More Than Pretty Faces

The Azkals, the Philippine national soccer team.

I am really not a big sports fan. But, lately, I must admit, I’ve become a big soccer fan… all because of one particular team…the Azkals.

Many Filipino Americans who live in the United States have probably never heard of the Azkals. But, in the Philippines, this soccer (football) team, formally known as the Philippine National Football Team, has progressively skyrocketed to fame, making the sport one of the most-followed sports in the Philippines, after boxing and basketball.

The team, now rebranded as the Azkals, is not new. They have been around as far back as 1913, when they were proclaimed champions at the First Far Eastern Games.

Looking at their team picture, I can easily see why they have become very popular. This newer batch of athletes seems to have gotten the greater attention from the public because they look like handsome leading men in Latin Telenovelas!

I’m not certain whether their “star looks” image was intended, but, if so, the team managers definitely created a positive after-effect. They made an effort to recruit foreign-born Filipino athletes that could revive the team after the Philippines fell to a 195th ranking in September 2006 — the country’s lowest rank ever in the history of Fédération Internationale de Football Association (International Federation of Association Football), or FIFA.

The promising group, though, has certainly delivered more than just looks.  Earlier this month, the Azkals advanced two spots to 150th worldwide.

The author with Jeffrey Christiaens (#28) and Jason De Jong (#21)

The author with Jeffrey Christiaens (#28) and Jason De Jong (#21)

Over the weekend, more than a thousand Filipino Americans, including myself, came to witness the friendly match against a local team. We cheered wildly each time the Azkals took possession of the ball. We let out big sighs in unison whenever they failed an attempt to score.

The Chicago Inferno was tough but everyone was supportive and the players tried with all their might. I heard messages of encouragement shouted out in different Filipino dialects.

In the end, the Infernos won 3-1 with a lone goal by the Azkals, 12 minutes before the end, soliciting the loudest cheers and screams from the crowd.

I admit that seeing these good-looking football stars in live action may have been enough to make me want to pay $25 for a game whether, or not, they won. Luckily, I had also been invited to sing the US National Anthem for the game.

However, from the start, standing from the announcer’s booth, I saw so many things that no amount of money could buy. I saw more than a thousand Filipino Americans placing their hands over their hearts as they sang the Philippine National Anthem, Lupang Hinirang with high spirits regardless of whether they knew the lines or not. Throughout the game, I saw many wave the Philippine flags they had brought. They were gleaming with pride. Most sported a shirt or jersey that highlighted something about the Philippines.

I witnessed one of the precious occasions where I saw our people truly express that we are Filipino. We are proud. We are one.

Perhaps, this is the reason why I have become a fan. The Azkals have inspired me and thousands, maybe millions, of Filipinos, across the globe, to be more proud that we are Filipino. With their commitment and hard work — not their looks — they have set a great example that Filipinos, whether born in the country, or not, can work together to make the country great.

In my eyes, that, more than anything, makes them true winners! ♥

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