SINGAPORE – As the Azkals lay on the artificial turf, fighting back tears, their face buried on their hands while tormentor Singapore and some 7,000 more at the Jalan Baser Stadium celebrated the Lions’ march into the finals of the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup, PH manager Dan Palami walked on from the bench to console the dejected players one by one.
He gave them props for a good run. He reminded them that the Azkals’ journey should not end here.
“It’s one of those occasions when you have to be strong, to show everybody that it’s not the end,” Palami said in the wake of the Azkals’ heartbreaking 0-1 second-leg loss to Singapore that, counting their scoreless draw in the first leg over in Manila, spelled their doom in the semifinal duel via the same scoreline on goal aggregate.
“But I think we went down fighting so it’s something the boys can be proud of. I will continue to support the team and make sure we get to move on. Maybe 2014 (the next Suzuki Cup) beckons for us. We have to prepare for that again.”
The Azkals had gone to great lengths preparing for Southeast Asia’s football showpiece, calling up high-caliber pros based in Europe and setting camps and friendlies all year round in a massive effort to break new grounds following a surprise semifinal appearance as an underdog two years back.
“Any loss for me is tough but this one hurts a lot because this is what we’ve been preparing for. But to fold up now will be to even let the team down. We just have to rise from this particular defeat and concentrate on what we have to do in the future,” said Palami.
“This is football,” said co-skipper Rob Gier. “You ride the waves when you go high and you have to accept lows when they come along. Unfortunately, we’re in the business where we have a lot of ups and downs. It’s how you can come back from it that’s all important.”
The Azkals stood a goal short of a breakthrough final appearance. Since tournament format gives importance to away goals in cases of a tie on goal aggregate, the Azkals needed to just match the Lions’ score to advance and turn Doubting Thomases into believers.
“Again, we came here and not many people outside of Phl thought we can even get out of the group stages. So we surprised people again,” said Gier, a busy man in the backline especially with Singapore’s relentless attack from the get-go.
The start of the end came in the 19th minute of the physical second leg when Khairul Amri caught the Azkals’ napping to fire a virtually unchallenged volley from outside the box that bounced into the net. This eventually sealed the doom of the visiting team, which went for broke to score the equalizer but fell short.
“Well, it’s been a very tough journey and of course it had to end here. But then, I’m proud of how the boys played, we were there all the time and we went down fighting and we just have to do it again. But for now, Singapore is the better team and we have to accept the result,” Palami said.
Coach Michael Weiss echoed his sentiments.
“Only one team has to go home and unfortunately it’s us. It would have been a fantastic achievement if we got through but that’s the way it is...We have to move on, no time to cry or mourn,” he said.
It was particularly frustrating for Gier, who firmly believed Phl XI, with previous Last-4 stints in the 2010 Suzuki Cup and 2012 AFC Challenge Cup, had the tools and experience to actually go all the way this time.
“We’ve been to three semifinals in the last two years and the frustration just becomes really hard to take,” said the Fil-British. “I was telling the guys before the game that I actually believed we can win this year. I thought we had enough quality to go all the way.”
The Azkals left for Manila yesterday. After licking their wounds from this bitter setback, they will go back to camp by mid-January to gear up for the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers the country will host in March. The Pinoy booters will aim to rule Group E against Turkmenistan, Cambodia and Brunei to make it to main tournament in 2014 in Maldives, which will serve as a qualifier for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup.
“We’ll continue to plod on and make the journey of the Azkals continue in other tournaments and other forms. We’ll be there and continue to give honor to the country,” Palami vowed.