Football: 10 years on, Azkals’ Rob Gier reflects on ‘The Miracle in Hanoi’

Manolo Pedralvez

Posted at Jun 22 2020 10:13 PM | Updated as of Jun 22 2020 10:53 PM

Football: 10 years on, Azkals’ Rob Gier reflects on ‘The Miracle in Hanoi’ 1
The Philippines' Chris Greatwich (right) and his teammates celebrate after he scored the breakthrough goal against Vietnam during their Suzuki Cup in Hanoi on December 5, 2010. The Philippines won 2-0. Hoang Dinh Nam, AFP/file

A decade after, Filipino-British defender Rob Gier can still hardly believe in the stunning success of the Philippine Azkals at the 2010 Suzuki Cup, kicking off with “The Miracle in Hanoi” that led to the country’s historic first semifinal appearance in the tournament.

The surprise success of the Filipino underdogs at the Suzuki Cup, organized by the ASEAN Football Federation, ushered in an unprecedented revival of the sport.

A former Wimbledon FC mainstay, Gier formed the sturdy backline of the original Azkals together with skipper Aly Borromeo, Anton del Rosario and Iceland-based Filipino Ray Jonnson.

Minding the net behind the quartet was Britain-based Filipino goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, now playing for Cardiff City in the English Championship League (Division 1).

“We actually qualified for (the Suzuki Cup) by the skin of our teeth,” Gier, in a one-on one webcast over the weekend, recalled of the ordeal the national team went through to reach the Cup’s regular stage in Hanoi in December 2010.

The Filipinos finished in a three-way tie with Laos and Cambodia in the four-team qualifying round, all with similar 1-2 win-loss records. They wound up runners-up on goal difference behind the Laotians, who went to Group A, while the Azkals landed in Group B.

It was like walking into the lion’s den for the Azkals of English coach Simon McMenemy, a last-minute replacement for Scottish mentor Des Bulpin, after the Philippines found itself bracketed with host Vietnam, Singapore and Myanmar, all regional football powers.

Just ‘enjoy the experience’

They opened their campaign on Dec. 2, 2010, at the 40,000-seat My Dinh National Stadium in Hanoi.

“We went to Vietnam expecting to enjoy the experience,” said the London-based Gier.

“You wanted to do the best that you can. But then we didn’t want to be there and get embarrassed.”

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Regarded as traditional regional whipping boys, the Philippines tended to be overlooked, and Serbian mentor Radjko Avramovic, Singapore’s head coach, showed no worries about facing them in the opening game of the four-team series during the pre-match press conference.

That hint of disrespect directed at the Filipinos, Gier said, did not fluster him at all “because that wasn’t my main source of motivation. National pride and team pride comes in more than anything else.”

“We had everything to fight for and absolutely nothing to lose,” he said. “I think that showed in our performances overall.”

Against the Lions, who entered the match as three-time champions of Southeast Asia’s premier men’s football championships, the Azkals stood their ground, rallying from a 1-0 deficit to pull off an improbable 1-all standoff for a rousing start.

“We kinda sat on the low block and encouraged them (the Singaporeans) to come and beat us so we can hit them on the counterattack,” Gier noted of McMenemy’s general game plan against Singapore.

“Whenever you play that system you make sure you have to make things tight in the first 15 to 20 minutes.

“You then rely on the other team to get frustrated and weather the storm in the first half.”

Historic result vs Singapore

With the defense holding and Etheridge’s heroics at the net, the Azkals kept the game scoreless at the break until Singapore’s towering naturalized striker, Alexsandar Duric, drew first blood in the 65th minute.

“Once that first goal goes in, whatever the scenario, you don’t want to stay far behind. You have to stay in the game,” Gier stressed.

“You have to be on point for the next 10 to 20 minutes or else the game will run away from you.

“You stay in the game because in the 90th minute anything can happen.”

The incredible occurred, as the Azkals remained unnerved despite being scant seconds away from defeat, until Chris Greatwich stepped up to score the match-saving equalizer.

Videos of the match show that from out of nowhere, the Britain-based Filipino midfielder broke loose, taking a cross from Phil Younghusband and, in front of three Lions defenders, slotted in the tying goal from just outside the box in the 93rd to save the day for the embattled Filipinos.

Even more significant, the draw snapped an 11-game and 28-year-old losing streak to the Singaporeans, who began that run with a 5-0 rout of the Filipinos in the 1972 President’s Cup in South Korea.

“You don’t ever forget that feeling ever, ever, ever,” Gier recalled the goal with relish. “You put everything on the line. It was a vindication of the hard work to put in. It is pure ecstasy. Pure happiness. It was very special.

“I get goosebumps thinking about it now.”

The work for the Azkals, however, was far from over and up next were the Vietnamese, with their rabid hometown fans expected to pack the same venue to root them on, three days later.

Do you believe in miracles?

“We knew that we would be up against a powerhouse but at the same time we didn’t want to get embarrassed. There was that nervous energy from the Singapore game,” Gier said.

“We also knew that the stadium would be packed (with Vietnamese fans) but looked forward to the game.”

Gier bared that things looked grim for the Azkals for the Vietnam match, as winger Chieffy Caligdong was unable to play because of the beating he took against Singapore. Phil Younghusband was unwell, too, throwing up on game day.

“Obviously it was a concern. Chieffy and Phil were two big players (for us). Although Roel Gener would be there to replace Caligdong, but Phil was really bad that day. I don’t how he got through it,” he said.

“But Gener came and did the job unbelievably well,” Gier reminisced of the Barotac Nuevo town, Iloilo, pride, who at 36 was the oldest player on that squad then.

“Talk about unsung heroes and he would be right up there. His performance after that (game against Vietnam) was absolutely outstanding.”

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In a David-Goliath position, the Azkals raised their game to a new level, shocking the hosts, 2-0, and silencing the hometown gallery in an arguably the Philippines’ best performance on the pitch.

Greatwich and Phil Youngusband were the Filipinos’ 1-2 punch, netting goals in the 38th and 79th, respectively, in front of an awestruck venue, moving the Philippines tantalizingly close to their first semifinal appearance at the Suzuki Cup.

“When Phil scored that second goal with 10 minutes to go, you knew the game was won,” Gier said.

“Sometimes when you’re playing football matches, you know this is your day. And that was one of those days.”

The Azkals’ last group match on Dec. 5, 2010, in that breakthrough series proved to be anti-climactic: a scoreless deadlock against Myanmar, “which wasn’t one of our better games,” Gier acknowledged.

Coupled with Vietnam’s 1-0 win against Singapore on the same day, the Filipinos formalized their Suzuki Cup debut in the crossover semifinal series against Indonesia, which topped Group A.

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The Azkals wound up second in their bracket with five points — with one win and two draws — while the Vietnamese emerged as group topnotchers with six points with a 2-1 win-loss record.

Bereft of a pitch that met international standards in Manila, the Azkals were forced to play both games at the cavernous 80,000-capacity Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta.

The Filipinos put up a gallant stand but were swept in the two-match semis by the Merah Puti (Red and White) by identical scores of 1-0, much to the delight of the highly partisan hometown crowd that jampacked the stadium.

Malaysia would beat Indonesia by an aggregate score of 4-2 in the two-leg finals to bag the Suzuki Cup trophy.

Gier retired in February 2016.


A post shared by Rob Gier (@robdazogier2) on

The 38-year-old, who has earned a UEFA A-license and currently coaches women’s club Reading FC, fondly looked back at the “The Miracle in Hanoi,” recognizing that “there was no way we could envisage what would happen in the succeeding years after that game (against Vietnam).”

“Everybody liked the underdog story we came from. We came from nothing and achieved something huge,” he said.

“It captured the imagination of a nation and made a country proud.

“It made football have a platform in the Philippines in those succeeding years, and inspired a new generation of local based players to emerge.

“I was lucky to be in the front and center of it, something that will live with me forever.”