May 23, 2024

Of course, it's her: Sarina Bolden stays golden in latest heroic act for Filipinas

Of course, it
Art by Royce Nicdao

This time, the goal counted.

And of course, it had to be Sarina Bolden.

But even before the dazzling striker of the Philippines scored the biggest goal of her prolific career, it seemed there were already signs—foreshadowing, if you will. Maybe not exactly fate, because it's such an abstract construct, but maybe it's willing fate to happen.  

The camera focused on Bolden before the Filipinas walked out onto the pitch at a packed Wellington Regional Stadium in New Zealand on Tuesday in the FIFA Women's World Cup. She emphatically clapped her hands. She looked fired up. Fierce. Ready to rumble against the host nation.

The male commentator said New Zealand, ranked 26th in the world, will look to impress the home crowd and get a second straight victory after shocking Norway. He, however, also quickly added: "But the Philippines has a story too."

After the "Lupang Hinirang," which reduced co-captain Hali Long to tears, she and Bolden led the huddle, both of them passionately rallying their teammates. It was difficult to read their lips, but it's safe to assume only words of encouragement were uttered. They played a valiant game in their 2-0 defeat to Switzerland, ranked 20th in the world, in their maiden appearance. Now, it's time to level up.

The temperature was 11 degrees in New Zealand, but it could've easily been 100 with the heated match early on. It quickly got physical, with the Kiwis scrambling hard on defense. This prevented Bolden and fellow forward Katrina Guillou, whose goal against Switzerland was ruled off due to offside, from getting touches. 

But then, pandemonium happened. The good kind. The historic kind. The where-were-you-when-it-happened kind. Off a set piece from Angela Beard, the ball found its way to Sara Eggesvik. The shrieking crowd grew louder by the millisecond. Eggesvik then flicked a high ball cross toward Bolden. 

The 27-year-old California-born booter has had her moments for the Filipinas. She's not new to pressure-packed tiffs. In fact, it seems she relishes them. Like any competitor does. They're here now—in the FIFA Women's World Cup—because of her sizzling penalty kick in the nail-biting shootout against Chinese Taipei in last year's AFC Women's Asian Cup. She's fired other game-winning goals, including most recently, a last-gasp header against Malaysia in the Southeast Asian Games last May. Prior to the FIFA Women's World Cup, she tallied 21 goals—second-most among the Filipinas behind the 22 of Quinley Quezada. 

No wonder the Ultras Filipinas, the national team's cheering squad, has a chant for Bolden to the tune of "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" by Frankie Valli.

But she was there during the lacerating losses too, experiencing the mediocre years of the national team since getting recruited in 2018. In their previous game against Switzerland, she was hardly a factor, as she was well-covered and well-scouted by the defense. 

If the Filipinas wanted to claim that first-ever triumph, Bolden had to be golden.

On the 24th minute, that's exactly what she did. After honing in on the ball off Eggesvik's exquisite pass, Bolden fired a header which blasted through the hands of New Zealand goalkeeper Victoria Esson. But really, it blasted through an entire archipelago's history, one fraught with what-ifs, almosts, and quite frankly, futility. Bolden and the rest of the hard-fighting Filipinas put an end to that. 

She spread both of her arms and ran toward the bench, screaming her lungs out and repeatedly pumping her right fist. The stadium, which had 32,357 fans watching, was divided: One half was dazed, while the other half was delighted. Bolden did the shaka sign, which essentially means "hang loose" or "right on." But at that moment, it could mean anything she wanted it to be. 

"It happened so fast. I think the cross came in and I just needed to find a way to get that ball into the net with whatever part of my body that's legal," said Bolden, who also scored the Filipinas' lone goal in their friendly against New Zealand last September, after the match.

1-0. The Philippines. 

The Filipinas held on to the lead at halftime. As they headed to the locker room, Bolden's face was devoid of anything. She wiped her mouth with her right hand and proceeded to walk. She was done celebrating. The job ain't done.

As they huddled before the second half, Bolden, who's well-spoken and passionate, once again took charge—imploring her teammates to close out the match and have their dance with destiny. 

There were tense moments in the final minutes. First, they came sporadically. Then they became a Daniel Kwan movie: Everything everywhere all at once. The Kiwis kept charging from all fronts, getting clear possessions with their crisp passing. 

But remember those early signs mentioned a while ago? Well, they continued to point to the Philippines. First, New Zealand's Jacqui Hand, who had a clear shot at goal, hit the left post. Just mere millimeters from getting into the net. The Invisible Hand perhaps? Then a few moments later, on the 68th minute, Hand found the back of the net. But it was waived off after Hannah Wilkinson was ruled offside. Again, just mere millimeters from being an official goal and tying the match.

Chalking up the watershed win to divine intervention might be subverting the hard work done by the entire Filipinas (Olivia McDaniel for sainthood!), but as it's been said: In sports, it helps to be lucky. 

"Of course, we rode our luck. New Zealand had three or four incredible chances out of the post. It feels a true reflection of a football match, they deserve something in the game. But the unity, hard work, and heart of our team were special. We had some luck but we also learned our luck," said Filipinas coach Alen Stajcic. 

Bolden, huffing and puffing, was subbed out of the match on the 82nd minute. Carleigh Frilles, the one who replaced her, later found the back of the net as well, although it was also called offside. Still, the coincidence, right?

As the clock was winding down to the final seconds, the camera once again zoomed in on Bolden, who looked pensive on the bench. She didn't want to celebrate once again yet. She wanted to make sure. Perhaps there was still a bout of disbelief. Did we really do this? Did I really score the goal? What did just happen?

Well, she happened. The Filipinas happened. History happened.

Her goal will be forever seared in the minds of those who witnessed it. It's now part of sports yore. No one can take that away. There's also the shared experience of watching it unfoldthe tension, the suspension, and the jubilationlike a sense of collective ownership reserved for truly special moments. And that's also what makes the beautiful game exactly that: Beautiful.

"After that (goal), I just hoped that VAR (video assistant referee) is on our side because VAR has just been up and down this whole tournament. After I finally realized, 'Oh that's a goal.' I went to celebrate with everyone and sprinted to the sideline and feel everyone's support and love. It's amazing," said Bolden, whose voice got coarse.  

When the final whistle was blown after five minutes of added time, which felt like five hours, McDaniel kicked the ball to the sky, as high as the unreachable faith of the Filipinas. Finally, Bolden could celebrate. They won. She raced back to the pitch, with childlike boisterousness, to join her teammates whoop it up and soak in every single drop of the moment that will never be repeated.

"The night belongs to the Philippines!" beamed the male commentator.

This time, it's their time.