Tomorrow never dies: Loss to Kuwait won’t halt wave of football renaissance in the Philippines
MANILA—In the movie playing inside every Filipino football fan’s mind, this amazing run by the Azkals, fueled by nothing more than faith and passion, would continue without an end in sight. But as always, when reel starts morphing into real, reality steps in.
And reality is this: The World Cup dream is gone. It was blown away in the wake of heavy Kuwaiti artillery. Not that the country was anywhere close to it anyway. Such a bid was shooting rubber bands at stars in the first place.
But as legends of the game put it, the Azkals saw their qualifying run end. But they haven’t met their end just yet.
“The future looks very promising,” said Mariano “Nonong” Araneta, the president of the Philippine Football federation, whose rise to power ran side-by-side with the Azkals’ rise to relevance. “There are problems and challenges but football, for the first time in many years, is looking at a secure future.”
And this even with the Kuwaiti defeat hanging above Philippine football.
“This is just the start; we will really encounter challenges ahead but what’s important is that the players are here, the sponsors are willing to help and the support of the public is present,” said Araneta.
After an amazing run to the semifinals of the AFC Suzuki Cup last year and sterling victories that set up the showdown vs West Asian powerhouse Kuwait, the Azkals have pointed Philippine football to the future. Where blowout losses and shameful performances were the rule, victory and spine-tingling finishes have cropped up.
“Before, we would not even bother sending teams anymore because we knew we would get crushed,” said Johnny Romualdez, a former PFF president and the association’s chair emeritus who once suited up for the national squad like Mariano.
Nowadays, Philippine football gets invites to such sport-crazy countries as Bahrain. And the Azkals actually dared to go into the Kuwait match nursing hopes of a victory.
The paradigm shift has unfolded. It’s time to keep pushing things forward.
“We have to sustain the growth,” said Vic Sison, the goalkeeper of the last Philippine squad to beat Asian heavyweight and world-relevant Japan-in Tokyo, during the 1954 Asian Games to boot.
Sison has seen the downfall of football, when questionable decisions shooed away the Filipino-Chinese community that once willingly opened their purses to support the sport.
“Hopefully, we can again get the Pinoys, Tisoys and Chinoys back into the sport and that will be very good for football,” said Sison.
Araneta wants to consolidate the football program of the country, hopefully by streamlining training so that there will be a “Philippine” brand of football.
“We have to have one concept, one standard or style of play so that anywhere you pick talent from in the country, that talent knows the system and will easily integrate into the national team,” he explained.
But first, Sison said, it is important to keep the sport in the mainstream.
“TV, print and radio must continue to support football so that the interest will always be there,” Sison said.
Then, the country must move toward the grassroots.
“The grassroots will be the centerpiece program of the PFF,” said Araneta. “Of course, we will always be open to Filipinos born and raised abroad who want to play for the national team. But it’s time to really develop the grassroots.”
The PFF has an ally in that goal. The UFL, which provides footballers in the country a chance to play in a semi-pro league so the development of their skill after college isn’t stunted, plans to hold a football academy that will help train future stars. The PFF, too, has started flooding the grassroots with Fifa-handled seminars.
The looming goal?
“Eight years from now, we want to qualify a team to the Under-17 World Cup,” said Araneta. Such a goal would require the PFF to start monitoring kids as young as seven or eight. And the Azkals phenomenon has made such monitoring easier.
“A lot of kids are starting to play at that age level and they’re really talented,” said Romualdez. “They’re into the sport because of the Azkals and they get better training because we have better coaches nowadays.
“In fact, the Ateneo Football Center saw its enrollment rate double in the summer,” he added.
Sison said while the Azkals has spiked the sport’s popularity, football’s development will still be the domain of the PFF.
“The PFF must be accountable. It must make sure all its sponsors know where the money is going. It is also up to the PFF to continue developing the Rizal Memorial Stadium. We need to make that stadium a symbol for athletes so that when they play football there, they can tell themselves ’I’ve arrived,’” explained Sison.
Accountability is no problem.
After a controversial administration that failed to account for Fifa’s financial assistance—Romualdez described it as: “Fifa asked questions that could not be answered.”—Araneta has vowed to make things transparent when it comes to money.
“We’re going to hire an external auditing firm—SGV—to help us with our books and we will make reports during quarterly board meetings so that every stakeholder knows where money is spent,” he vowed.
Araneta has also promised to make sure that Rizal Memorial is well maintained to host Azkals home games. And he intends to invite several teams over to allow football fans more opportunities to catch the Azkals in action.
“Right now, we’re talking with the PSC to see how the PFF can oversee the maintenance of the Rizal pitch. We want it taken care of the way golf courses are maintained. After all, we had already invested in the field, in bathrooms. So we are definitely willing to spend for its maintenance,” said Araneta, who estimated that the cost could reach P900,000 a year.
“Hopefully, we can also get teams from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia or even Macau to come over and play in an invitational tournament so the fans can watch the Azkals even more,” said Araneta.
Fan support will be crucial for the development of football.
“All countries get the same amount of subsidy from Fifa. But we are still at a disadvantage because those countries earn a lot from gate receipts. Before the Azkals, we could not say the same,” Romualdez said.
The era of the Azkals has changed that.
In fact, from the ticket sales of the Philippines-Sri Lanka match alone, the PFF was able to recover the cost of the renovation of the Rizal stadium.
“We will continue to try and get more home games for the Azkals,” Araneta promised.
It’s just one dream that got nipped in the bud. As far as Araneta, Sison and Romualdez are concerned, the horizon has stretched even farther and there are a whole lot of goals out there for Philippine football to reach for.
And if there’s one thing the Azkals have taught us throughout their qualifying run, it’s that we can never, ever, stop believing.
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