Philippine football’s second wind

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EARLIER this week, the Philippine Azkals played a very close match against South Korea at the ongoing Asian Cup 2019 in Dubai. Many sports commentators expected South Korea, ranked 53rd, to dominate the Philippines, seated far below at 116th. But to their surprise, our national booters staged an impressive effort, putting up a defense that only gave way in the match’s final minutes.

But while the Azkals exceeded the expectations of the footballing world, few Filipinos probably noticed their effort. That is a shame since the match marked the Azkals’ maiden appearance at the Asian Cup, the region’s premier international football tournament.

Football is undisputedly the world’s most popular sport. Yet “the Beautiful Game” fails to draw Filipinos who are captivated more by the back-and-forth action of basketball, volleyball and even boxing. As a consequence, Philippine football remains nascent.

Still, efforts at expanding the game’s relevance beyond its regular fans and patrons are slowly bearing fruit to hopefully blossom one day into a full-fledged resurgence.

At the center of these efforts have been the Azkals. In the past decade, their notable performance at the world stage attracted the layman’s attention towards the sport.  One can cite as a particular milestone their upset victories against Vietnam and other football giants during the 2010 ASEAN Federation Football (AFF) Cup.

Their spectacular display in 2010 was followed by an outstanding feat in 2016 when they scored a huge upset against North Korea during a World Cup qualifier match in Manila. This result propelled the Philippines to its highest-ever FIFA ranking—115th out of 209, placing the Azkals at the top of the AFF ranking that is only next to Australia.

The Azkals generated enough interest to inspire like-minded football fans to take action, particularly towards launching professional domestic leagues and forging important partnerships focused on grassroots development.

For instance, nine years ago, the NCR-based United Football League (UFL) gave way for local football clubs to compete regionally. Domestic teams such as the Bacolod-based Ceres-La Salle FC and Makati City’s Kaya FC netted victories that qualified them for the 2010 edition of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup.

Then, in 2012, my father, the late senator Edgardo Angara who served as the honorary chairman of the Philippine Football Federation (PFF) brought to the Philippines UEFA-licensed coach Maor Rozen to instruct 300 young footballers.

Later on, the partnership between PFF, Alliance Global Group, Inc. (AGI), Real Madrid FC, and the Pinoy Sports Foundation was inaugurated to launch grassroots clinics for DepEd coaches and students at the McKinley Hill Stadium of Megaworld in Taguig City.

Such initiatives must be sustained and expanded, especially since some fear that the momentum first generated by the Azkals nearly a decade ago is starting to wane and slow down.  Philippine Football needs to find its second wind.

This is one of the reasons we authored and sponsored the Philippine Sports Training Center (PSTC) bill. This measure calls for the construction of a world-class, state-of-the-art training complex for all our national athletes, which covers not just the Azkals, but also the Malditas (their female counterparts) and all our football youth teams.

Currently, the measure has been ratified by both houses of Congress and will be transmitted for the President’s signature required for its enactment into law. Some P3.5 billion is proposed to be allocated this year for the training center, which shall also house a world-class football pitch.

Following our team’s impressive effort against South Korea, we must keep in mind, echoing the words of Azkals forward Stephan Schrock, “we have something to build on.” Hopefully, the PSTC helps jumpstart a renewed interest in Philippine Football.

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Sen. Sonny Angara was elected in 2013, and now chairs the Senate committees on local government, and ways and means. (Email: sensonnyangara@yahoo.com| Facebook, Twitter & Instagram: @sonnyangara)/PN

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