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.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Breaking down the semifinals loss to Singapore

Breaking down the semifinals loss to Singapore
by rick olivares pic by anton sheker

So that was what it must have been like for Victor Ortiz after Floyd Mayweather sucker punched him following a clinch in their title bout last year.

Or was it like Manny Pacquiao dropping his guard for one second and paying the price for it with a devastating punch delivered by Juan Manuel Marquez?

For the Philippine Men’s Football National Team it’s both because at the end of the day, it was lights out on them and their spectacular campaign in the 2012 Suzuki Cup.

We must protect ourselves at all times.
Since I led off with boxing analogies, allow us to quote from the venerable Pretty Boy who exclaimed the time old ring adage after he sent Ortiz to dreamland.

In the 18th minute of the match, the nationals were expecting Shahdan Sulaiman to fire a 27-yard shot inside the box to possible targets Aleksandar Duric or Shahril Ishak. However, Sulaiman laid the ball off to an unmarked Khairul Amri whose nearest Philippine defender, Carli de Murga, was several feet away and had his back turned while communicating with the defense about their wall.

Amri’s rocket was textbook perfect as it skirted the right side of the Philippine wall and dipped into the goal just inside the second post. Goalkeeper Ed Sacapaño stood frozen and in shock as the ball went in for a score. A most unlikely and cheap one if you will. And it reminded me of Thierry Henry’s goal against Chelsea in 2004 off a quick free kick just Peter Cech and the Blues’ defense were still aligning.

It was the only score for the two-legged series and the 1-0 result was enough to send the Lions and their delirious fans into the finals of the Suzuki Cup where they will be chasing their fourth championship against three-time champion, Thailand, who deposed former champion, Malaysia with a 3-1 aggregate win.

Now here’s where the Singapore goal becomes contentious.

In FIFA’s official rules of the game, it says that “the whistle is NOT needed to stop play for:
-                a goal kick, corner kick, or throw in
-                a goal kick
-                restart play from a free kick, goal kick, corner kick, or throw in

Furthermore, the official rules also state that “A whistle which is used too frequently unnecessarily will have less impact when it is needed. When a discretionary whistle is needed to start play, the referee should clearly announce to the players that the restart may not occur until after that signal.”

Retired English international referee Graham Poll also says that “The rules on free kicks are the offensive team holds the advantage and may use the element of surprise should they wish.”

In a fast play situation, the offensive team doesn’t have to wait for the whistle.

Many Philippine players swear that referee Tan Hai say that he would blow his whistle. Dennis Cagara, De Murga, and Sacapaño claim such. De Murga vociferously argues that Hai said so and was later incensed that no whistle blew leaving the Azkals in an almost indefensible position.

Lost in the he said, he said, is the fact that one of the Azkals should have stayed in front of the ball as they are usually wont to do to prevent the fast play. Yung pang-asar ba where the referee angrily waves the defender off with a warning for delaying the game.

But Hai didn’t warn or caution the Lions players with a yellow card for going MMA on Phil Younghusband who was floored more times than Pacquiao was in the first five minutes of the match. He did though give Sacapaño a yellow card for not sending a free kick into play when that should have been a warning.

You see, incompetence in officiating is a worldwide phenomenon. But it does teach us painful lessons. Most especially that a momentary lapse of concentration can be our undoing.

We must score early. Or for the matter, we must play the full 90 minutes and not just the second half alone.
If I can recall the matches by the Azkals through the years, we have a penchant for starting slow and scoring late in the match. Sometimes, the late goal will work and sometimes it will not.

Case in point: Thailand during the group stages. We were down by two goals before one was pulled back. In the early minutes of the match with Thailand unsettled yet in their defense, there were chances for the Philippines to score. Once the War Elephants made their adjustments, we needed a passport to get through their defensive half.

We need to be a little more aggressive in our approach to the game. That is accomplished by sending more players in the attack and making good use of the width of the field but also ensuring that everyone tracks back on defense.

I thought that the Azkals’ made the adjustment to what Singapore was trying to do around the 35th minute (yes, I was keeping track). And it worked so kudos to the coaching staff and the players. The problem was, we conceded an early goal that put us in a dangerous hole.

The challenge for the coaching staff, to borrow the words of team manager Dan Palami, “is to bring the urgency and cohesiveness of the second half into the first half.”

Enough said.

We need to get our licks in there once in a while. Maybe an enforcer even.
The Lions knocking Phil Younghusband and the others around is old time football. That is very much like taking a shot at basketball players who like to flash into the lane for a dunk or a layup – knock them down, make them feel it so that next time they don’t drive inside.

If that is an unwritten rule – physicality -- then I do not see anything wrong with a little reciprocity. Of this current team, it is only Jason de Jong who likes to mix it up. And he was nowhere near the fourth official’s table for the match. I am not suggesting we have a player become a sacrificial lamb in the quest to take an opposing player from under his knees but knock someone down when trying to win headers.

However, regarding the physicality of the Singaporeans, we have a local term: “mina-mama tayo”. We had no response to that in the away leg.

We must learn to use the media as part of the game plan.
There is a need for the team to be able to scour everything that is written about them by the home country’s media.

In 2010, we were aware of the massive pressure placed on Vietnam because of the bonuses promised and the criticism by the media of their play (who all thought that Red Warriors were vulnerable heading to the group stages). We planted the seed of it in the press match presscon and the local media picked up on it. The line of questioning revealed a chink in the Red Warriors’ armor – hubris and sensitivity to criticism.

Following the loss to the Philippines in that competition, then Vietnam head coach Henrique Calisto blew up in the next two press conferences and the local media further turned on him. He was fired after the cup.

Last Tuesday (a day before the second leg match), an article appeared in the Straits Times where Lions players called Azkals midfielder Angel Guirado “a diver”. Every Singaporean must have read that because from the moment the Fil-Spaniard stepped on the pitch, the crowd mercilessly booed him. Booing is normal especially in opposing stadia but no doubt the article worked up the Singaporeans. I asked Angel about the booing and he said that he could hear it. If he could hear it, that means it must have blunted his focus even for just a bit. And following him in the match, I only recall him hitting the turf twice.

Angel said that during the Philippines’ home match, if you watch the replay it was clear that he was being fouled. Hence, his falling and not diving. His falling and rolling about is him “rolling with the punch so as not to be hurt”. Sound logic.

The Singaporeans turned Jalan Besar Stadium into 1/10 of what the Gelora Bung Karno is to Indonesians where their vitriol, hatred, and madness was an incredible 12th man. With the way Jalan Besar is constructed, anyone on the pitch can really hear what is being shouted, cheered, or yelled from the stands.

The article in the Straits Times worked.

We have to change our physical approach to the game.
I have always felt that the advantage of having a Chieffy Caligdong, a Patrick Reichelt, or a Jeffrey Christiaens on the wings was not only their ability to push the ball but also for their explosiveness.

We had that in spurts. I believe that our wing players should have pace, great dribbling skill, and the ability to weave in and around the defense. The opposing teams prepared for us. They eliminated the speed on our left flank.

I couldn’t help but admire Thailand’s Teerasil Dangda whose creativity with the ball, pace, and power despite his build was frightening. If Mohd Safee Sali was the breakout star of the 2010 Suzuki Cup, this one was Dangda’s.

Our players should not only have the benefit of the usual tactical training but also specific programs designed to improve conditioning, speed, and explosiveness.

For forwards like Phil Younghusband (I am not singling Phil out but merely using him as an example), the other countries have learned to play him – throw him a couple of defenders so he doesn’t weave around easily. So maybe it is time to remake Phil Younghusband. This is not to say that PYH is imperfect or that we are trying to put him down. Not at all. It’s merely improving on him then unleash a PYH Version 2.0 in the next competition.

Here are a couple of models for our forwards to look at:
Didier Drogba: The former Chelsea striker was not only tall but he was also physically strong. When opposing defenders tried to bump him off his pace, more often than not it was they who crashed to the ground and got hurt. Drogba for all intents and purposes is an amazing specimen for power and speed.

Lionel Messi: Not your traditional scorer. He isn’t tall nor is he particularly well-built. What Messi is package of quickness, powerful in his finish even from way outside the box, and excellent in dribbling skills. And of course, his excellent coordination with his teammates.

Since Global has a bunch of national players, maybe their approach as Dan Palami is doing, is to have them develop like Barcelona. The Spanish national team has quite a number of national players. Their familiarity with one another on a club level translates into game come international duty.

Global is currently the class of Philippine club football. Hopefully, the cohesion and style that is being played in Global can translate into the Azkals.

Just to reiterate, what I am trying to say is that there should be specific programs for the different players. Different skill sets taught. Programs designed to work on their body strength, explosiveness, and the kind of system that should be implemented not just in the national team but also on all levels.

But you can see the steps being taken to improve the national team. There was a time when our back four wasn’t the tallest. But now we’ve got the redwoods to deal with the stratospheric predators like Aleksandar Duric. Rob Gier was excellent in place of the missing Aly Borromeo who was a rock in the middle for quite some time.

And lastly, our midfield should seize early control of the match.
At times, I felt bad for Phil Younghusband as he didn’t have much of a supply of forward passes to work with. But that is hardly the fault of the midfield as they were under siege from Singapore.

But we need that central midfielder who can take control of the match.

Take a look at the Lions. If you ask me, the unsung hero in their campaign (and yes, I watched all their matches) is Mustafic Fahrudin. He played the holding midfield position and expertly brought it up and distributed the ball to his wingers or forwards. When he went out after the first half (he suffered a back injury sometime in the first half), Singapore had no one of the same quality to bring up the ball. In the 2010 Suzuki Cup, he did not play that great and in hindsight, it is no surprise Singapore did not advance to the semifinals. That is how important he is to the Lions.

Of course, the Philippines vastly improved its attack and took over the game. And that alone is cause for elation because as we have shown in most of our matches, the second half has been ours. And it is a matter of time before we are able to fully dictate the match on our terms.

I am not going to second guess the coaching staff in their decisions (I fully support bringing Chieffy Caligdong into the match as a reserve in order to conserve his energy and explosiveness). In 2010, Chief was raiding Singapore from the left before he was cut down. He went out limping and Roel Gener took his starting spot for the next four matches). But we need a solid playmaker in the middle. Sure, Stefan Schrock was missing but the fate of the national team must not lie in the feet of one man but several. Depth is always a plus.

This was a great run.
A 2-1-2 record isn’t so bad. It is our best record. Perhaps save for the Thailand match, two other fixtures were highly winnable.

We entered this tournament as equals and not as foils. Teams generally feared us. Heck, Singapore threw their MRT, their Ferraris, their BMWs, Duck Boats, and taxi cabs in from of goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud just to keep the Azkals out. And if weren’t for a call for Singaporeans to prevent Jalan Besar from being a “mini-Manila” (there’s the use of media again), that stadium would have been our homefield just as it has been in trips to the Middle East or elsewhere.

There is nothing to be ashamed about this painful loss and all. We are after all, as Coach Michael Weiss and Dan Palami like to often say, a growing football country.

And the cool thing is, by virtue of our semifinals finish, we automatically qualified for the group stages of the 2014 Suzuki Cup.


Thanks to the coaching staff led by Hans Michael Weiss and including Edwin Cabalida, Edzel Bracamonte, and Roroy Piñero. Staffers Joseph Malinay, Wally Javier, Rafa Garcia, and Anton Sheker. Alex and Chester too! The entire team. Lads, take a bow. Thank you for the beautiful game. And of course, to the man -- Dan Palami. Thanks to Nonong Araneta for consoling me after the loss as I shed tears at the Jalan Besar Stadium (the first time I did since Vietnam 2010).


My Singapore soundtrack: Deftones - Koi No Yokan, The Sword - Apocryphon, Madness - One Step Beyond, The Shins - Oh, Inverted World, and The Sam Willows.

With Ed Sacapaño (above) and Rob Gier and Jason de Jong (below) at the lobby of the Amara Hotel right before we left for Changi Airport to head home.

With Lia Cruz and TJ Manotoc at the Media Tribune at the Jalan Besar Stadium.


  1. we need Schrock in the midfield.

  2. Victor Ortiz.

    - D.Gon

  3. what a great read. Will always support the Philippine Football team! Looking forward to the challenge cup!

  4. I soo wish Schrock was with them too. But anyway..God Bless to Philippine Football.

  5. good write up buddy. the only way is up!

  6. I agree with every word you said

  7. tama..walang matapang at brusko maglaro..the only time we dominated singapore was when we defeated them in september where stephan schrock dominated the midfield like a boss , walang takot kasi si schrocky..our players are too nice and gentelemanly.......the azkals win in cebu was a lucky streak...singapore played better then but was unlucky with the goal by marwin