Villaflor: Of Gods and Underdogs

Noel Villaflor

IT’S easy to defy the gods, but what if the gods have ideas of their own?

This apparently was what Ceres Negros FC didn’t expect when it went to Japan intending to scalp FC Tokyo, the host nation’s second best club.

With a win, underdogs Ceres would have etched itself in the annals of Asian club football history by qualifying for the Group Stage of the AFC Champions League.

But the epic story of another David slaying a Goliath wasn’t to be this time.

Perhaps the gods of football willed it, or as one would have suspected, not only made the playing field level but made it more interesting by dumping rain on the pitch.

Watching the game from a live stream, I could only imagine the uphill battle a side like Ceres faced at the Ajinomoto Stadium in wintry weather.

But a waterlogged football pitch? Anyone who has played in such unpredictable conditions knows it’s nearly impossible to do much with a ball that has taken on a life of its own. The gods, you see, are known for their mischief. All that giant-slaying preparation from Ceres went down the drain, but FC Tokyo didn’t have it easier as well.

With its advantages in skill and technique severely diminished with a sodden home turf, the hosts had to slog through against visitors whom they might have disposed of easily in more favorable conditions. What ensued, at least in the early goings of the match on Jan. 28, was a comedy of errors. Limbs flailing, drenched bodies skittered and splashed all over the field.

Needing more force to dislodge than normal, the rain-soaked ball often ended up where it wasn’t supposed to, at one point smack on Robert Lopez Mendy’s face that was in the path of an opposing defender’s clearance.

The match was ugly with a few entertaining spells. FC Tokyo broke the ice shortly after half-time from Sei Muroya’s close-range strike.

Much of the same drudgery followed until the final stretches of the match when the hosts were reduced to 10 men when Taichi Hara was sent off with a red card.

In a last-ditch assault with a minute left in regulation, the Busmen pushed forward and crowded the box for an equalizer, but leftback Ryoya Ogawa cleared the ball toward an onrushing Adailton. The Brazilian midfielder outsprinted Mark Hartmann and coolly chipped the ball over a hapless Muller who was in no man’s land.

When the tempest cleared, the score read 2-0 in favor of the hosts.

One cannot help but wonder what the result would have been if the heavens had stayed put, keeping the conditions on the pitch more conducive for a more tactical game of football, the one that both sides had planned for. Still, even if it wasn’t what Ceres Negros FC wanted -- failing to advance to the Champions League Group Stage -- the result is the closest it has reached to securing a place in the firmament.

Perhaps next time, the football gods would give this ambitious club from the Philippines a thumbs up for its persistence.