March 02, 2024

Don't stop believing: Filipinas have come so far but they still have further to go

PFF/Mia Montayre

Harmonic chants of “FI-LI-PI-NAS!” rang throughout Eden Park in New Zealand on a cold Sunday evening as the Philippines battled in the FIFA Women’s World Cup. 

The score was 5-0. In favor of Norway. 

It was a lopsided match right from the start, with the world no. 12 putting on an absolute masterclass. Search “How to play proper football” on YouTube and Norway’s highlights would probably pop up. 

The Filipinas, fueled by the residue of their historic win against New Zealand last Tuesday, were simply outclassed. Their dream of extending their tournament to the knockout stage was dashed—no, obliterated—by the Grasshoppers, who looked more like a herd of gazelles with their long strides, intimidating speed, and graceful attacks. When the final whistle blew, Norway had added another goal as a punctuation mark for a 6-nil victory

But—there’s always a but, right?—there’s no reason for the Filipinas to bow their heads. While they can understandably wallow in defeat and marinate in dejection, the fact remains that they played their hearts out in their maiden appearance in the beautiful game’s grandest conclave. There's deep honor in that.

Not a few felt they could even score, let alone get a win. But they did both. No one—not even the football gods—could take those away from them. Ever. And perhaps, the biggest achievement of the Filipinas is this: They made an entire nation believe. 

How else can one explain the hordes of Filipinos overtaking the entire stadium? It felt like each one of the 80,000 Filipinos living in New Zealand were in attendance. Shrieking. Applauding. Hoping. Even with just a few seconds left in added time. Even when stealing the win—or even getting a draw—was as possible as the Lord of the Rings happening in real life. 

How else can one explain the thousands of Filipinos trooping to dozens of watch parties around the Philippines? The Filipinas kits that got sold out faster than one could say “How much?” The outpour of support from different sectors? The Sara Eggesvik fanboys and fangirls? As coach Alen Stajcic said prior to the match against Norway: “Welcome to football. It doesn’t matter how long it took you to get here.”

For a nation still reeling from a divisive political whirlwind, the Filipinas became the fulcrum for a collective stand. They showed, even for just three matches, that Filipinos can rally behind a singular cause. It was unity, a word Stajcic has repeatedly espoused, in every sense of the word. Not just an empty platitude. 

Indeed, it was a tough loss against Norway. For most of the contest, it felt like the Filipinas, ranked 46th in the world, were haplessly punching above their weight. But maybe—and this might be a stretch—it was also a necessary defeat. It showed that the team still has a long way to go to be on par with the powerhouse units. It was a reality check. 

“Such world-class girls coming at us. They’re just amazing athletes. You got to give it to them [Norway]. They put some balls in the back of the net. But that’s okay. We learn from it, we learn playing against such titans of the sport, how powerful they are. We could always grow and keep moving forward,” said Olivia McDaniel. 

Everything that could go wrong went wrong for the Philippines: Conceding two early goals, Alicia Barker’s own goal, an opposing penalty kick, a yellow card for Katrina Guillou, a red card for Sofia Harrison, and Sophie Roman Haug’s hat trick. It was as if fate closed its eyes, blindly chose who to pick on, and its finger landed on the Philippines. Then the Norwegians, who almost fell apart at the seams with internal strife and back-to-back losses, vented their fury on the Filipinas.   

Still, the Filipinos in the crowd kept cheering, painstakingly—foolishly?—waiting for a consolation goal. It didn’t come. That’s football. That’s life. 

As the Norwegians, who hadn’t scored a goal prior to the match, celebrated on the pitch, McDaniel and Hali Long were templates of frustration. Arms on their hips. Eyes in a daze. Emotions at a low. But slowly, the Filipinas accepted the setback and hugged each other, finding solace in each embrace. With the way the Filipinos in the venue applauded and the millions back home supported, really, there was nothing to be embarrassed about. 

“It’s a tough game for us but we should be proud of what we’ve done in the World Cup. Even though right now, it feels tough. But we’ll look back on it. We did well, we did our best, we couldn’t do more than that,” said Eggesvik. 

Although to advocate for the devil, the country has seen this before. After the Philippine Azkals made the “Miracle of Hanoi” in 2010, the adulation was everywhere. Everybody loves a winner, it’s been said. There was tremendous interest in the team. But when the afterglow of the historic win died down and the losses started to pile up, the once-nascent support evaporated. 

That’s where the challenge lies for the Filipinas. To sustain the belief of Filipinos even after defeats. To show that they’re not just a flavor of the month or a flash in the pan. And if there’s another good thing about their experience in the FIFA Women’s World Cup, it was only the first. That means there will be a second, a third, or a 10th. The current squad already laid the groundwork. Now, it’s time to improve on it. 

After every heartbreak, the knee-jerk reaction is to look for something to hold on to. An excuse. A silver lining. A beautiful memory. Anything. It may not always be accurate, but it’s helpful. It’s a way to ease the pain and realize that it’s not for the lack of trying. 

The Filipinas certainly tried. And they will continue to do so. 

Fandom in sports is eternally a risky proposition. The emotional investment is heavy. And the payoff isn’t always great. But when it is—like the Filipinas’ breakthrough win against New Zealand—the high is close to incomparable. Years down the line, when people look back on the Filipinas’ stint in the FIFA Women's World Cup, not many will remember the score against Norway. Or how Sarina Bolden found the back of the net against New Zealand. Or Guillou’s goal versus Switzerland that didn’t count. What will be remembered was how the Filipinas made them happy or nervous or frustrated or sad or thrilled. How the Filipinas made them watch a football match with total strangers. How the Filipinas made them impulsively spend money on team kits. How the Filipinas made them hop on the bandwagon. Most of all, how the Filipinas made them keep the faith. Because the Filipinas aren't done believing.

“I hope that moving forward, we’re able to keep this sustainable and to keep this team growing and learning, and be proud of the growth that we had in such a short amount of time. Not many teams have done what we’ve done,” said Bolden. “I’m excited where we’ll continue to go.”