Can We Make Football (in the Philippines) Great Again?

The Philippines used to be a footballing nation. Is it possible regain that old glory?



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

Just as the Women’s National Football Team is celebrating its success in qualifying for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, there’s an echo that reverberates from the past. We’re talking past glories when football reigned supreme in the archipelago. Wouldn’t you believe it? We were a footballing nation then. We were one of the earliest countries in the region to play and excel in the sport that the world loves.

Forget basketball as it took a while to take root. Football came here first and it’s like a birthright we end up choosing to forget as remnants of a bygone era. The success of this sport, under our country’s name and banner, was made possible by the incredible footballers of the past from the greatest of all time Paulino Alcantara, the indomitable Elmer Bedia, the ever-dependable Chieffy Caligdong, or the fan-favorite Phil Younghusband. We’re no longer the forgettable whipping boys from a footballing minnow when the arrival of Filipino heritage players to help jumpstart the forgotten football program in the country. It culminated with the most famous victory of all - the Miracle of Hanoi.

It was a watershed moment in the sport as it helped propelled its popularity among the mainstream basketball-loving sports fan. Yet it has never fully endeared itself as eventually, the popularity lost its traction and end up as a passing fad for conyo, fairweather, and bandwagon fans. Even the Malditas arrival on the world stage didn’t help that much as there is still a lot of work to do to develop a vibrant footballing culture in the country. Obviously, we can’t do it overnight but we can build upon these successes to propel it back to the mainstream.

The question remains, is it possible for a non-footballing country to grow the global game in a country that associates it with the upper class? Is it possible for Filipino fans to fall in love with a sport with relatively different competition mechanics and apparent “slow scoring” games?

Understanding the Filipino Psyche

Before we go down the nitty-gritty details of how to grow a sport in a country that doesn’t know much about it, we have to understand what a typical Filipino sports fan thinks. Regardless of cultural background, sports fans always want winners and that reflects in our case.

According to two separate surveys by the Social Weather Station, Filipinos are proud when the country performs well at the global level with 72% in 2008 and 95% in 2019. The numbers show that our national football team should get that high level of support right? Yet, the Azkals and Malditas, to a certain extent, are still playing in almost empty arenas even at home. The global pandemic may have a hand on it yet it has been that way since the razzmatazz of the Miracle of Hanoi fever finally wore out.

A 2021 survey has shown that basketball remains the most popular team sport Filipinos are regularly engaged in playing. Down on the 16th spot is football as fishing and darts are even more popular than it. Quite telling how the sport fell from the top down to the muddy bottom of Filipino sporting life.

It’s not that the Filipino hate football, they just don’t understand it and even if they do, there’s what you called ‘watch fatigue.’ We are used to frenetic, high-impact, high-scoring, and high-stakes sporting events, whether it’s watching Gilas Pilipinas play or rooting for your favorite fighting rooster in the cockpit.

People don’t understand a sport that goes on a scoreless draw or when fans celebrate even on a 0-1 losing scoreline in a two-leg series. There’s a low attention span in a near-continuous 90- to 120-minute match. Most people don’t even understand offside, stoppage time, and even penalties. Many hate antics like diving, simulation, flopping, and all the chirping around the pitch. They don’t know what ultras, tifos, and all the colorful, intriguing, and fascinating choreos are.

Filipinos need to grow with the sport and not the sport taking everyone on its back. It has to be organic to make sport intrinsically Filipino. We have to develop our own unique culture and not force foreign football culture down our throats. Yet there’s still the lingering issue of race politics in Filipino sporting culture as there is a rift between embracing foreign and promoting local talents. There are sectors of the population that questions the identity of foreign-born players by naming them as “Fil-Ams” or “half-breeds” while some wanted “100% Filipino” or “Pure Pinoys.” More importantly, there is also a disconnect (particularly in basketball) as some favor homegrown players but wanted to embrace Filipino heritage and naturalized foreign players. That hotly-debated issue never seems to die down and it’s one of the things that holds back the full adoption of the sport.

Die-hard fans hate losing yet it is part of the Filipino netizen culture to unashamedly bash the team or certain players and coaches when the national team loses. Oftentimes, the unhealthy obsession of expecting the team to win at all costs can take its toll on the growth of the sport. Many end up abandoning the support of the team overnight when things don’t go well or are uncertain.

Embracing Change

Let’s face it, the world is very much different these days as it’s now possible to see world-class football on a regular basis. The influx of talent from foreign-based Filipino heritage players will boost the sport for good. Yet there are still limits as the grassroots and homegrown programs should keep up with it. Adopt what works well from elsewhere while also providing the unique needs of Philippine football.

The Philippine Football Federation (PFF) should expand the grassroots program by making different regional and provincial football fully integrated with each other so that the best teams and talents across the country will be able to compete against each other on a regular basis. Regular call-ups of promising talents from these regions should be prioritize in order to create a solid foundation for the national team. The foreign-based talents should be more like a force multiplier to an existing core of homegrown players and not the other way around that we’re all used to. Establish links with other football organizations and federations to strengthen domestic football.

Another possibility is to reorganize the footballing structure by decentralizing it. Create football hubs out of the football hotspots like Bacolod, Iloilo, Cebu, Davao, etc. Create a footballing pyramid by starting with the city- or provincial-based leagues. Top teams from that leagues should be elevated in a more decentralized upper-tier league, perhaps a separate Luzon, Metro Manila, Visayas, and Mindanao leagues to minimize travel costs.

As for the Philippines Football League (and the PFF Women’s League), it should be reorganized to accommodate the lower tiers in the pyramid. It can be tricky as the PFF has very stringent measures in place to bring new teams into the league. Perhaps they can relax some of these measures to make it easier for new teams to play. Although, long-term viability is an important consideration.

It would be possible to limit promotion-relegation and home-away formats for now. Although the football pyramid is decentralized, games can be played in a more centralized location while football infrastructure catches up as the sport grows.


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Istoryadista | History Blog | Cebu Blogger: Can We Make Football (in the Philippines) Great Again?
Can We Make Football (in the Philippines) Great Again?
The Philippines used to be a footballing nation. Is it possible regain that old glory?
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