BAROTAC NUEVO, Iloilo, Philippines – The exhibition game of the Azkals Tuesday was a clear indication that football reigns in this Iloilo town.
“Bisan wala kami inugsulod sa kaldero, basta maka lantaw lang kami football, ok na (Even if we don’t have anything to cook and eat, as long as we can watch football),” declared the stage announcer said halfway through the friendly game of the famed national football team against Central Philippine University (CPU).
The crowd, mainly natives of Barotac Nuevo, particularly cheered the Ilonggo players with the Philippine Azkals.
They were proud to point out that star striker Ian Araneta, co-captain Emilio “Chieffy” Caligdong, Mark Ferrer, Roel Gener, Nestorio Margase, Joebel Bermejo, Yanti Barsales, and Ricardo Becite III are all natives of Barotac Nuevo, which is considered as the football capital of the country.
The open field in front of the San Antonio De Padua Church was witness to a jam-packed crowd of some 7,000 fans that came to support the practice game of the Azkals who are preparing for the country’s first World Cup qualifying match since 1993.
Not even the 19th minute goal of Jovanni Sempron of CPU team dampened their spirits.
They kept cheering for the Azkals and were rewarded when Becite scored an equalizer in the second half. The game ended in a 1-1 draw.
Caligdong has earlier said that as Ilonggo players, they are always putting their best foot forward as they are aware that they are representing the essence of what it means to be products of the country’s football capital.
Caligdong and the rest of the Ilonggo Azkals played on the very same field which they grew up playing in as young boys prior to having the opportunity to represent the national team in several international games, most notably at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Cup.
They now hope to bring more pride to their hometown as the Azklas faces Sri Lanka on a two-leg qualifying match for the World Cup on June 29 and July 3.
The Tuesday exhibition match was made possible by Philippine Football Federation (PFF) president Mariano “Nonong” Araneta Jr. and Iloilo 4th District Rep. Ferjenel G. Biron, both natives of Barotac Nuevo.