I still don’t completely know what an offside is. What I surely know now is this: My toes curl when I get nervous.
Tense moments came slowly, and then, all at once—cold beads of sweat, heart palpitations, balled fists—as the Philippines battled Chinese-Taipei in a pulsating penalty shootout in the quarterfinals of the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup in Pune, India on Monday night.
The air suddenly got damp and time slowed down. The empty stands at the Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex only made things feel more ominous. I could feel the nervousness of both squads. The anxiety crescendoed by the millisecond as I was watching the game on my laptop.
The score was tied at 2-2. But after a Chinese-Taipei goal and a Philippines miss, the booters in blue held a precarious lead. With all the heartbreaks I've witnessed, doubt started to creep over me. I began to lose hope—my soul fidgeting non-stop.
But how stupid of me. I should’ve known. With the way Filipinas have been breaking barriers recently, there’s no need to be fatalistic.
The Philippines, led by goalkeeper Olivia McDaniel, who looked like a member of The Powerpuff Girls in her all-pink ensemble, fought back to even things up at 3-3. All of my internal organs were quivering at this point, perhaps protesting why I subject them to this kind of stress. Then striker Sarina Bolden—in the most pressure-packed moment of her career—put the icing on the cake. With her curly hair and black bandana making her look like a fearless warrior, she fired the game-winning goal.
History was written. And once again, Filipinas were holding the plume.
For the first time, the Philippines earned a slot in the 2023 FIFA World Cup. It's hard to overstate how prestigious it is. It remains the most-watched sports tournament in the world, with an average of 3.3 billion people. That's more than the Super Bowl, NBA Finals, World Series, Stanley Cup, and Wimbledon—combined.
In a still-patriarchal Philippines, there’s a sense of sweet justice that women are the ones setting the bar over the last few years.
Finally, the Philippines will be part of it (saying it out loud makes it better: THE PHILIPPINES IS IN THE 2023 FIFA WORLD CUP!), and the women's national football team held our collective hands and showed us the way. This is how you do it, people.
In a still-patriarchal Philippines—with macho culture still being flexed ridiculously like a guy puffing his chest in front of a mirror in a gym—there’s a sense of sweet justice that women are the ones setting the bar over the last few years.
Last June, Yuka Saso became the first Filipino to win a major golf tournament after topping the US Open. A few months later, Hidilyn Diaz ended the country’s seemingly eternal drought after capturing the gold medal in weightlifting in the Tokyo Olympics. To boot, Nesthy Petecio made sure the Philippines finally has a female boxing medalist in the Summer Games.
Then last December, from the grandest stage in sports to the biggest award in the world, veteran journalist Maria Ressa was given the Nobel Peace Prize for defending press freedom in the face of powerhouse antagonists.
All firsts. All huge. All women.
Now, the country’s female booters have joined the table. To paraphrase a popular quote from Mean Girls (a movie for women empowerment, BTW): Yes, they can sit with them!
But on Sunday night, the Philippine Malditas, as the team is still fondly called, were THISCLOSE from being reduced to tears. After forward Quinley Quezada scored at the 49th minute to give the Philippines a 1-0 lead, Chinese-Taipei star Zhou Li-Ping found the net at the 84th minute with a devastatingly beautiful laser for the equalizer.
With only six minutes left from a possible historic win, the Philippines gave up a goal. Why? How? I went through the five stages of grief in a matter of seconds. My wife and our four-year-old daughter were already asleep, so I had to stay quiet. I was calm outside but was an Iron Maiden song inside. Raging and livid. Or was it a Bon Iver song? Sad and longing.
What makes their historic win even more significant is getting the much-deserved and long-overdue recognition. They’re here. They’re great. They’re worth rooting for.
Apparently, history was only delayed. Because as we all know, no good thing comes easy. After all, the team had to endure terrible years. Before the milestone win, the Philippines’ best finish in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup was sixth place in 2018. Despite several breakthrough victories in the last five years, the squad has always been overshadowed by the Philippine Azkals.
I’m guilty of it. I can’t say I’ve been following the women's national team religiously. I can’t name all of the players. But perhaps, apart from punching a ticket to the 2023 FIFA World Cup, what makes their historic win even more significant is getting the much-deserved and long-overdue recognition. They’re here. They’re great. They’re worth rooting for.
Hopefully, much like the Azkals’ Miracle of Hanoi in 2010, the Malditas’ monumental triumph will lead to national admiration—bandwagoners are very much welcome. Young girls can aspire to be Hali Long or Sara Castañeda or Tahnai Annis. I tried to make our little daughter watch the game with me in the first half, but after maybe two minutes, she retreated to her bed. It’s OK, baby steps. After all, for all of coach Alen Stajcic’s brilliance, he can’t compete with My Little Pony.
By the end of the two-hour match, I was a Tupac Shakur song. I was continually cussing—silently and happily—while pumping my fists. Witnessing Filipinas continue to break the glass ceiling will always be a joy.
I, however, didn’t notice that I was shaking the bed. My wife woke up and asked who won. She watched with me for a few seconds as the Filipinas whooped it up on the pitch, then she went back to sleep. I thought she'd get mad. My toes almost curled.