Road to redemption
BACOLOD—When the idea of joining the United Football League (UFL) was broached to him after his squad won the national club championship for the second straight year in late 2013, Ceres-Negros owner Leorey Yanson was a bit hesitant.
It’s not that he didn’t have the resources to put up a team good enough to challenge the country’s best clubs. He had already quashed those doubts when his teams upset the giants of the UFL for two straight years on their way to the championship.
“I can’t go forming teams half-heartedly,” Yanson says. “When we decide to take the next step, we go as much as we can and do everything that what we’ve invested in fulfills its potential.”
Such is the passion and competitive fire that belie the low-key nature of the owner of one of the country’s strongest clubs. To understand Ceres-Negros’ mentality and its relentless chase for silverware—one must understand its mild-mannered, youthful club chair, whose competitiveness was nurtured when he was playing in University of St. La Salle’s varsity team.
When they were still students, Yanson and older brother Ricky, now the president of Negros Occidental Football Association (Nofa), would form teams made up of the best players in Bacolod and pit them against each other in pickup games.
“The house was divided,” he recalls. “My teammates would be in the swimming pool area while my brother’s team occupied the kitchen. We would rib players who would trespass at each other’s areas,” Yanson recalls.
It was a healthy rivalry that helped trigger the passion for the Beautiful Game within the brothers, particularly Leo Rey, who took it to a whole new level when he created the club. This passion has translated to glory on the pitch, spurring Ceres’ quick ascent to the upper echelons of Philippine club football. From a college team backstopped by Korean students, the club has gone through a massive transformation, luring national team players who are also charmed by the laidback life in the City of Smiles.
“We had college players before and we were always the underdogs,” says club director Ali Go. “But some of the first national players in the team like Patrick (Reichelt) and Carlie (De Murga) understood and believed in what we wanted to achieve.”
Filipino-Swiss midfielder Martin Steuble, whose mother hails from Bacolod, loves the slow pace that life in the province offers. The club has its own training facility—the North pitch —a five-minute drive from where the majority of the players are housed.
“There’s just less distractions,” says Steuble, a veteran of the Swiss League. “And we have an owner who looks after us. He (Yanson) doesn’t want to be in the spotlight but he’s really the man behind everything.”
From a provincial powerhouse to a force even in continental competitions, Ceres has gone from strength to strength. Proof of that was last season’s run to the AFC Cup knockout stage where the Bacolod side, which was only formally formed in 2012, went unbeaten in the group phase, before bowing to one of the oldest clubs in the continent, South China, in extra time.
The heartbreak and disappointment of losing via a 107th-minute goal in that phase last year was tempered by the fact that, despite being a greenhorn in the competition, Ceres had actually held its own against clubs that have been around in the competition for decades.
The Busmen, as they are called, drew packed crowds at Panaad Stadium. The club also went to great lengths to organize the matches in the face of stringent measures put in by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
“It was quite an experience for us because we really just had to learn along the way,” says Nicolas Golez, a former teammate and one of Yanson’s closest friends, who spearheaded the local organizing committee for last year’s AFC Cup matches along with Ricky Yanson.
“We pulled out all the stops from having the pitch in the best condition and improving the lighting at Panaad. It was worth all the hardwork when we saw the big crowds for the matches.”
Ceres also clinched third place in the Singapore Cup, the highest finish by a Filipino club in the prestigious competition. But it was in the UFL competitions where the Busmen fell short, with Global collecting both the League and Cup crowns and Ceres finishing second in both competitions.
Go stepped down as coach midway into the season with Serbian coach Risto Vidakovic, a veteran of Spain’s top-flight competitions, brought in to spark a revival. Two straight losses to lower-ranked clubs and a string of draws in the second round, however, dashed Ceres’ hopes of overhauling Global’s advantage in the league.
But people within the club felt they have laid the foundation for what should be a strong run in 2017 with Vidakovic’s entry in the middle of last year, as well as the slew of prized acquisitions that cushioned the impact of the departure of Stephan Schrock and Adrian Gallardo, who led the team in scoring in the last two seasons.
“The attitude here at Ceres is that every season, we want to be champions, no more, no less,” says Go. “Our expectations were very high last season, but we fell short. The new coach had to adjust. But we are putting our trust in him. We’re in a good direction now, after the disappointment in the UFL season.”
Vidakovic, who played for Real Betis and Red Star Belgrade in a 14-year career, feels the club didn’t play more like a “unit” last season. “I think team spirit wasn’t the best,” says the Serbian. “We changed things this season and they know what to expect. The people in Bacolod love football. We have to give them something for this love that they show us. We have to respond with hard work on the field.”
The club signed national team players OJ Porteria, Junior Muñoz, Simone Rota and Iain Ramsay, as well as former Azkals Jason De Jong and Josh Grommen to add depth and quality to the squad. Spanish players Fernando Rodriguez, a striker, and Manuel Herrera, a central defender, who at one point in their careers played for Vidakovic, were also signed, along with Japanese centerback Kota Kawasa.
“They bring tenacity and freshness to the club,” says Go. “Anyone in the squad can start right now.”
That’s just the type of challenge that lured Porteria to the club. “There’s a lot of competition for places in the team,” says Porteria, who played for Kaya for five seasons. “Training is more intense than actual games. But we’re a family, too, and I love that each player in the squad brings the best out of each other.”
Tipped to take on the leadership role in his third season with the club, midfielder Manny Ott feels they have the squad to go on a deeper run in the AFC Cup, where they will be pitted with either Vietnamese sides T&T Hanoi or SHB Da Nang, Tampines Rovers or Geylang International of Singapore and Felda United of Malaysia.
Yanson has also cranked up the pressure on the Busmen to top their finish last year and win every available competition. “I just want the city and the province to be recognized internationally for football,” he says.