We have seen this scenario in so many movies before. A team of underdogs fighting the biggest, more famous and heavy favorites of the tournament.
A largely unknown team, flying below the radar, given not much thought because of its lower ranking in the pecking order.
Until the team made a shocking start in the tournament, got beaten by another team to give doubters the “right” gloat that the initial victory was fluke, before eventually scoring another win to enter the knockout phase.
The team got the lead against the many-time champ only to lose it a few minutes away from victory. And if the script is not yet compelling enough, the game, the most important one yet for the upstart firebrands’ history, went to a penalty shootout.
The underdogs went down 3-2 in the shootout and were given up for good.
But then the player known for her defense shone brightest in her rare chance to score.
And in the next two sequences, the team which almost nobody thought of, won the game on one single shot not only for a historic spot in the World Cup, but also for a nation long suffering from the pandemic.
Even the best scriptwriters out there could only dream of this plot, twist and roller-coaster ride of emotions.
The best twist of them, though, was that it wasn’t a movie, and it happened last Thursday in Pune, India.
The Philippine Women’s National Football Team (PWNFT) beat Chinese Taipei, 2-1 (4-3 in penalty shootout) to clinch a spot in the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
The Malditas also clinched a spot in the last four of the AFC Women’s Asian Cup 2022, which was considered unlikely, maybe four years ago. Heck, even just four weeks ago, who would have thought that this would happen?
Olivia McDaniel, the goalie who made two defensive stops, scored the tying goal before forward Sarina Bolden rammed probably the most important goal of her career, and the Malditas are going to Australia. Still the underdogs, but a team that can no longer be taken for granted.
“There are many people who contributed to this team along the way in the past 10 years and they all know who they are. The players know who they are, whether it is their family, friends, or previous coaches. That’s the testament to the hard work that has been done by everyone,” Alen Stajcic, Head Coach of the PWNFT, said.
Bolden, who was so emotional after realizing what the team accomplished, put things in perspective. “Things happen in life and seeing us can inspire others to give it another shot. Hope we inspire all ages of women to play football and chase their dreams. I want us to make a long-lasting impression in everyone’s minds, especially to all the young players out there,” she said.
For Philippine Football Federation president Nonong Araneta, what the Malditas have accomplished is the culmination of a dream that they always had that came early and unexpected.
He said the Malditas’ sacrifices and investments paid off very well as the Philippines qualified for the first time in the World Cup.
He, however, gave equal credit to the efforts of Stajcic and the coaching staff. Stajcic, undoubtedly, made the biggest impact on the team’s play, especially on the Filipinas’ defense.
“‘Yung coaching style niya kasi nagustuhan ng mga players natin at saka scientific ang approach niya kasi. Nakita naman natin different ang laro ng mga babae natin ngayon kesa dati. Mas disciplined sila sa laro, the cohesion is there despite having only more than month training together under Alen. Malaking bagay talaga and aside from the fact that he is a veteran coach. He knows kung ano kailangan diyan sa ganiyang klaseng level ng laro, lalo sa Asian Cup at sa World Cup,” Araneta said.
Stajcic’s contract is only until the end of the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, but as early as now, Araneta assures that their primary target is to sign him on until the World Cup next year.
“Ayaw lang niya muna pag-usapan ngayon dahil may game pa vs. Korea, but we already started talking to him to extend his contract baka after ng Asian Cup,” Araneta added. “Receptive naman siya. Sabi nga niya this is his biggest coaching achievement. From nowhere kasi he brought the team to the World Cup! Wala nga siya sinabi before, eh ngayon biglang wow nasa World Cup na tayo.”
Araneta said the Malditas’ deep run in the Asian Cup gave them so many lessons that will be the template for future competitions, whether it be for the Malditas or the Philippine Azkals, the country’s national men’s football team.
“We really have to invest in the coaching staff, hindi ba? We have to invest in the team, on the players, on the training camps. The ladies trained within a bubble because of the challenges of COVID-19 in the United States. Despite this, the players were willing to go further (despite quarantine protocols and other health concerns) because of their dream to play in the World Cup. The coaching staff also played a great role in motivating the players to raise their level of play,” Araneta added.
Araneta is hoping the feat of the Malditas will translate into a renaissance of sorts for football in the country so that more fans and supporters will go out of the way to support the sport. He is also optimistic that more sponsors will come out and back football now that the country showed everyone what it is capable of, given the proper support, right coaching staff and, of course, players who are really proud to wear the country’s colors.
“Hopefully, we’ve helped and added value and that we’ve worked really hard enough as a group, but this does not happen overnight so full credit to the whole country, to the PFF, and everyone who has put in these players together,” Stajcic added.
Incidentally, the Malditas’ amazing run in the 2022 Asian Cup ended with a loss to heavy favorite, South Korea, 2-0, in their semifinal match-up in Pune.
The Koreans scored their first goal just four minutes into the game, when So-Hyun Cho found the back of the net before Hwa-Yeon Son doubled the lead after 30 minutes.
Stajcic was realistic though even before the start of the game.
“Korea will be the favorites having been in the top 20 rankings, while we are emerging nation. If you’re neutral, you will expect them to be the favourites but that doesn’t mean they will win. It is a privilege for us to play against them. We have a lot go belief in the team, a nothing-to-lose attitude, and all I can promise is that we will give them one hell of a fight,” he said.
Still a job well done.
The Malditas’ campaign in the Asian Cup may have ended, but there is nothing to be ashamed of. Losing to a South Korean squad that has players in the English Premier league may be hard, but then again victory has been achieved several nights ago.
And in that scintillating display of faith, resilience and the indomitable Filipino fighting spirit, the Malditas have united the nation as one. It has also given us something to look forward to until August next year when the Lupang Hinirang will be played in the World Cup for the first time.
Chin up, Malditas!
For the meantime, will volunteer to write the screenplay for tickets to Australia and New Zealand.
Stay safe. Stay happy peeps!