This Tuesday, the Pinoy football scene shifts to what might be considered the birthplace of Azkals mania: Panaad Stadium in Bacolod City. The national team will take on Guam in the last of June's friendlies.
Panaad stadium is holy ground for Pinoy football. Some of the fans even refer to it as "The Kennel."
I remember very well my first trip to Panaad in 2005. I went straight from the Ad Congress in Cebu to Dumaguete via ferry where I stayed overnight there with friends from the Unitarian Universalist Church. Then I hopped on a van that took a six-hour ride to Bacolod, passing through Kabankalan. I slept and woke up with terrible rashes. I had German measles.
But nothing was going to stop me from watching the U23 match versus Thailand. It was the Southeast Asian Games, and there was hope in the Philippine camp. These Younghusband brothers were making waves.
I remember seeing Panaad for the first time. It looks homely from the outside, because back then the grandstand was unpainted and industrial gray. But once you step inside, it's quite beautiful. There's one covered grandstand then a ring of small bleachers surrounding the field and track. Behind those bleachers are stands of eucalyptus trees (at least that's what I am told they are.) When night falls the trees are lit up and it looks lovely. Panaad is a unique venue in world football.
November 23, 2005 was sunny and dry. The crowd came late but eventually we pretty much got a full house. The Philippines had their chances but a terrific performance from Thailand's keeper foiled our attack. Jakkrit Bunkham's 36th minute goal for the visitors was the only score of the match. We would go on to finish third in our group, out of medal contention, after squandering a 2-1 lead and losing 4-2 versus Malaysia in our last group game.
I recall that day well because it was the first time I saw Graeme MacKinnon, who would one day become Global coach, in a red, blue and yellow chicken outfit in support of the team. It was also the first time for me to eyeball with Vince Arriola, then the webmaster of the old philfootball.info message boards. I felt traditional Negrense hospitality from OD Ascalon and Nikko Amazarray, who was kind enough to drive me out to a main road where I could get a taxi after the game.
Fast forward to almost exactly a year later. It's the ASEAN Football Federation qualifiers. I find myself back in Panaad, this time to watch the full senior team take on Cambodia. We had lost to Laos 2-1 and had demolished Timor Leste 7-0. We needed to beat Cambodia. Another full house was on hand.
But deep into the second half, we were still scoreless. Everyone was getting antsy. I was wondering why I went all the way there just to see our team fail to score.
Then I distinctly remember something amazing happen. A buzz enveloped the stadium. All of a sudden, the crowd started to cheer a little harder. Fans started to spontaneously stand up and make themselves heard. This is what a home crowd is supposed to do. Give the home squad a lift when it needs it most.
Somehow it worked. The Cambodian goalie, Ouk Mic, mugs Chieffy Caligdong near the six yard box. The referee points to the spot. Crowd goes wild. Aly Borromeo is called on to take the spot kick. Watch the result:
The Azkals won 1-0 that day. The Philippines would go on to beat Brunei 4-1 and finish second in the group, enough to make the AFF final stage the year after.
Last year's historic match versus Mongolia stands as one of the seminal moments of Football in the Philippines. About 20,000 shoehorned themselves into the stadium to see the Azkals win 2-0. Caligdong's absurd goal will live in our hearts forever.
I'm glad one of these June friendlies is in Bacolod. The fans there and in Iloilo have always lavished the team with the rock-star treatment long before the Miracle In Hanoi of December 2010. Whenever they have played there in the past, the stadia have been packed. I'm glad that the PFF has decided to give them a home game.
The senior team has played in Panaad five times. We started off with a 2-1 loss to Laos in November 2006. Since then we've beaten Timor Leste, Cambodia, Brunei and Mongolia. The Timor Leste match was a 7-0 rout with Phil Younghusband scoring four goals.
The Azkals will be expecting another big victory against Guam on Tuesday with the help of the home support at Panaad. We hope fpr more International matches at this terrific venue.
Coming soon will be Part 2 of my preview where we will tackle our opponents as well as the team that could be on the pitch against Guam.
Above is a picture I took of one of the games I watched in Bacolod. I believe it's the 2006 AFF qualifier versus Cambodia. You can see the youthful Younghusband brothers as well as Aly Borromeo, Anton Del Rosiario, Chris Greatwich, Ariel Zerrudo and Anto Gonzales. The keeper is Michael Louie Casas, now minding the nets with Ceres in the Bacolod league.
(To be continued)