BY BOB GUERRERO GOAL PHILIPPINES CORRESPONDENT
Last Tuesday when the final whistle blew in Panaad Stadium, Bacolod, the Philippine players and fans raised arms in joy and relief. Patrick Reichelt's 77th minute goal had given the Azkals a 1-0 victory over Singapore, for a perfect start to the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup.
The Philippines showed dogged determination against a resolute Singapore side, and finally broke through after being the better team throughout the contest.
The win marks another chapter in the history of Panaad Stadium. Rizal Memorial in Manila may have hosted more matches in recent times but for many Azkals fans, Panaad is the spiritual home of the Azkals.
Last Tuesday's win improves the Azkals' record there to 7 wins, 2 losses and a draw, or a 75% winning percentage. That is slightly better than the 71%, (16-5-5) record of the team in Rizal Memorial since they started playing there again earlier this decade.
But Panaad stadium's advantage is about more than just numbers. It's the history and character of the joint that makes it special.
Panaad, which means “promise,” in the local Hiligaynon language of Bacolod, is located in a park where an annual cultural festival is held.
Stands of eucalyptus trees surround the bleachers, making this one of South East Asia's most distinctly beautiful venues for football. The spartan grandstand is far from the field, but the bleachers much nearer. New fiberglass seating from Ceres Negros, the ground's main tenant, adds some character to the seating areas. New, permanent lights means match organizers no longer need to rent cranes for additional lighting.
The first major international football event in Panaad stadium was the 2005 SEA Games. The Philippines featured U23 players who would go on to be stalwarts of the senior team for a long time, like Phil and James Younghusband, Anton Del Rosario, and Aly Borromeo.
Spurred on by large crowds in a part of the country that has always played football, the team reached the semifinals. Sadly they blew a 2-goal lead to Malaysia to bow out of gold medal contention. But the seeds were planted for the legend of Panaad to grow.
The stadium hosted the AFF Championship qualifiers in 2006. In the opening match the Philippines lost to Laos 2-1. It would only lose one more match there, as the team roared back with wins over Timor Leste, Cambodia and Brunei to book their tickets to the competition that would eventually be known as the AFF Suzuki Cup.
Fast forward to February 10, 2011. The AFC Challenge Cup qualifier against Mongolia. The Philippines was on a high following their semifinals appearance in the Suzuki Cup. Panaad was packed to the gills with newfound Pinoy football fans.
In the 43rd minute Chieffy Caligdong chest-trapped a ball deep in visiting territory, artfully lofted the ball over an onrushing Mongolian defender, and coolly speared the ball into the goal between the legs of the Mongolian keeper, Ganbayar Tseveensuren, for the opener.
The Panaad crowd, perhaps numbering more that 15,000, well above the ground's intended capacity, erupted. Phil Younghusband's second-half goal gave the Pinoys a 2-0 lead going into the away leg and they ended up winning 3-2 on aggregate.
The iconic Caligdong goal, and that match, are etched in the memory of so many Azkals fans. For many, it was the moment when football began in the Philippines.
The Azkals played sporadically in Panaad going forward, including a curious loss to Chinese Taipei in 2013. Rizal Memorial got a new artificial turf surface that made games there a more practical alternative.
But last year the Philippines did play one big match in Panaad, the AFC Asian Cup qualifier against Yemen. Bacolod fans were treated to an entertaining 2-2 draw as both Younghusband brothers scored.
In recent years Panaad has become the home stadium of Ceres Negros, Bacolod's team in the Philippines Football League and the AFC Cup. Ceres fans regularly pack the venue, especially during AFC Cup matches. Many say there is an aura of invincibility about the park.
The Busmen's 2-0 win over Singapore outfit Home United in August 2017, a second leg of the ASEAN Zone final, remains a sweet Panaad memory for Ceres fans. Official attendance that night was 7,534, remarkable for a Filipino club team.
Panaad is hosting all the Philippines' games in the Suzuki Cup, including semis or finals if they reach it. No less than eight current or former Ceres players comprised Sven Goran Eriksson's starting lineup against Singapore last Tuesday, meaning the side was intimately knowledgeable with the facility's immaculately groomed native grass.
Reichelt, a Ceres Busmen when not playing for the Philippines, has now written his name in the storied history of the ground with his epic game-winner. Will some of that Panaad magic be in the air when the Philippines takes on Thailand on November 21? The Thai senior team has never played the Philippines in Panaad, but their U23s did beat the Philippines U23 1-0 way back in 2005
Some are tipping the Philippines to go all the way and win this year's tournament. Perhaps this unique and historical ground will be the team's lucky charm.