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A Funny Thing Happened on Their Way to Success

December 14, 2010

By TIMOTHY JAY IBAY

In the latest issue of Expat Newspaper, we highlighted the country’s first-ever football feel-good story. In this post, we look into the not-so-pretty football landscape in the country.

It’s been no secret that the Philippines love its sports. So when the Philippine Men’s Football Team, endearingly called the Azkals, gave the country a reason to support them like they haven’t before, the support from sporting, and not just football, fans was overwhelming. I failed to catch their opening AFF Suzuki Cup match against Singapore, so the next day, I was scourging the two dailies available to me to check on the results. Nothing. Perhaps, sensing somewhat of a fluke, the buzz of the stunning draw with mighty Singapore was limited to social networking sites. When they shocked the region yet again by beating defending champs Vietnam on their home pitch, it was a different story, though. They were all over the nightly news outfits, and on the front page of the two dailies where they were absent just a few days before. And while the final chapter on this run has yet to be written, they have already made history. The hearts of these boys are beyond question. The leadership behind them, though, is the exact opposite.

As absurd as it is, what was meant to be a home-and-away format for the semis of the Suzuki Cup will not be the case for the Azkals. They play both of their games on enemy grounds as not a single stadium in the country was found fit to host a Suzuki Cup match. From having insufficient, unnumbered seating at the venues to lacking proper lighting necessary for a regionally televised game, the Asean Football Federation (AFF) decided (upon the recommendation of recently ousted Philippine Football Federation (PFF) president Jose Mari Martinez, in spite of the fact that it was possible to play on a neutral pitch) to just have the Philippine Team play in Indonesia. And, as unfortunate as it is to put this kind of twist on such a feel-good story, that’s just the start of it. There have been allegations of misappropriated funds. And we’re not talking about chump change. The PFF receives funds from both the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) and FIFA. Now, it’s reported that the Senate will look into country’s football dirt, which in a twisted scheme of things, needed great success on the field to uncover.

Forget the Bad…For Now

The thing was, when Expat spoke with team coach Simon McMenemy shortly after he landed the job, he knew that politics would be one of the tougher things to hurdle, if he, and the team were to succeed. The good thing, though, is that their play and the results have transcended the burden of politics. And while it really is disappointing to see what’s really going on, finding out about it after they’ve reached unprecedented success is perhaps one of the better ways things could’ve turned.

Now for more of the good: business mogul and staunch sports supporter Manny V. Pangilinan committed PHP 1 million for training expenses of the team as they leave for Indonesia. Team manager Dan Palami, who has bankrolled the Azkals since 2009, is scheduled to meet with Pangilinan’s associates to discuss further support from the group.

The success of this Philippine team on the field has been mostly due to the presence, leadership and football pedigree of Fil-foreign players. And their impressive run at the Suzuki Cup has only put even more Fil-foreign players playing in top leagues in Europe on the radar. Just to make a quick run down the list of players who can be eligible to play for the Azkals if the PFF so wishes: There’s 18 year old David Alba who plays for Bayern Munich, his mother is Filipina while his pops is Nigerian. There’s Dennis Cagara from Leyte who was a member of the Danish National Youth team, and played in German Bundesliga from 2004 to 2008. Jonathan de Guzman once played for Mallorca in the Spanish La Liga, while his brother Julian played for Deportivo La Coruna. And the list goes on.

This isn’t the key, though, for the Philippines to continue to make strides in football. Before all the hoopla, so to speak, McMenemy has expressed that having a cast of Fil-foreign players might get the impressive results, but in the long run, that really does nothing to improve the quality of football locally. He mentioned that it’s quite tricky, but he has to be able to strike a balance. Get enough of the Fil-foreign players to share their experiences and advanced technique, while still allowing the local players to develop with the team. He also stressed that there needs to be something to make people pay attention to football, something that was a challenge when he first got to the country. He was even open to using the celebrity of the Younghusband brothers if it was going to lead to more sponsorships, and ultimately more public support and recognition. Fortunately for him, it was their play that opened the country’s eyes, and peeled them away from basketball for once, that has done earned that support.

Cheers to the Lads

They first game of the semis will be on the 16th, while the final game will be on the 19th. Let’s all support this group for, if anything, finally putting the spotlight on football in this country. Our glasses are raised, Azkals!

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