Four of the best Azkals teams post-'Miracle in Hanoi'

From rocking the Rizal Memorial Stadium with his 2011 goal to becoming the Azkals' leader later in the decade, Stephan Schrock was instrumental in how the team evolved to become a rising force in Asian football. Jan Dayrit (file photo)
By Dugout Philippines

MANILA--The so-called "Miracle in Hanoi" served as the spark for Philippine football to rise again after a long period of dormancy.

The national team, which is now known as the Azkals, stunned the Southeast Asian football scene after drubbing Vietnam, 2-0, in the AFF Suzuki Cup group stages right in front of the host country's raucous crowd.

That set up the Azkals' first ever semifinal stint in the said regional tournament and eventually became the stepping stone for them to become the hottest national football team in the region.

Since then, the Azkals performed in continental events, especially in the AFC Asian Cup last year, the team's first ever stint there, proving that the once called "sleeping giants" in Asian football are back, and four national team lineups were remembered on Sunday night.

In the recent episode of the Eat, Sleep, Breathe Football podcast, four media personnel covering the football beat each shared an Azkals lineup that made a mark on them aside from the "Miracle in Hanoi" squad and sustained Philippine football's renaissance.

The 2014 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers squad (2011)

Just fresh from the "Miracle", the Azkals suddenly became the talk of the town in 2011.

"The hype was still there," said Ivan Saldajeno, Dugout Philippines' editor-in-chief who mainly covers Stallion Laguna's home matches in the PFL.

However, with the hype came the pressure of sorts to prove that they are indeed for real, and in came the qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Prior to that, the Philippines has never gotten past the first round or at least notched one win.

"Dati, every time we play in the first round, lagi tayong tinatambakan paalis," Saldajeno added.

All of that changed in their first round series against Sri Lanka.

Nate Burkey scored a 50th minute goal that canceled Chathura Gunaratne's 43rd minute opener in their first leg at the Sugathadasa Stadium in Colombo.

Burkey's shot was too pivotal despite the eventual draw because that meant the Azkals only needed to blank Sri Lanka in their return leg at the Rizal Memorial Stadium here to enter the second round even if it ended in a stalemate too due to away goals.

However, the Azkals made a statement instead.

In front of 12,500 people at RMS, a rare time that the venue was sold out for a football event, the Azkals zapped Sri Lanka, 4-0, for their first ever WCQ win.

Chieffy Caligdong's opening goal in the 20th minute was a thing of beauty in itself as the close range shot turned the crowd into a frenzy.

Phil Younghusband's brace and Angel Guirado's early second half attack turned the match into a blowout.

"It's a sign that officially, we're back in football," Saldajeno further said about the breakthrough win.

He added that the win against Sri Lanka affirmed that the Philippines, which was once an Asian football giant from the 1910's until the 1950's, has finally awakened from a long "hibernation" of sorts.

"The 'sleeping giants' have now awakened," Saldajeno quipped.

The Azkals' World Cup quest came to an end after losing to Kuwait, 1-5 on aggregate, in the second round but not without one last blow.

Another sold out crowd of 13,000 people at RMS went on a frenzy when Stephan Schrock scored for the Azkals in the second leg with a rocket outside the penalty box just before halftime to put them ahead before Kuwait took over in the second half.

"I miss it when the stadiums were filled like that. It gave me goosebumps. After that goal from Stephan Schrock, the crowd went wild," David Abella, the host of the Wazzup Football Show podcast, reminisced the jampacked RMS that year.

Jaimer Dela Cruz, the host of the Eat, Sleep, Breathe Football podcast, thought that the crowd looked like as if the Philippines is a football crazy country and not a basketball crazy one.

"That was the legit time that we felt that parang na tayong Malaysia," said Dela Cruz, a former Dugout Philippines writer who now leads football website Huddle PH.

The 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup squad

In 2012, the Azkals were out to prove that the "Miracle" is not a one-time big-time moment, and they had the golden opportunity.

The Azkals were once again grouped with Vietnam in the group stages of the AFF Suzuki Cup that year.

One huge problem, though, for the Azkals was that Neil Etheridge was not cleared to play internationally since the AFF Suzuki Cup is notoriously known for holding it outside of the FIFA international window, which means clubs are not required to release their players for national team duties.

In fact, only seven players from the "Miracle" team came back for the 2012 edition, although it was oozing with talent like Angel Guirado, Carli De Murga, Jeffrey Christaens, Roland Muller, Dennis Cagara, Denis Wolf, and Patrick Reichelt among others.

"Looking at that squad, [it was] stacked, dude," Dela Cruz said of the lineup. "Isipin niyo naman. That was a very strong lineup. This really had the potential."

Ed Sacapano, who played backup to Etheridge two years before, stepped up in a start, keeping Vietnam blanked all match long.

"That dude can fly," Dela Cruz said of Sacapano, who last played for Ceres Negros in the 2018 PFL season.

Chieffy Caligdong then scored a late winner in the 86th minute to eventually give the Azkals the win.

"Two years after the 'Miracle in Hanoi', we managed to win against them in two successive group stages of the Suzuki Cup," Dela Cruz continued.

Eventually, the Azkals found themselves facing Singapore in the semifinals, and after some stadium problems in 2010 costed them a home match, the Azkals fans finally got a chance to witness AFF Suzuki Cup football at home.

The Azkals and Singapore battled to a goalless draw at RMS in the first leg, but Dela Cruz thought the Azkals could have nosed out Singapore.

"We had a lot of chances there," he analyzed the Azkals' performance in Game 1.

In the return match at the Jelan Besar Stadium in Singapore, Khairul Amri scored what would be the series clincher for the home side.

Had the Azkals score in Singapore and at least force a draw, the Azkals would have been in the finals on away goals.

"We were that close, as in gabuhok na lang, to making it to the finals and possibly take the trophy," Dela Cruz continued, citing that Singapore actually beat Thailand in the finals, anchoring on the 3-1 first leg victory.

In spite of it, Dela Cruz is hats off to the 2012 Suzuki Cup team.

"This squad really, I should say, is the bomb after the 2010 [team]," he further said.

The 2014 squads

In 2014, the Azkals were already peaking, and at that point they were the top team in Southeast Asia.

The year before that, the Azkals posted the most lopsided win by a Philippine national football team in 96 years, taking down Cambodia in a friendly, 8-0.

Despite only having five holdovers from the 2010 team, the Azkals remained formidable thanks to their young bloods like Daisuke Sato, Kenshiro Daniels, Amani Aguinaldo, Matthew Uy, Javi Patino, and OJ Porteria.

After missing out on the 2012 Suzuki Cup team, Etheridge returned to the Azkals for the AFC Challenge Cup.

On the other hand, Schrock had gotten wiser and better following his stint with Frankfurt in the Bundesliga.

"Stephan Schrock started playing with force. That really changed for us," Abella thought of the 2014 Schrock.

The Azkals went on an early tear in the Challenge Cup, going unbeaten in Group B thanks to two straight victories following a goalless draw against Afghanistan.

The Azkals, however, engaged in a tough showdown against host nation Maldives in the semifinals in front of 8,300 people at the Rasmee Dhandu Stadium in Male.

Both teams had to play extra time to settle the score, but Chris Greatwich won it for the Azkals with the go-ahead goal in the 104th minute.

With the AFC Challenge Cup serving as a "backdoor" to the Asian Cup, the Azkals only needed to beat Palestine in the final to make it to the Asian Cup the following year.

However, Ashraf Nu'man Al-Fawaghra shut the door on the Azkals with a 59th minute goal for Palestine, the only made shot in the match.

"Sobrang sayang yun," Dela Cruz rued as he recalled the Azkals' defeat to Palestine in the final.

Despite missing out on the Asian Cup, the Azkals still had two huge breakthroughs in 2014.

They did not just beat Indonesia for the first time in 80 years but even drubbed their 2010 semifinal tormentors, 4-0, in the AFF Suzuki Cup group stages.

The Azkals also held Thailand goalless in the first leg of their semifinal tie at RMS, although Thailand would still go on to win following a 3-0 victory in Game 2 at the Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok.

For Abella, seeing the 2014 team was the proof that the Azkals have really become better from four years prior.

"The 2014 team was like revolutionary for me," he added. "Without that 2014 team, in my opinion, we wouldn't have had those success and consistencies we had in certain tournaments and the certain developments we have with the Azkals."

The 2019 AFC Asian Cup squad

All roads lead to this.

A full decade of hard work for the Philippines to regain its lost football glory came into fruition last year when the country finally made it to the AFC Asian Cup.

"Ito na yung introduction sa ating mga football fans na kakayanin natin," Dugout Philippines writer Gil Moriones said.

Although the Azkals quickly bid adieu after losing all of their matches in the group stages, holding South Korea to just one goal is already remarkable enough for him.

"Expected nila na we will lose by a huge gap especially [against] South Korea, but we proved them wrong. [The] 1-0 [scoreline] is enough to prove that," Moriones added.

He then praised Michael Falkesgaard for his efforts against South Korea as the starting keeper.

"Noong una, nag-doubt ako kay Falkesgaard. Noong nabalitaan ko na hindi na-call-up si Etheridge, sabi ko, 'GG (Good game, an esports term used by players conceding the defeat) na ito.' But when I watched the game, he proved me wrong. Sabi ko, 'Sulit talaga si Falkesgaard,'" Moriones said of Falkesgaard.

Abella, however, believes that the Azkals can actually force a draw at least against South Korea.

"If Javier Patino scored that volley against South Korea, I could have slept well," Abella said of Patino's golden chance that he failed to convert.

Analyzing the play, Moriones thought a pass to an open Reichelt would have been a wiser choice for Patino.

"Kung pinasa nya yun, siguro wala na. Wala na yung goalkeeper ng South Korea noon (Kim Seung-Gyu)," Moriones added.

Despite the early exit, the other panelists in the Eat, Sleep, Breathe Football podcast agreed that the Azkals' 2019 AFC Asian Cup is the "introductory point" to what they can do this decade and in the future.

"We still have a lot in our tank," Dela Cruz said.

Saldajeno then exclaimed, "We'll be back!"

The full episode of the Eat, Sleep, Breathe Football podcast can be found in Ang Tito Mong Football Vlogger's Facebook page.

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