Bernardo M. Villegas
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Football in the Next Administration (Part I)

           It may not be the most earthshaking mission for a government to adopt.  Promoting football as a national sport in which Filipinos can excel in the world can, however, be a major concern of the next Administration.  The next six years can be a make-or-break period for the AZKALS, our national football team.  They need all of our support, starting with a more friendly government.

          My love affair with the beautiful game came late in my life.  I was already a professor emeritus of the University of Asia and the Pacific spending two years of my sabbatical leave as a Visiting Professor in one of the world’s top business schools, the IESE Business School, in Barcelona.  It so happened that the apartment in which I was staying was right across the Camp Nou, the biggest football stadium in Europe and the home base of the world’s leading football club, F.C. Barcelona (with due respect to the fans of Real Madrid).  My bedroom was on the tenth floor of that building in the Les Corts district from where I could literally see the bleachers of both the large and mini stadia.  In fact, a kind friend even gifted me with a binocular just in case I could watch the football games from my bedroom, which I never did.  Fortunately, I befriended Josh Thompson—brother of famous swimmer Akiko Thompson—who had graduated with an MBA from IESE a few years back and was Marketing Director for Asia of FC Barcelona.  Josh invited me several times to watch games at the Camp Nou.   I can never forget the first time he invited me to watch Barca play with Getafe on an evening of April 2007.  It was the game during which the world took notice of a 19-year-old Lionel Messi who did a Maradona by evading some 6 or 7 defenders and went straight to the goal and scored.  A few years later, I was also in Camp Nou when Messi broke the record of Filipino Spanish Barca star, Paulino Alcantara, in the number of goals for all games played for Barca. These and similar experiences cemented my passion for football and my fanatical adherence to Barca.

          I am grateful to President Nonong Araneta and the other officials of the Philippine Football Federation for trusting an amateur like me to chair the task force that is overseeing the launching of the Philippine National Football League by the first quarter of 2017.  I am glad that the other members of the task force are infinitely more knowledgeable than I about football, some of them having been top football players in the past.  This lack of an intimate knowledge of the most popular sport in the world may, however, be an advantage as I make fearless forecasts about Philippine football for the next six to ten years. As a professional economist, sometimes referred to in business circles as the “prophet of boom,” I may be forgiven if I make some predictions about a bright future for football in the Philippines.  I can always plead insufficient knowledge if my forecasts are way off the mark.

          Having been among the more than 6,000 spectators at the Philippine Stadium in Bocaue, Bulacan on the night the Philippine AZKALS beat the Bahrain team in the World Cup qualifiers, and having watched on TV live our national team defeat the Yemen booters in Doha, I will start with the short-term forecast that the AZKALS will advance to the third round of the World Cup qualifying process by being among the top two in its group (they will overcome Uzbekistan or North Korea or both).  If they do not survive the third round of the World Cup qualifiers, the AZKALS will surely be playing in the 2019 Asian Cup.  Thanks to the efforts of people like Dan Palami, manager of the AZKALS, and Atty. Ed Gastanes, General Secretary of the PFF, we can depend at least for the next ten years on experienced players who have Filipino blood from one of their parents.   Thanks to the Filipino diaspora, there will be no shortage of these “mestizos” who have honed their football skills playing for  football clubs in countries where the game is both the top national sport and a multi-billion Euro industry, especially Spain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands,  and the UK.

          Although we should exert every effort to increase the number of “homegrown” players, there is no need to apologize that we will be depending for some time to come on these talents with double citizenship.  As Atty. Ed Gastanes astutely points out, the Philippines is unique in the sense that out of about 100 million Filipinos, there are 90 million of them residing in the Philippines and 10 million outside the Philippines.  Thanks to our following the “jus sanguinis“ principle in determining  citizenship,  a Phil Younghusband or a Misagh Bahadoran or a Iain Ramsay are as natural born Filipinos as a Chiffiey Calicdong. The OFW phenomenon, which will be around for at least the next fifty years, will be a weapon we can use to qualify for the final round of the World Cup in 2022, hopefully still to be held in Qatar where there will be tens of thousands of Filipinos who will cheer for the AZKALS in the World Cup finals!  Since my late mother lived up to 102, God willing, I may still be around in 2022.  Another fearless forecast:  if he does not play for the Spanish national team, Sandro Reyes—the Southridge student who was invited by FC Barcelona to train in its FCBEscola—will be there playing for the AZKALS in 2022!  By then, he will already be 18 years old.

          What about our homegrown talents?  The greatest advantage of the Philippines is that we have the lowest median age in East Asia.  Fifty per cent of Filipinos are below 23 years old.  In Northeast Asia like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and even China, the median age is 30 and above.  Our population is not only young.  It is still growing and will be growing at least for the next thirty years.  That means we have a very large pool of young people who can be trained to play football, starting with futsal in the thousands of barangays all over the Archipelago.  Thanks to a proliferation of NGOs like the Gawad Kalinga, the Don Bosco schools, the Henry Moran Foundation, the Ambassadors Cup, The Global FC Youth Center, etc., football training is becoming more widespread among street children and others coming from the lower income groups. This is promoting inclusive growth in an important sport. These can be a major source of potential professional football players as contrasted with the children of the well-to-do who have many other professional or occupational options. (To be continued)