Page last updated at 11:56 Asia/Manila, Wednesday, 11 January 2017 PH
By serendipity, football as a national sport will be given a big boost during the term of President Rody Duterte. The Philippine Football Federation is determined to launch the Philippines Football League by March 2017. Some six to eight city clubs will be in the senior division of the PFL, most probably coming from Metro Manila, Cebu, Iloilo, Bacolod, Davao, Zamboanga, Cagayan de Oro and a few others from Southern, Central and Northern Luzon. It is expected that some of the top football clubs in the senior division of the United Football League (Global, Ceres-La Salle, Loyola Meralco Sparks, Kaya, Stallions, Green Archers, JP Voltes, etc.) may convert themselves into city or provincial clubs to be able to participate in the National League.
As a football fanatic myself, it is my fondest hope that President Duterte could follow the example of China’s President Xi Jinping who has become an avid fan of football and is determined to have China one day host—and win—the football World Cup. China currently ranks 78th in the world compared to 125th (as of September 2016) of the Philippines. The Philippines is currently the highest-ranked among Southeast Asian countries in FIFA. Last October 2015, President Xi Jinping made a state visit to the U.K. While there, he showed up at the training ground of Manchester City (that is now being coached by the famous Pep Guardiola, former coach of both champion clubs FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich) where he stopped for a selfie with UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Sergio Aguero, the club’s star striker. As reported in the Financial Times (December 8, 2015), the visit seemed to have been a subtle hint. A few weeks later, a Chinese consortium including China Media Capital dutifully bought a 13 per cent stake in Manchester City’s parent company for $400 million.
Chinese investors are quick to take the hint from their President. Li Riugang, the billionaire head of CMC, also gave football a vote of confidence when he outbid state network CCTV to pay $1.2 billion for the TV rights to China’s super league for the next five years. Another investment group has bought shares in the second leading football club, FC Espanyol, in Barcelona (second to the arguably best football club in the world—FC Barcelona). In fact, some time last year, FC Espanyol spoke with some government and private sector leaders in Iloilo about helping the City put up a football school in what can be considered the football center of the Philippines. Iloilo has produced some of the best football players in the country, including the famous Paulino Alcantara, whose Filipina mother was from Barotac Viejo and who established a record for the number of accumulated goals for FC Barcelona that was broken only recently by the world’s best football player today, Lionel Messi.
According to the Financial Times, the Chinese deals have not been limited to investing in foreign clubs. Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba, the ecommerce group, took a 50 percent stake in Guanzhou Evergrande, the strongest team in China today, which recently won the Asia Cup for the second time in three years. Evergrande has built dozens of football pitches and has invested in the training of thousands of Chinese children who are being prepared to play world class football for an aggressive campaign to win the World Cup. China, like the Philippines, is still an underdog in football, compared to its Northeast Asian neighbor, South Korea and Japan. Its national team appeared at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea but lost all three matches and failed to score a goal. Our national team, the AZKALS, has fared a little better in our matches with our Southeast Asian neighbors. We have won a few times against football-crazy countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam but have still a long way to go to win any of the major tournaments in our own backyard. We failed to qualify for the World Cup in Russia in 2018. Some of our own football clubs, like Ceres-La Salle and Kaya have also won some of their matches against their counterparts among our neighboring countries.
My unsolicited advice to President Duterte is to take notice of the ongoing efforts of both the Philippine Football Federation, the private business sector and civil society in their efforts to arouse greater interest among Filipinos in football so we can be at par with our Asian neighbors, or for that matter with countries all over the world, in which football is the most popular sport, except in the United States. Without giving up our already strong tradition in basketball (we have gone a long way in reaching international standards in this sport, despite the lack of height of Filipinos), we can aspire to be also world class in football, in which height is not indispensable and in which the agility and nimbleness of the Filipino can be a competitive advantage. Filipino football players can realistically aspire to be as good as Lionel Messi or Neymar who have the typical height of our players. Very few Filipino basketball players can aspire to be Lebron James or Pau Gasul, towering basketball players.
Because of the passion of the Chinese President for football, this sport could be a topic of mutual interest between him and our own President. They can compare notes on how to promote the beautiful game through some sort of co-opetition (cooperating while competing with one another). Since they have so much experience in building numerous football pitches, some Chinese construction firms can be encouraged to bid in the building of the football pitches that are being constructed by real estate developers (like Megaworld and Ayala Land) and by local governments (following the example of Biñan, that built a modern football pitch recently). Some Chinese real estate developers like Evergrande may also be convinced to put up football camps in some of our island resorts where sports tourism can flourish. They can use these football camps to train their own players twelve months a year, which is possible because of our tropical climate. This model of sports tourism is quite common in the Mediterranean. One of the more famous ones is Salou, about thirty minutes by car from Barcelona. Filipino families have already gone there to bring their children to train in the football clinics with some of the best Catalan coaches. (To be continued.)