Can We Create a Sustainable Football Culture with Growth Potential?

Building a sustainable football culture from scratch is challenging. Can we develop one to become a major footballing nation in the future?


Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a series that explores the state of football in the Philippines.

Some may say that football is the easiest sport to play with. You only need a ball to play it on your own or with someone else. The mechanics are straightforward, just kick the ball to the opponent's goal and score as many to win until time runs out. Yet building a football team is no easy feat. Let alone, establishing a football league and federation that will govern the sport. But it's even more difficult to grow a real "football culture" from scratch.

Whether it's the tiny country of San Marino, considered the worst national team in the world, or Japan, the country that saw its rise to become a football powerhouse in Asia, their football culture developed in different ways. It doesn’t mean that we have to follow what Brazil, Spain, England, or the US are doing, we have to create a culture suited to our unique needs, and circumstances.

Some people may blame it on basketball’s overwhelming popularity over other sports and indeed, it can be seen that way. But we can’t just pin the blame on other sports just because football is having difficulty gaining popular support. Like any sport, it’s just a matter of perception as to why it is what it is. There are other factors that would help explain why football is just an outlier in popular sporting consciousness. That doesn't mean that there's no way to grow the sport.

Sowing the Seed

Football may seem like a simple sport yet even in informal settings, the quality varies from country to country. It may be a poor man’s sport in Brazil, Mexico, or Indonesia, but it’s not the case in the Philippines or the United States. Aspiring footballers from the latter tend to go to football academies that are often their budget.

There is a study that showed the correlation of a country’s football supremacy with macroeconomic, demographic, and political factors. Although we tend to believe that richer countries tend to perform better in the sport than poorer countries, sometimes other internal factors matter like the bigger talent pool and effective sports policies that propel some smaller and poorer countries ahead over established favorites.

In the case of the Philippines, we have a much larger population than top footballing countries and the idea of promoting the sport extensively in the country’s educational system will help sow the seed of the sport in younger people. More importantly, we tapped into our large diaspora population of mixed Filipino-heritage and foreign-born Filipinos but the Azkal fever fueled by the likes of the Younghusband brothers and others has seemed to have fizzled out already. There needs to be a way to reignite that interest. All the foreign-based players have their reasons to play for our flag and country. A better way to incentivize their continued interest, apart from money and glory, should be the development of a football culture that will sustain the domestic league. 

How can the Philippine football stakeholders convince more of them to sacrifice their career chances in a European football league and move halfway across the world to represent their country of heritage if there is an apparent lack of football interest in the general population often associated with bad football infrastructure and unstable domestic league? Getting their participation is crucial as it brings about technology transfer and local information spillover. The Philippines has managed to catch up with our more established footballing neighbors through such initiatives. However, it won’t sustainable in the long run if we keep on depending on the foreign influx. We have to prop it up with a strong grassroots movement and that’s something that will take a while to grow.

The study has tested key hypotheses on the national team performance (men’s and women’s football teams):

#1 Better performance is linked to more economic resources

If the Philippines have deep pockets thanks to better corporate sponsorship agreements then there can be bigger resources devoted to further football development. However, that’s not the case here as football is not a highly-profitable sport in the country. More importantly, prospective sponsors would be looking at good ROI to be able to keep sponsoring the national team and greater football development in the country.

#2 Better performance is linked to a larger population

If you’re going to compare the Philippines with Spain or Timor Leste, surely we should have a bigger talent pool than them because of your relatively large population, not to mention our overseas communities yet this hypothesis doesn’t reflect our true footballing potential. The thing is, only 1.48% of Filipinos play football on a regular basis according to a 2022 survey. If you extrapolate the data, there are only 1.7 million people that play football in a country of 120 million. That’s simply not enough talent to find players to play for the national team.

#3 Better performance is linked to a higher unemployment rate

The study claim that football is a fundamental leisure pursuit so that people from wealthier countries tend to have less leisure time thus making the ‘cost of leisure’ higher. That means, not a lot of people will pick up the sport. While countries with higher unemployment rates will push some people to pick up the sport and develop their skills as they pursue their dreams of becoming professional footballers. Although there is a significant number of unemployed Filipinos, most tend to go to basketball in the hopes of becoming professional players since there are a lot more opportunities to earn a living in that sport.

#4 Better performance is linked to more developed domestic football

It is often believed that the quality of domestic football is associated with a strong national team. With a stable league with more clubs and players, it would mean a more developed local footballing infrastructure and higher skilled players.

One key takeaway from the study is that the total number of football clubs in a country has a positive impact on a national team’s performance, while the number of domestic competitions has a negative, though insignificant, effect.

Choosing the Best Football Development Model

Many countries that were late to the global football game have implemented different models to boost their country’s footballing competitiveness. One of the popular models is technology transfer with the inclusion of foreigners and heritage players. Some countries have abused it to the point of giving citizenship to people with no link to the country at all.

The Diaspora Model

It all gave rise to football mercenaries from rich footballing countries to developing ones. It can be explained by the fact that some countries have so many talents that players not included in their national team are still good enough to be the best player in another national team. You will see Brazilians playing for a lot of countries and assuming countless citizenships for fame and fortune.

The Premier League has been successful as it opened the league to foreign players thereby making it the most lucrative football league in the world. A lot of the local players have upped their game to keep up with the influx of foreign players. Soon, most of the major football leagues in the world have adopted a lot of foreign players. As long as it’s done right with sustainability in mind, football in those countries would grow.

The case of the Philippines is unique even if some of our neighbors say we’re using all foreigners in our national team. We have dual nationality laws and also allow foreigners of Filipino heritage to reacquire one of their parents’ original nationality. However, as mentioned above, dependence on this model won’t be sustainable without a solid grassroots program to complement the influx of foreign talents.

The J-League Model

Although Japan is one of the earliest footballing nations in Asia, they were the Philippines' earliest rivals alongside China. The Japanese Football Association was established in 1921, 14 years after the Philippine Football Federation was born. Yet club football in that country was already as old as those in the industrialized world as the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club played against the Kobe Regatta & Athletic Club on February 18, 1888. They regularly competed in the Far Eastern Games (forerunner of the Asian Games) and they became one of the first Asian countries to beat a European team (they beat Sweden 3-2 in the 1936 Olympics).

However, football has never caught the public imagination as compared to baseball, where it is celebrated like a religion alongside sumo. Their first attempt at a national league failed with the Japan Soccer League in 1965-1992. It was only in 1993 when the J.League was finally established. From that moment on, football in Japan has grown in leaps and bounds. Unlike the defunct JSL, the J.League is fully professionalized as it left the old corporate team structure with amateur players. This time, top clubs from the old league were absorbed and reorganized to fit communities with the corporate identity reduced. If you come to think of it, Philippine sports teams tend to be corporate in nature as team names used the corporate sponsor’s name and did not adopt or represent a community. It took a while before Japan fully transitioned to a community-based home-away format.

As the league implemented higher standards than before, it has attracted more spectators which helped increase its popularity. It also offered incentives to amateur non-company clubs to become part of the league with no major backing from a company like the case of prefectural teams Albirex Niigata and Oita Trinita. This is something difficult to implement in a Philippine setting due to the prohibitive costs of running a club without substantial financial support. The J.League may have a money pot from all competing teams to help finance the entry of amateur clubs into the football pyramid.

It wasn’t smooth sailing for the league in the beginning as they were depending on big-name foreign stars to prop up the league. As soon as the Asian financial crisis hit the country, many of these stars left and a lot of clubs suffered financial distress. As a result, the league decided to find other ways to grow and sustain it.

They established the so-called “J-League 100-Year Vision” that aims to achieve 100 professional football clubs by 2092. That means a grassroots movement has to push more stakeholders to create more clubs than before with finances from cities or prefectures rather than from companies. To accommodate more clubs, it has to expand the football pyramid by creating a second division J2 League in 1999. Having a local government unit owning a football club supported by fans is the ideal formula but that would be impossible in our situation as politicians tend to use sports teams for self-promotion or to whitewash illicit funds.

The key to their success is the strict implementation of professionalism so that clubs are organized as a public corporation solely devoted to football. It has to meet certain administrative and financial targets from annual tax audits to soccer schools and youth systems.

It may sound complex that may prevent those who want to venture into owning clubs but it works well as it prevents clubs from filing bankruptcy or dissolving completely.

The Money Model

Some countries have let money do the talking, something the Philippines won't be able to do. Yet, we see it as a unique model that the Chinese Super League and the Qatar Stars League have implemented with contrasting results for both. The CSL imploded as the enormous cost of running football clubs that recruited a lot of expensive foreign signings to fall flat. It didn’t help when the pandemic hurt a lot of the corporate owners of these clubs.

The La Liga Model

If there is a football league that has a deep connection to Philippine football that most of us rarely recognize then it is Spain’s La Liga. Real Madrid and Barcelona should probably ring a bell to you. But it’s more than just these clubs.

As one of the oldest leagues in the world, the La Liga reinvented itself to go along with globalization without getting rid of its age-old values. It went international as a change in mentality thereby creating an international network to export their football model. They put a premium on their league’s heritage to capture the interests of footballers all over the world. They utilize the availability of digital technology to become one of the most tech-savvy leagues in the world.

The Major League Model

When you talk about American sports, it's all about sports franchises. Teams compete in a closed system where there is no promotion-relegation. Every team, regardless of performance, is given chances to compete and rise in the season standings with draft picks for the bad teams. This model is the complete antithesis of European sports.

Although there was a football league (soccer as they call it) in the United States with the establishment of the American Football Association, it never became a huge success as compared with the big four - MLB (baseball), NFL (football), NHL (hockey), and NBA (basketball). They had the North American Soccer League that brought Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, and other stars of that era but it soon folded. It is Major League Soccer (MLS) that has brought football to the mainstream. Although lower divisions have survived like the United Soccer League (USL) and new teams were added to the MLS, there’s no promotion-relegation yet.

Perhaps, this is the most familiar setup that would be viable in the Philippine setting but a few more tweaks might be needed to ensure it would work.

Key Principles

Once the football stakeholders find the best development model that will work in our setting, they have to consider three key principles:

Our Unique Culture is the Best Starting Point

The Filipino culture has unique characteristics that would fit well in a football club setting. However, transplanting a foreign culture and expecting it to be successfully adapted without the proper context and deeper understanding of the existing culture won't work. That means the All Blacks won’t be what they are without their Haka or Barca won’t be a recognizable football club without their distinctive Blaugrana colors.

The recognizable or positive aspects of the culture should form the identity of the team. At the end of the day, the continued growth and popularity of the sport if the national team is not a representation of the ideas and beliefs of its people.

Developing a Lasting Culture Takes Time

Culture is defined by the society and the people in that society are the most difficult stumbling blocks to developing a lasting football culture. As much as Filipinos are passionate sports fans, many can be demanding with a win-now mentality. In fact, today’s society is increasingly geared towards instant and on-demand to the point that any long-term strategy can be derailed by occasional short-term defeats or failures.

A cultural shift relies on a long-term strategy initiated by the stakeholders looking for a significant and lasting impact on the growth of the sport. It is important to have an impact on the younger population to help the new football culture take root. Treat the Philippines as a country looking to build a football culture from scratch, it is better this way to start a clean slate.

One of the perennial problems in the growth of football in the country is the apparent lack of direct access to the sport and the national team. That means the PFF has to ensure that football is visible in the mainstream media to the point it becomes part of the collective sporting consciousness. The national team has to participate in regular fixtures and the talented players should have clear pathways to potentially forge long-term careers and become role models for future generations. More importantly, any football fan should be able to access the game - watch, play, or participate - regardless of age or background.

With consistency for a long period of time, football will become the most popular sport and that’s where a real football culture will develop. It will take a lot of time, effort, resources, and long-term planning.

Change Should Be Driven by the Passionate and Selfless

As mentioned earlier, developing a football culture requires a deeper understanding of the national culture and consistent and continuous development for a long time. It is only fitting to have people who understand the unique needs and requirements to propel it forward. They are the people who have vested interests in the positive growth of the game.

We understand that there will always be a need for an outsider to leave an imprint on the sport. That’s some countries hire foreign coaches or naturalize foreign players to play for the national team. The coach should utilize and enhance the homegrown players’ skills while also imparting valuable knowledge to further develop their game. Naturalized and foreign-born players should complement homegrown players’ playing styles thereby creating a hybrid team identity. The technical director should develop long-term strategies and ensure the growth of the grassroots programs, player development, and coach training and education. In the end, the local personnel would benefit from the skills and technology transfer so they can continue the program in the long term moving forward.


References:

Creating a Football Culture. Player Development Project.






“Creating a Football Culture,” by Drew Sherman. Player Development Project.

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Istoryadista | History Blog | Cebu Blogger: Can We Create a Sustainable Football Culture with Growth Potential?
Can We Create a Sustainable Football Culture with Growth Potential?
Building a sustainable football culture from scratch is challenging. Can we develop one to become a major footballing nation in the future?
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