BACOLOD - As the Philippines and Singapore prepare to face off Tuesday night in their latest AFF Suzuki Cup clash, it is interesting to note that an Azkals-Lions match in this very same tournament eight years ago became the spark that helped change local football history.
It is a universally-accepted fact that the rise of the Azkals this decade began with what is now known as the Miracle in Hanoi. On December 5, 2010, the Azkals sent shock waves throughout the Southeast Asian football community by stunning host and heavily-favored Vietnam, 2-0, in front of 40,000 fans at My Dihn National Stadium.
That win not only propelled the Azkals into the semifinals of the AFF Suzuki Cup for the first time in tournament history, it also catapulted them to fame back home and helped boost the sport into public consciousness.
But that result, shocking as it was, would not have meant as much if the Azkals had not salvaged a point against favored Singapore in their previous match. A loss against the Lions would have left the Azkals short of qualifying for the next round, and with mere minutes left in that match, it certainly looked like that would be the result.
Singapore had entered the tournament as one of the top two picks in Group B; they were favored along with the hosts to move on to the semifinals. The Philippines and Myanmar were the other teams in the group, and the Azkals had to go through a qualifying tournament first before earning their spot in the tournament proper. In short, they weren't given much of a chance to put too many points on the board, let alone advance.
The Lions were in control for majority of the match, and it took some clever goal-keeping from Neil Etheridge to keep the sheet clean. But in the 65th minute, naturalized forward Aleksander Duric finally pushed the Lions ahead with a well-placed header. Order, it appeared, had finally been restored. Duric nearly doubled the score several minutes later with a point-blank shot that Etheridge somehow managed to block out.
With the game well into injury time, the Lions looked like they would hang on. But the Azkals had one last attack left in them. A cross from James Younghusband from the left flank wasn't cleared by the Singapore backline, allowing Chris Greatwich to equalize in the third minute of added time. The Azkals celebrated like they had just won it all. Little did they know that this was just the beginning of their meteoric rise. At the time, the draw, while unexpected, was just a little speed bump and meant little by way of disrupting the predicted group outcomes. No one gave the Azkals much of a chance to beat Vietnam, while the Lions would presumably beat Myanmar, which they did, to stay on course for a top two group finish.
But when the Azkals pulled off the Miracle in Hanoi, Singapore was suddenly faced with the daunting task of at least drawing with the hosts to stay alive. Vietnam won, 1-0, while the Azkals drew with Myanmar to finish second in the group and send the Lions to a shocking exit.
The Lions would get their revenge two years later in the two-leg semifinals, beating the Azkals on aggregate 1-0, on their way to winning it all. But by then the Philippines was no longer considered a doormat in regional competition, and it all began with that last-minute goal by Greatwich that set a series of events into motion and altered the course of local football history.