AS the final whistle sounded to the Azkals historic 3-2 victory over Maldives in the Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup semifinals early Wednesday at the opponent’s turf in Male, a group of diehard fans screamed and leapt in celebration in the wee hours of the morning back home.
They may be thousands of miles away, but that didn’t stop the Kaholeros from cheering for the Azkals and witness them move on the brink of Asian football glory.
With most in the metropolis fast asleep, the Kaholeros, regarded as the booster squad of the Azkals, made up of different people united by their common passion for football and loyalty to the national team, were wide awake at Bugsy’s in Taguig to show support.
While the Azkals endured a grueling physical battle against a relentless foe fueled by the home crowd in an epic match that had to go through extra time, local fans have been going through their own ordeal: the “mental exhaustion” of not just staying up late, but the long wait for the all-important tournament.
“You’ve anticipated this for more than a year and then na-stress ka for the whole week just thinking about it. Ganun yung extremes ng emotions eh,” Kaholero Jaron Genota said. “Buong araw mo pa iniisip.”
“Mentally draining talaga.”
But staying up late and screaming their hearts out are the least they can do. The Kaholeros, who follow the Azkals in their games abroad, decided to stay home for this competition owing to the travel expenses needed to go to Maldives.
“There’s no way we can afford sa Maldives,” Genota admitted. “Most, if not all, of our traveling fans did not go because masyadong expensive. Plus there are other travel opportunities this year like the Suzuki Cup.”
Wherever they are, the Kaholeros will cheer for the Azkals.
“It’s very different from watching the Champions League or even the World Cup, because this one, you’re rooting for your country,” Genota said. “You can really feel na you come from the same place, you come from the same culture. By blood you’re affiliated to this team.”
The Azkals fans were so devoted that some of them arrived as early as 8:30 p.m ahead of the 12 midnight kickoff.
Here's a video of the celebration after the Greatwich goal:
Their cheers and screams grew louder as the match wore on, starting with Phil Younghusband’s opening goal, then Jerry Lucena’s maiden international strike, Roland Muller’s penalty save, before finally Chris Greatwich’s winner in extra time.
Aldrin, a Bugsy’s server, has heard some of the loudest cheers in his two years working at the sports bar. And he ranks the Azkals fans as among the loudest.
“Maingay talaga,” smiled the server, who ranks the Kaholeros as the third loudest behind the fans who watched Pacquiao-Bradley 2 and Game Six of the 2013 NBA Finals at Bugys’s.
The screams were so loud that they seemed to be heard all the way from Maldives.
“To all the fans who stayed ‘til early morning to support us, yes, we heard your cheers,” Azkals manager Dan Palami tweeted.
So all the sleepless nights and the screams that left them without voices have been worth it for the fans after seeing the Azkals make history in winning a semifinal match for the first time.
“This is our biggest achievement so far,” Genota beamed. “But it’s not yet over. May isa pang puyatan.”
And expect them to cheer and scream their hearts out once again with their eyes wide open as the Azkals seek to notch greater heights against Palestine on Friday when they hope to realize their dream of reaching the AFC Asian Cup.