a smile to Flores’ lips.

Now that’s clutch.

What I'm watching (as a couch potato) this weekend

Aside from football and what it means to England, is there any other sport so connected to a nation's soul, culture, and history than baseball is to America? Much of the game has lent itself to our lexicon, colloquialisms, and even styles. Spalding. The Louisville Slugger. What great stories that provide faces and backstory to aspects of the game that I took for granted. 


I first saw this in 2004 when I purchased the DVD set at HMV in Fifth Avenue in New York. I have since re-acquired a new box set that includes Burns' new work The Tenth Inning. 


As they say, the word "fan" comes from "fancier" or "fanatic". I am one. And I love this game that I grew up with.

Points to ponder (a post-mortem on the Azkals' aborted World Cup campaign)




This appears in the Sunday July 31, 2011 edition of the Business Mirror.

Points to ponder
by rick olivares photo by roy domingo

Over a lunch of lemon chicken and pasta Bolognese, the Philippine Men’s Football National Team looked and sounded loose and easy but not in a boisterous manner. The rain outside was pouring yet the Filipinos were oblivious to the downpour that caused many to wonder whether the match versus Kuwait would push through. The players signed some souvenir shirts and magazines after lunch before heading over to their rooms to rest.

Before the team left for the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium, the players discussed the task at hand. Could they overhaul the three-goal lead of Kuwait? They had skipper Aly Borromeo and midfielder Stephan Schrock back. They knew they had the home crowd in their corner. And maybe, just maybe the rain that could once more work in their favor.

They considered the possibilities – that winning the match was more within reach than qualifying for the next round of the Asian Qualifiers of the 2014 World Cup. The optimum word was to try. To go all out and leave it on the floor. The coaching staff and management urged them to do their best win or lose not simply for themselves but for the people watching and for the country.

That thought alone made the burden somewhat easier.

Four hours later, after the Azkals absorbed a 2-1 setback to Kuwait that ended their World Cup dreams, the team sat inside the dugout quiet and lost in their thoughts. Disappointment was written all over their faces. Not much was said as they had to carefully measure their thoughts and the raw emotion that pervaded the room. “We needed the space for ourselves,” Manuel Ott would later say. “We needed to think about what happened and what’s next.”

Space, pace and possession obsession
What happened was Kuwait, out of their desert element, exposed the Azkals’ lack of experience and on-field chemistry. For all the talk about the Kuwaitis poor defense, the Filipinos were reduced to thunder strikes from outside.

There were earlier musings on how the visitors would fare in the rain. Yet for much of the first half, Al Azraq went back to their old ways of swarming an opposing player to dispossess him of the ball. They once more ran their attack from the left flank that saw them get off eight attempts (to the Philippines’ five) in the first half alone.

But it was the home side that struck first after Stephan Schrock, showing why he is perhaps the team’s biggest impact player, saw his cracker of a shot beat Al Azraq goal keeper Nawaf Al Khaldi who repeatedly engaged Philippine counterpart Neil Etheridge in a match of, “can you stop this?”

Come the second half, and ironically a man down after Fahed El Ebrahim was cautioned for a second time in the match, Kuwait showed better composure.

In the 63rd minute, after Ray Jonsson was whistled for a foul, midfielder Jarah Al Ateeqi, instead of sending the ball forward following a free kick, chose to send it back to defender Mesad Neda who had a better view of the defense. Neda waited for a moment for the Philippines’ defense to open up as he drew the attention of Angel Guirado and Phil Younghusband who had gone back to defend. The Kuwaiti defender sent a long ball into the Philippines’ box that central back Rob Gier headed away.

Only Al Azraq’s Waleed Ali retrieved the ball and with one touch sent it forward to striker Yousef Naser who took one dribble to break free of the Azkals holding midfielder Manny Ott before blasting a shot from some 20 yards out to beat a flailing Etheridge.

Twenty-two minutes later with Kuwait on a quick counter, Ali showed breathtaking pace as he slalomed through four defenders, took a return forward pass from line mate Saleh Al Sheikh without missing a beat, side-stepped Etheridge before he poked it home towards an empty net despite Jonsson giving futile chase. 

Those were carefully measured strides – four to beat the middle third and four more to blow past the defending third – before the score. Schrock’s first international goal was just as similar. He snared the loose ball, took one dribble and fired away.

It’s about quality possession, short and one touch passing with the objective of moving forward then putting on a sudden burst of pace for a clinical finish. And if one cannot look at Kuwait’s deconstruction of our World Cup dreams, one should take a look at Argentina’s incredible 25-pass possession against Serbia and Montenegro in the 2006 World Cup that was capped by an exquisite Hernan Crespo backheel to Esteban Cambiasso for a goal.

The stat sheet may record Cambiasso as the goal scorer but truly, that belongs to every single Argentine who passed that ball and preserved possession.

The dip in the rankings
Days after the 3-nil loss in Kuwait City, the Philippines fell from No. 152 in FIFA’s rankings to No. 155. Kuwait in the meantime went up by seven notches (No. 102 to No. 95).

After the 2006 World Cup, FIFA introduced a new formula for coming up with its rankings after receiving much criticism over the standings heading into football’s biggest event in Germany. They’ve introduced a simpler formula: where changes include the dropping of home and away matches as well as the corresponding goals scored and conceded. The factors that FIFA takes into account include match results, match status, opposition strength, and regional strength. Matches from the previous four years are also considered with more weight given to the most recently played ones.

While the Philippines blitzed through Sri Lanka 4-0 at home, the 1-1 draw in Colombo and the 3-0 loss in Kuwait City were taken into consideration. The 2-1 home loss where the Philippines was eliminated from World Cup contention, however, was not yet included in the tabulations.

The four Asian Qualifying World Cup matches will carry much more weight than the AFC Challenge Cup games where the Philippines has advanced to the next stage of the tournament.

“The Philippines has a good team,” noted Kuwait coach Goran Tefugdzic. “If the Philippines sticks to its program and supports its team it will get better.”

Kuwait assistant Abdulaziz Hamad added that the goals must be realistic. “Start with your region then begin to move forward in other competitions. But there must be patience. It takes years – two years, four years, sometimes even a decade or more. We made the World Cup in 1982 and it’s only now where we are beginning to go forward again. And football is our national sport.”

“We are a work in progress,” summed up Philippine head coach Hans Michael Weiss.

National Team manager Dan Palami, whose goal is to see the Philippines rise to the #120s in the FIFA rankings remained undaunted and echoed Weiss’ statement. “It remains doable and our success in this span of time confirms that we are doing something right.”

New blood
With 2011 into the second half, the focus shifts to the Under-23 team where many of the country’s best young players culled from the two-month summer tournament could possibly be competing in the Long Teng Cup in Taiwan this September in preparation for the Southeast Asian Games in Indonesia this November.

The team which will also be coached by Weiss and managed by the indefatigable Palami, could possibly feature some of the younger and eligible players from the seniors team but at this point, their inclusion also depends on their availability.

Those eligible include goalkeepers Neil Etheridge and Paolo Pascual as well as midfielders Jason de Jong and Patrick Hinrichsen. Forward Angel Guirado’s younger brother is said to be trying out for the team some time in the near future.

There were concerns about Weiss’ not making proper use of his substitutions during the game and the German gaffer defended his position by saying that he needs more quality and experienced players.

Expect the team to scour for more talent as its begins its massive build up for next year’s Suzuki Cup where the Philippines has already qualified for the group stage.

Hope springs eternal
Hours after being eliminated by Kuwait, the team was feted a dinner by the Philippine Football Federation at the Diamond Hotel. The mood was celebratory and any traces of dejection quickly dissipated. After all, they talked about it much earlier and as long as they gave it all they’ve got then they can take the match’s outcome.

Even after dinner, the supporters and fans lingered while the players went off to private parties or other get-togethers. Yet everywhere they went there was the feeling that they were the victors who were moving on.

“I think people understand that we have something good going on here and that this is a long process,” said striker Phil Younghusband as he left the hotel early in the morning to go home in Alabang. “Some things you have to take in stride and not let them get you down because the ultimate mission is far from over.”

“We left it all out on the field yet we came up short,” said Gier. “But it was nice to see that the people appreciate all our efforts. It was heartwarming.”

“Now that gave us something to think about,” summed up a smiling Ott. “And that gives us the inspiration to do better next time.”


25 passes by Argentina against Serbia & Montenegro


Juergen Klinsmann appointed new US head coach! Good move.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Gatorade's new Azkals print ad


Gatorade print ad (low res version) for the Philippine Men's Football National Team. It's out in a major daily tomorrow (Saturday July 30). Photo is by Brosi Gonzales.

The Asics Gel-Trail Attack 7


I joined Yannick Tuason and Chaddy Pacana at a quick trip to the Marina Mall in Salmiya, Kuwait City. They were going to buy shoes at The Athlete’s Foot where they were getting a massive discount on stuff.

Chaddy and I both picked up the same shoe -- the Asics Gel-Trail Attack 7 “Bumblebee”.

It’s touted for its enhanced cushioning and durability, as it is primarily an off-road shoe with a rock protection plate to guard against bruises. So those maybe taking off-road triathlon – shameless plug here for Xterra – this is a marvelous shoe. Plus it weighs only 336 grams.

The webbing gives your feet some air so you never feel hot in them. The GEL Cushioning System absorbs most of the impact and the construction of the shoe is such that it decreases midsole breakdown. Never thought these kicks technology could get so complicated, huh?

Now I don’t really get running shoes as I have a preference for cross trainers or tennis shoes. Besides I was recently gifted with the Mizuno Wave Rider 14. Incidentally, that was my first ever pair of Mizuno kicks.

I kind of liked the color of yellow and black and I did think that the Asics Gel-Trail Attack 7 looked cool. I tried it on and liked it as well.

The thing with this shoe is that it costs KD35 (equivalent to PhP 5,351). But with the discount – we each forked over KD5 (PhP 2,310).

Not bad. Now I feel like a Transformer.

Philippines crashes out of World Cup party


This appears in the Friday July 29, 2011 edition of the Business Mirror.


Philippines crashes out of World Cup party
by rick olivares with photo by brosi gonzales

Kuwait, with concerns about the rain and the hostile crowd, sent the Philippines packing from the Asian Qualifiers of the 2014 World Cup with a 2-1 win and 5-1 aggregate score at a jampacked Rizal Memorial Football Stadium last Thursday night.

Just when a flicker of hope was kept alive by a screamer from the fiery Stephan Schrock in extra time of the first half that gave the Philippines its first goal of the series, Kuwait’s Yousef Naser played the role of a cold-blooded assassin. Naser, playing on top of the more celebrated Bader Al Mutwa in Al Azraq’s 4-4-2 attack formation, scored his second goal in as many matches in the 62nd minute that silenced the home crowd.

Kuwait’s target man scored on a rocket from some 25 feet out that skirted past Azkals’ goal keeper Neil Etheridge to put the visitors on level terms for the match and the outcome almost beyond reach. And considering that Kuwait was down to 10 men after midfielder Fahed Al Ebrahim was sent off in the 60th minute after two cautions in both halves, it was a testament to Kuwait’s skill and experience.

And in the 84th minute, midfielder Waleed Ali took another well-placed through ball, outraced Azkals’ captain Aly Borromeo, skirted past an onrushing Etheridge to slot home the ball as left back Ray Jonsson gave futile chase.

While the Philippines started out in the same fashion as they did in Kuwait, attacking and raiding the opposing midfield’s passing lanes, Al Azraq put the clamps down and saw themselves with several decent chances to go one up.

In the 16th minute, midfielder Waleed Ali beat the Philippine back four after he tracked down a long ball but his blast went wide.

And perhaps to illustrate how they could break down the Philippines’ defense with sublime through passes and two-touch passing, Al Mutwa found a hole in the 17th minute for a pass. Only no one raced in to smash the ball home.

“We did not want to be passive,” said Kuwait assistant coach Abdulaziz Hamad. “We knew this game meant more to the Philippines. The pressure was on them.”

Kuwait showed that it was a team worth it’s No. 95 ranking by FIFA as Al Azraq had 20 attempts at the Philippine goal with six on target; keeping Etheridge busy as the Azkals’ back four was embattled all night long.

It didn’t help that the Filipinos gave up 12 fouls to the mere three of Kuwait. The fouls given up by the home side led to four free kicks.

“We gave them the space to shoot,” said head coach Michael Weiss who tempered his disappointment with hope. All series long, the Filipinos were concerned with Kuwait’s speed. The damp pitch, due to the rains brought about by Typhoon Juaning did not prove to be a problem for the visitors just as they predicted. “Maybe if Phil Younghusband scored early on. Maybe even the Angel Guirado header, that would have been a bigger boost. But we were unable to finish properly.”

If Weiss did not want to give excessive praise, Kuwait was more effuse.

“If you keep to what you are doing you will be an Asian power in two maybe four years,” said Hamad. “You have the skills and the players. Just make it come together.”

Added head coach Goran Tefugdzic, “It was a challenge playing the Philippines. They gave us trouble here and there but I think it was our experience that got us through.”

“As you can see,” noted Weiss. “Football is brutal and harsh. But with more training, more support, finding more quality players, we will be a World Cup contender in four years.”

Weiss said that the team will take a badly needed break as they have been mostly out of the country for training and competition. The focus of the national team will be the Under-23 squad that will compete in the Southeast Asian Games this coming November in Indonesia and the next phase of the AFC Challenge Cup. 


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I apologize for my game recap. Am unhappy with it as I had to cram for this in 10 minutes. I was busy hosting the post-match press con and getting the post-match stats that by the time I made it back to my seat (all soaking wet and my fever raging once more), I didn't have a whole lot of time. Will make up for it with the next one as I have a little more time now. Thanks for reading.


I'd like to thank some people here: Nonong Araneta, Bonnie Ladrido, Cathy Rivilla, JP Demontaño, Rod Nepomucena, Edward Kho, Dan Palami, Franco Lorenzo, Ace Bright, Michael Weiss, Chad, Joji and the rest for everything. Thanks also to Tareq Al Yahya and Mr. Talal Al Mehteb as well as Coach Goran.


Have so many anecdotes I do not know where to start.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

In the middle of the field of play



In the middle of the field of play
by rick olivares

In 2006, I was working for Solar Sports as Marketing Manager when the Philippine Football Federation came up to us to cover the home matches of the Philippine Men’s Football National Team for the ASEAN Football Championship.

The PFF sent three representatives – Joaqui Preysler, Ernie Nierras, and Ed Formoso. They had shopped it around to the major networks and hardly received an audience. There were a couple of Ateneo football guys at Solar Sports at that time and we needed no convincing. The collective response was: “let’s get this done.”

That was the first time that the Younghusband brothers suited up for the seniors squad and there was some excitement brewing about them coming over from England to play for the Philippines.

We covered them for that tournament as well as for the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup Qualifiers in Iloilo.

I remember that in 2006, after returning from Panaad, Bacolod, a press conference was held at the Mizuno head office at the Magallanes Village commercial center in Makati. I was the only sports journalist present for the press con. The rest were all lifestyle and fashion writers. Why they were there I have no idea. Of course, I lugged along a television crew from Solar Sports to cover he event.

Previously, I would also tow our camera crews to cover UAAP football. We would show highlights of the tournament. We even cut a few commercials featuring the Ateneo and La Salle football teams talking about the 2006 World Cup.

I’m never going to forget that presscon if only for the questions posed to the team.

“What Filipino words do you know?”

“Have you tried balut?”

Why don’t you play basketball?

And here’s where it gets worse…

“What is your favorite color?”

I was appalled but I understood. Football just wasn’t something the public generally cared to read or watch on television save for the die hards.

I began a friendship with many of the players that lasts to this day and that helped in writing about them. However, I also began to write about the alleged corruption within the Philippine Football Federation. Little did I know that I would soon be banned not only from the PFF premises but from also covering the national team.

The coaches and players were instructed to seek permission from federation officials before I or any other media man could talk to them.

It became difficult to cover them with little or no access. Eventually, the coaches who followed – Aris Caslib and Norman Fegidero Jr. would talk to me but much of what was bandied about was mostly off the record. I’d spent huge phone bills calling Coach Nonoy in Bacolod and had to wait for Coach Aris to finish his training in San Beda before we’d get to chat.

That changed in late 2010 when the PFF lifted the ban and allowed me to re-join a vastly different team. Dan Palami was the team manager now and Simon McMenemy was the head coach. It wasn’t too long ago when I was chatting with Desmond Bulpin in Ateneo where the team would practice. But it came at a time when I was offering to get Gatorade to sponsor the team (this was right before the Suzuki Cup).

I recall that almost as soon as I joined GroupM, the international media agency that does the local promotions and activations for Gatorade, I began to push for the national team. It took months before they approved it and they did when I staked my job for the team.

Looking back, it seems prophetic now. I did say that this team was ready to take off. “Just you wait and see,” I said.

If that were the lotto I’d be in the Bahamas right now.

At that time before we set off for Vietnam, we held the team’s first ever press conference at the PFF headquarters. We came up with their first ever press kit. I got about 12 media colleagues to attend. Save for TV5 none of the other television channels attended. Some said they would go but never did.

Funny how after Vietnam all of them came running without further notice.

When we arrived in Vietnam, the team was still virtually under the radar. In the press conference that preceded the games, not one of the assembled 200 media asked any questions about the Philippines. The coaches of Singapore and Vietnam even discussed about how many goals they would score against the Philippines. They were that bold and brazen.

We all know how things turned out in those 10 days in Vietnam.

I’ve covered many athletes and many sports teams not just here in the Philippines but also abroad. Following the Philippine Men’s Football National Team is like following a live version of Sylvester Stallone’s fictional boxer, Rocky Balboa. It’s like, “Who knew, right?”

Right there and then, I got the feeling that I was in the midst of something special. The time was when the team would go to a match and on the way to the venue, they’d be talking about taking their lumps and going home. At that particular time in Vietnam, I wondered if the guys thought I was insane as I kept telling them that we were going to shock the world.

I mean plane tickets had been bought for return flights (back to England and wherever).

My confidence wasn’t misplaced. I thought that watching the team come together in the past year and how some were reaching their peak, they had finally become a team.

They are never going to win because of an individual. They will advance because of team play. That team had put aside whatever differences they had at that time whether it be cultural or skills. They hung out together not just on the dining table but also outside the pitch. No longer were the Fil-foreigners bunked together with the locals in another. They mixed around, had fun, trained, and played together. 

Inside the dugout during the halftime break against Vietnam, the team sat quietly as we had hung on to a precious 1-nil lead. The boys were sweating despite the cold weather. Not a word was said. McMenemy paced for a few minutes trying to collect his thoughts. And then he spoke. “We can do this,” he said. “We’re holding them. They’re desperate now and that means they are vulnerable to mistakes.”

I forget now everything else that transpired as the entire team began to talk and pump up one another. Dan Palami stood by the door and patted the players on their shoulders as they filed out. “We can do this!” he thundered.

In the 79th minute, Phil Younghusband added to Chris Greatwich’s 39th minute goal to put the match beyond reach. The first goal had silenced the capacity crowd at My Dinh. The second sent the crowds towards the exit.

The bedlam inside the locker room was raw and raucous. It was as if a championship had been won.

If the team was disregarded before. Not anymore. As soon as we arrived at the Sheraton in Hanoi where we were billeted, the staff graciously applauded. At the hotel lobby where the teams hung out (because of the free internet), they now began to mingle and exchange stories.

As Kuwait prepared for the Philippines in the second leg of the Asian Qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup, they scouted the Philippines in Sri Lanka, Manila, and Bahrain. They even watched the first practice of the team at Taha Field in Kuwait.

All of a sudden everyone is taking the Philippine team seriously. And quite honestly, I have never seen a Filipino team followed like this. Of course, there’s Manny Pacquiao but this one is different if only for the teenybopper set as well as the legions of women. In Kuwait, I went fan watching.

I would watch them – kids, men, women, and mothers – on how they reacted when the team arrived and I came away fascinated. I corroborated my theory with longtime sports broadcast journalist Chino Trinidad who also was in amazement.

The fact that expatriate Filipinos turned the Mohammed Al-Hamad Stadium into a virtual homefield for the Azkals says something. Only 4,000 tickets were allotted to the Filipino community but our kababayans found a way (the black market notwithstanding).

Having covered this team for a while now, and having seen many of the ups and downs, one thing is for sure. Football in the Philippines is here to stay. And covering the Azkals, as they are now fondly called, will no longer be dreary.

As the team was mobbed while at the Avenues Mall in Kuwait City to buy football gear, midfielder James Younghusband smiled and said to me, “I think it’s great that there are all these fans now. Oh, we love it for sure. They were there before but not like this. This is something you do not take for granted. I am going to cherish for a long time.”

So will I.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

@Hardball

Hardball episode July 27. With Boom Gonzales, Bill Velasco, Ronnie Nathanielsz, Bob Guerrero, and Boyet Sison. Fun as always. Thirty minutes is definitely not enough.

Round 2: Philippines vs Kuwait: Ninety-minutes for tomorrow

This appears in the Thursday July 28, 2011 edition of the Business Mirror.


L-R: JP Demontaño, Assistant General Coordinator; Talal Al Mehteb, Media Officer, Kuwait; Goran Tefugdzic, coach, Kuwait, Cathy Rivilla, General Coordinator Home Match; Michael Weiss, coach, Philippines, Aly Borromeo, captain, Philippines; and me.

Ninety-minutes for tomorrow
by rick olivares



The game of football is broken down into two 45-minute halves. It seems like an awful lot of time for a game where scores are hard to come by. 

When you are the team chasing an aggregate score, 90 minutes seem like not much time. While the task at hand—scoring three goals to match the three given up while preventing Kuwait from scoring—is extremely difficult, it is not impossible.

How bad are the odds? In the latest rankings of FIFA, Kuwait went up from No. 102 to No. 95 while the Philippines dropped from No. 152 to No. 155.

In retrospect, the Kuwaitis did what they had to do at the Mohammed Al-Hamad Stadium. And that is to spot their Philippine counterparts with a massive 3-nil lead despite the stadium being packed by Filipinos who turned the stadium into a slice of Pilipinas if only for 45 minutes.

When the Azkals take to the Rizal Memorial pitch on Thursday at 7 p.m., although smaller than the 25,000-seater that is the Al Hamad, they could count on the 13,000-plus expected attendance to bust their lungs and will their team to an incredible come-from-behind victory.

“It’s do or die,” succinctly put Azkals team captain Aly Borromeo. “There’s no tomorrow or another chance. We have to go all-out.” Borromeo won’t be the only Filipino back in the saddle. The feisty Fil-German midfielder Stephan Schrock who also served out his one-game suspension for cumulative yellow cards will be back. “It’s good to be back,” said Schrock, who arrived on Monday night from Germany. “We’ve got some business to take care of here, yeah?”

The return of the two buoys the team that played a more defensive formation that proved disastrous in Kuwait City.

And now they need to attack. Since current head coach Hans Michael Weiss joined the team in February, the Azkals have scored five goals in the first half and seven goals in the final 45 minutes of play.

Look for the team to try and score quickly. It is possible they will go to a 4-4-2 formation, but with everyone coming down on defense. The return of Schrock gives the team a more attacking dimension and a bevy of feeders for Phil Younghusband as target man. Look for the midfield to be more aggressive and active just as they were in the first half of the away match that saw them nearly net three goals off brilliant passes by Chieffy Caligdong, Manuel Ott and James Younghusband.

Etheridge
Del Rosario   Gier   Borromeo   Jonsson
Ott
J Younghusband   Schrock   Caligdong
P Younghusband Guirado

Another factor that the Philippines could count on aside from the home crowd and a near-complete Azkals lineup (still without the injured Jerry Lucena and Paul Mulders) is the weather.

After the match in Kuwait City, almost immediately the Kuwaitis inquired about the weather in Manila. They aren’t used to playing in the rain although head coach Goran Tefugdzic would like to differ. “It rains for two to three months in Kuwait so it is no big deal. We will adjust.”

But with Typhoon Juaning threatening to upset match day, Match Commissioner May Tola announced during the Manager’s Meeting at the Ninoy Aquino Stadium that any postponement is a game-time decision.

“The match commissioner and the referee assessor will take a look if the conditions are playable,” said the Cambodian official. “In the event of a postponement, the match will be played at the same time of the following day.”

Rain aside, what Team Philippines needs to do is to score right away. That will put more pressure on them to find the back of the net in the second half and the pressure can lead to more mistakes—something the Azkals can ill afford.

“We have to hold them scoreless,” pointed out Weiss. “For them to score a goal early in the match will be disastrous. We have to be very focused for the task at hand. We play defense and attack as a team. We hope to plug the holes in our defense especially in the midfield.”

During the match away, the Azkals’ defense was somewhat able to contain playmaker Fahed Al Elenezi. But even as Al Azraq’s No. 7 went off the pitch, “supersub” Abdulaziz Mashan came on in the second half and sparked their squad to two goals that put the match away and placed Kuwait in a prime position to advance to the third round of the Asian Qualifiers of the 2014 World Cup.

“We were not able to scout him,” said midfielder Jason de Jong of Abdulaziz. “He made a big difference for them.”

“Our goal is not yet finished,” pronounced Tefugdzic. “We are aware of what the Philippine team can do here in Manila.”

“It is possible that they [Kuwait] can park the bus,” noted Borromeo. “But whatever they do we have to pressure them into playing our style of play. A goal early in the game should boost our confidence.”

How big is the game?

“Big,” underscored Phil Younghusband. “Our biggest game so far.”

Should the Philippines be unable to pull through, it will be a long wait until 2015 for the next World Cup Qualifiers.