Taming the Tigers: The match that made Ceres Negros famous
Kuala Lumpur: With the 2019 AFC Cup ASEAN Zonal Semi-finals on the horizon, we look back on one of the most memorable when Filipino club Ceres Negros defeated Asian giants Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) of Malaysia.
These days 2017 ASEAN Zonal champions and 2018 ASEAN Zonal runners-up Ceres Negros are considered to be one of the strongest teams in the AFC Cup.
However, back at the beginning of the 2017 AFC Cup campaign they were not counted among the contenders to be crowned inaugural ASEAN champions, with most looking to 2015 AFC Cup winners JDT, the Southern Tigers, as a likelier candidate to be crowned Southeast Asian kings.
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The-AFC.com spoke exclusively to former Ceres Negros defender Kota Kawase, who played in the 2017 semi-finals against JDT, scoring a vital goal in the second leg, to reflect on a series of games that put the Filipino club football on the map.
Hello Kota. Before we get into those matches with JDT, let's look at what preceded: What memories do you have from the 2017 AFC Cup Group Stage?
The Group Stage was really, really hard. In fact, I remember that three of us actually ended up in the hospital after matches, we worked so hard and there was so much tension in every game.
I remember after one game, I was so cramped up and couldn't breath easily, so left the field after 80 minutes when we played against Hanoi. That time I was marking French forward Loris Arnaud. I was trying to prevent him winning any headers, and it wasn't easy!
I also recall scoring an important goal against Tampines Rovers in the last game of the group stage which helped us through to the knockout rounds.
I was so proud of my teammates and every one who were there with us. The Group Stage was very exciting and left me with some fantastic memories.
Ultimately, Ceres qualified for the ASEAN Zonal Semi-finals by the slimmest of margins - a superior head-to-head record over Hanoi FC. Did you always feel confident that you would qualify for the AFC Cup knockout stage?
I was not sure that we could qualify or not before the AFC Cup started. But as the campaign progressed, I was getting more and more convinced that we could.
The work my teammates put in, the support from the fans, and the general atmosphere around the club all inspired me a lot and made me feel like we could do it.
You opponents were JDT, winners in 2015 and considered one of the best teams in the competition. What did you and the team feel about the prospect of facing them.
I knew that JDT were champions of Malaysia and the 2015 AFC Cup winners. In fact, they were widely considered to be like Southeast Asia's Real Madrid.
But by that time we were a tight unit already. And we knew what we were capable of and how to approach big games.
Our coach [Risto Vidakovic] kept telling us that we hadn't achieved anything yet, that we were nobodies still, but if we could defeat JDT we could make a name for ourselves across the region.
What do you remember from the first leg game?
We knew we were set to play against a big crowd with over 14,000 fans attending the game in Malaysia, but I was not nervous. I was more expectant and enjoying our football. And I think this showed on the field, and it made their team take us more seriously.
Bienvenido [Marañón] and Fernando [Rodríguez] scored two important goals for us and although we conceded three times ourselves, I really do think this was more down to bad luck because, for me, we were in control of the match for large periods. That can be seen in the possession stats after the game.
We knew we were really strong at home in front of our amazing fans in Bacolod, so we were feeling confident after the match concluded despite losing 3-2.
What do you recall from the days building up to the decisive return meeting?
I remember the day before the game. We were driving through the city in the team bus to our final training. Everybody I saw on the way was smiling and waving to us.
I felt like our success is their happiness. They looked so happy and were cheering so passionately for us, that I remember feeling extremely motivated to get a result for them.
That I would work like crazy and win for them.
Let's talk about that second leg match at Panaad Stadium
Well, I scored the opening goal and, of course, I felt freaking fantastic. Unfortunately they equalised in the second half, but I felt that we had played better than them. That we could score again and that their goal was totally against the run of play.
I didn't feel like we were going out. I felt like something was going to happen, there was a special atmosphere in the ground.
And then, in injury time, we won a penalty and Fernando scored it to put us ahead again. I remember that some of the players were crying already before the final whistle went. I can't explain how I felt. Just...awesome.
What did it mean to you and the team when the final whistle sounded, and you knew you were going to the first ever ASEAN Zonal Final and had beaten one of the biggest teams in Asia?
I'm proud of it, but proud of my teammates and the Ceres Negros family more than the result.
It was one of the most emotional moments in my football career. That time we were still a nobody. Nobody knew anything about us. We hadn't won any titles outside of the Philippines.
But finally, in the 2017 season this match made that name known throughout Southeast Asian football. It changed a lotsof things. It made us more confident. It certainly surprised a lot of other ASEAN teams. It was a result that made Ceres Negros famous.
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