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An article I wrote about promoting soccer as a national sport in the Philippines elicited a most insightful response from a person living in the U.S. who knows all about marketing this number one sport in the world. Joshua Thomson, who spent his childhood in the Philippines and brother of national swimming champion Akiko Thomson, was for six years the International Business Development Director of arguably the best football club in the world today—the FC Barcelona, the team that produced some of today’s best football players, e.g. Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez. I am quoting entirely from Mr. Thomson’s essay entitled “Dreams that fuel the beautiful game.”
It was on Colegio San Agustin’s sprawling fields in Makati where I first started playing the beautiful game of football. I vividly recall the faces of my teammates from Korea, India, Australia, China, Brazil, and of course the Philippines (oh those talented mestizos), all charging around trying to score the glorious goal. As much as I had wanted to join MakatiFootballSchool, my father had other plans for my sisters and me including swimming, piano lessons, and yes, some homework. More competitive football followed during my high school years at BrentSchool. Nothing was more invigorating than playing competitive matches against cross-city schools and a few outside Manila. Stringing together passes with teammates, moving the ball up-field, often more like pinball than anything actually orchestrated, yet somehow culminating our offensive with a goal was so exhilarating that, some of those memories still form part of a highlight reel that I play in my head twenty years later.
Over those twenty years, my life as a student, professional, and football aficionado brought me to other parts of the world, which helped me see Philippine football in a new light. I would like to share a few insights which I gained over six seasons as International Business Development Director at FCBarcelona (FCB), the famed Catalan football club which is arguably playing the best football ever seen – a lofty but not inaccurate claim.
Dr. Bernie Villegas, a Univ. of A&P Professor and personal mentor of mine, whom I met in Barcelona, shared an article about the Philippines’ very own Paulino Alcantara, an Ilonggo who, to this day, is the highest-scoring player (357 goals in 357 games) in FCB’s rich 111-year history. Like many in the Philippines today, Paulino was a mestizo, who grew up playing in Iloilo until he was fourteen years old. He then moved to Barcelona and made his debut for FCB at age fifteen. Although Iloilo still serves as a hotbed for local talent, many of today’s national team players prove that not only is football talent in our genes, but in the right competitive environment, Filipinos can succeed in professional foreign leagues.
Furthermore, as many including Dr. Villegas have pointed out, FCB’s team is not manned by towering 6’4” giants. On the contrary, the average height of the official 20-man team is just below 5’10”. And their world-renowned attacking mid-field and forward trio average under 5’7”. Given those statistics, our better-nutritioned Filipino youth could certainly hold their own size-wise. Thus height, or lack thereof, is not against us.
Building a National Football Program
Why are countries like Japan and the United States – where other sports dominate the professional scene similar to the Philippines – starting to be mainstays amongst FIFA’s Top 20? There are a number of reasons including a professional domestic league and corporate support behind it. Most importantly, it is because more Japanese and American youth play football than any of the other more dominant professional sports in these countries. A high youth participation rate, within a program designed to promote grassroots development, is THE critical building block to an overall national football structure. This structure includes a competitive domestic league, media coverage, corporate backing, and a professionally run national team. High youth participation means that more kids dream of becoming professional footballers and play with that dream in mind, which in turn increases the talent pool for not only the nationwide program but eventually even foreign ones.
Today Japanese and American children see their countrymen playing in European big leagues. Such role models prove to them that the dream is indeed possible and inspire young athletes to follow in their footsteps. Although there is significant room for the team to improve, the Azkals prove to Filipinos that excelling in regional tournaments and in foreign leagues on an individual level are viable goals.
This is where educational and community institutions play a crucial role in the national football playbook. Providing Philippine youth with the opportunity to play football is where the very long road to a World Cup appearance starts. A decent amount of football activity already exists in Philippine schools today, but the bar should be raised for schools programs, as well as in local barangays, with the support and guidance of the local sports body.
A few corporations like Alaska Milk already invest a respectable amount into the sport. PLDT-Smart and a select group of other companies have just launched the MVP Foundation with ambitious but achievable objectives for Filipinos and sports, including the potential start of a local football league. There are high-level discussions about improving football facilities, including a new national stadium. Until the stadium and new fields are realized, basketball courts also serve as good football venues, where the tight space demands greater foot skill and quicker decision making.
As the Philippines moves with its designs for national football league, there are many examples to learn from, locally and abroad. The same corporations promoting football are also heavily involved in the PBA, from which many lessons can be applied to football. The United States’ Major League Soccer has taken a prudent, long-term approach of capping team salaries, which could serve the Philippines well. The Japanese Football Association is starting to enjoy the fruit of its carefully crafted grassroots plan initiated decades ago. Proper due diligence will be needed as the Philippines embarks on this exciting and challenging journey.
These recent developments are all positive. Yet it is a long and bumpy road to the global stage of beautiful and victorious football. With each taste of success come loftier goals and ambitions, victories and defeats. Let us all play a role where we can and stay focused on our youth, whose dreams fuel this beautiful game.
I would be very grateful to all football enthusiasts if they send me their own thoughts about how to promote soccer as a national sport, even if only a poor second to basketball. For comments, my email address is email@example.com.