PH football renaissance feeding off Azkals’ rise
At one time, Philippine football was actually relevant, and winnable even in international levels. So that if it had never lost its foothold in the country’s sporting scheme of things, the now-famous and well-loved Azkals would be underachievers at best.
Sison was the goalkeeper of the last national squad that turned heads on the Asian scene.
The year was 1958, when the third Asian Games was held in Tokyo. The country’s football squad, generations away from being labeled Azkals, marched straight into the belly of the beast and beat Japan, 1-0.
Of course, Japan then was not Japan now, so “beast” might be slightly stretching it. But Japan football now traces its roots to that game.
“Losing to the Philippines was really tragic for [the Japanese],” Sison told the Inquirer. “In the local Japanese paper, the sports section had headlines that suggested that the Japanese players commit hara-kiri.”
Sison smiled at the recollection.
Strangely, though, that game became a turning point for both countries in the football arena, with the Philippines and Japan flung to opposite ends of the sport’s spectrum in a way that makes the result of that match a source of wonder and awe nowadays.
While Japan reconstructed its game to reach the top of the Asian scene, the Philippines spiraled downwards so that every Azkal victory becomes front-page material.
This is why Sison’s perspective is important.
The man has seen Philippine football plunge to heart-rending depths. And he sees the rise of these Azkals as a new hope for the sport.
“It’s a matter of not repeating the mistakes of the past,” said Sison.
When the conquerors of Japan arrived home, there were media reports of their heroics, but none like the one the Azkals receive when they come home from victories abroad. There was no parade of sponsors that rushed to open their checkbooks for the team.
“The media did not really follow up on the sport that much,” Sison recalled. “And we were not given allowances, not even money for travel to practices.”
PH football’s lack of funding
While Japan was inaugurating the J-League, inviting football-savvy foreigners like the Spaniards and Brazilians to play, the Philippine football leadership was making strange decisions that kicked off the sport’s downfall. And it did not help that the lack of funding drove some of the sport’s biggest names away.
“I was working for FilOil at that time and I was assigned to the north,” said Sison. “I was based in Baguio and I really did not have money for travel. I couldn’t attend practices and I was afraid that my game would deteriorate and affect the team. So I felt I might as well quit.”
Sison, a Mr. Football awardee of the Philippine Sportswriters Association, was only 22 when he quit the national team. He was not yet even at the prime of his athletic career.
He wasn’t alone in leaving the squad either.
Ed Ocampo and Eddie Pacheco, both Mr. Football winners as well, bolted the squad to play commercial basketball, where club teams were paying their players allowances.
And the dearth in talent showed.
The national football team was clobbered right in the next Asian Games in Indonesia. The squad was losing games by big margins. And football, as Sison knew it, was starting to disappear.
“Media coverage started to dwindle,” said Sison, who cited the death of Ricky Llanos, a former football manager who later edited the sports section of the Manila Times, as a turning point in football coverage in the country. Tony Siddayao, who would become the “dean” of local sportswriting, slowly got sucked into basketball.
But even then, football hadn’t really crashed to rock-bottom yet.
Officials’ curious decisions
While play was deteriorating on the field and the sport’s coverage was dwindling, off the field, the powers-that-be were making curious decisions that would totally dry up funding for the sport and turn off potential players for the national squad.
Sison’s images of football may be as grainy as the black-and-white photos he still has in his possession.
But when he ponders a question, looks at his old photographs and begins retelling stories of the sport’s glory days, the pictures in his mind begin clearing up, and he sees them like they happened yesterday.
“The leading members of the Philippine team quit,” he said. “I got married already and I had to support a family. There was nothing in football. No money.”
This was the Azkals before Dan Palami came around to resuscitate the squad.
From the confines of the summer capital, Sison watched football flounder. Teams were getting beaten up internationally, by big margins. In the 1962 Jakarta Asiad, the competition Sison had hoped he could star in before calling it quits, the national booters got clobbered.
During that time, the sport was drawing talents from the Filipino-Chinese community through commercial leagues like the Manila Football League. From 1966 to 1974, under the presidency of Don Manolo Elizalde, the football association (then known as the PFA) appointed Fernando Alvarez as secretary general.
Alvarez implemented the 60-40 rule in football, which meant that all teams in leagues under the auspices of the PFA had to have 60 percent Filipino players and 40 percent Chinese.
“That drove away the Chinese community,” Sison said. “And remember, there were no sponsors as generous to Philippine football as the Chinese community.”
Sison got a first-hand taste of that generosity.
In 1956, William Chiongbian, a shipping magnate from Cebu City, promised the national squad that if they would do well against the visiting Swedish AIK Football Club (the Philippines then still hosted high-level international friendlies) in a game he sponsored, he would send the booters to Spain for a whole month.
The Nationals lost a competitive match to what was one of the top-tier European clubs then, 2-1. And an elated Chiongbian kept his promise, funneling P120,000 into a trip that helped set up that victory over Japan in the 1958 Asiad.
“Today, based on the peso-dollar exchange rate, that would cost about P6 million,” Sison said.
The Chinese community was always ready to pitch in money for football. When the 60-40 rule was introduced, sponsors shied away and the leagues, funded mostly by the Chinese community, started dwindling.
By the time Johnny Romualdez assumed the presidency and Sison had convinced the modern Philippine Football Federation to lift the rule, it was too late.
“Football went down so much,” said Sison. “Players felt abandoned. They were poor and unfunded. Funding was drying up, interest was drying up. The media was disinterested.”
Rizal Memorial attraction
Sison also lamented a move by Alvarez to stop using the Rizal Memorial Stadium.
“There was no longer that physical structure that young talents could look forward to playing in someday, something that would represent that they had arrived in football,” Sison said.
“The Rizal Memorial Stadium gave young footballers something to aspire for. And with the transfer to different fields, interest disappeared even more.”
And the international beatings kept coming. The national squad kept arriving from foreign sorties black and blue. As basketball zoomed to the top of people’s sporting priorities, football was pushed into dark corners. And when it crawled out, it was mostly to bask in the light of leadership controversies.
Because there was no slowing basketball’s rise to prominence, it was easy to predict football’s path. It was careening straight into a spectacular crash, merely awaiting that explosion that would snuff the life out of a sport kept alive mostly by rabid fanatics in the Visayas.
But something happened to football on its way to a dead end. Something crawled from out of nowhere to spark a renaissance of sorts.
Football purists called it hope. Sison called it the revival.
The suddenly interested media picked up a moniker from Internet fora and popularized its now-famous label: The Azkals.