Page last updated at 06:53 UTC, Thursday, 31 March 2011 PH
The long-time dream of soccer fans in the Philippines that their favorite sport could at least be a poor second to basketball in national consciousness may have come. As I have written time and again in this newspaper, it doesn't make sense for Filipinos to be so obsessed with basketball. No matter how the genes of Filipinos are evolving as there are more intermarriages with Caucasians, it may take centuries before we can produce a generation of Michael Jordans and Pau Gasuls. We will always be handicapped in basketball global competition by our having more "unanos" (enanos in the original Spanish word) than giants. In contrast, soccer or football does not require very tall players. The three players who were nominated in 2010 for the World Player of the Year--Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez--are all under six foot tall. Messi, who won the title for the second consecutive time, has the height of an average Filipino male today.
As usual, the person who can make things happen comes from the private sector, the famous businessman-sportsman Manny Pangilinan (usually referred to as MVP). Just before Christmas last year, MVP expressed the hope that a big boost can be given to Philippine football by the surprisingly outstanding performance of the Filipino booters in the semifinals of the AFF Suzuki Cup. They won over the reigning champions, the Vietnamese. They also gave a good fight to the Indonesians who come from a country where there is a national passion for soccer. MVP reminded all and sundry that football is "the greatest spectator sport in the world and we have to be up there in the map of the world and we are not there at all, except this time with the team having done well in Vietnam and Indonesia."
As famous sports commentator Ronnie Nathanielsz wrote in this paper (December 23, 2010), MVP could not have picked a better time to rally for football's cause. The seemingly eternal intramurals among officials of the Philippine Football Association stopped when the International Football Federation (Fifa) ended the leadership dispute by recognizing Mariano Araneta as President in lieu of Jose Mari Martinez. In a recent meeting in Qatar, officials of Fifa expressed their strong support for Mr. Araneta and company. I have personal knowledge of the fact that Fifa would be willing to help the Philippines put up a stadium somewhere in Manila if we can sort out our football politics. As Mr. Nathanielsz reported, Araneta himself said "it's time to move forward and capitalize on the momentum brought by the Azkals." He said his first priority will be "to prepare the team for the Challenge Cup this February." Mr. Araneta also expressed his full support for team manager Dan Palami.
MVP has made it clear that he cannot do it alone: "I hope other corporations, other individuals will support football and I hope the country does as well along with our people." I am sure there are a good number of football enthusiasts in the business community who will respond to the call of MVP. I know a few of them: Fred Uytengsu Jr., President of Alaska Milk Corporation that has been sponsoring the Alaska Cup for the youth for several years now; Hyundai Corporation that also sponsors nationwide tournaments; Danny Moran, one of the founders of Red Ribbon and national team player in the past. I am sure there are others. What is important is that MVP and the other business executives interested in the long-term development of Philippine soccer should get together with the officials of the Philippine Football Federation to prepare a strategic plan for the next ten years. There are no short cuts to developing a national sport.
In the short run, the national team may be bolstered by imports from abroad like the Younghusband brothers and the goalkeeper Neil Etheridge. There is no substitute, however, to a long-term talent development plan that can be patterned after the famous La Masia school that has brought FC Barcelona (Barca) to the top of world's football. I know I am partly dreaming because such a system requires a lot of financing. But we can start with what we have. First let me explain what La Masia is in Barcelona. It is a training camp put up by the Football Club of Barcelona that takes in boys as early as nine years old. In a business case developed by Professor Pablo Cardona of the IESEBusinessSchool, the school is described in great detail. The Financial Times carried an article by Professor Cardona last January 13, 2011. Let me quote from the FT article: "La Masia has been home to more than 500 players over three decades, as both a training academy and boarding house. The original aim of the school was to develop successful football players. It sought out players who were talented, but also had the drive to win and the ability to work as part of a team. Personal development and athletic performance are made inseparable in the lives of young players...Young players are expected to adopt the team's fast-paced style of play early on. This means they will be able to integrate quickly when the big moment arrives and they join the starting team...La Masia's renown for instilling strong personal values in young players has played a vital role in the school's success. It has also helped convince many parents to let their children join the club, even though the chances of becoming a member of Barcelona's first team are slim."
FC Barcelona has helped put up similar schools in Mexico, Argentina and other Latin American countries. It is not overly ambitious to ask FC Barcelona to do the same thing in the Philippines, either directly or through the Spanish embassy that may have grants for soccer development. I know for a fact that Congressman Charlie Cojuangco has gotten help from another famous Spanish soccer club--the one in Sevilla-- to help train Filipino youth in soccer in Negros Oriental. The important thing is to start somewhere and somehow. My preference is to put up such a school in the city that is the soccer center of the Philippines--IloiloCity, where the costs of living are lower and where there are less distractions for the youth than Manila. One of the most famous players of FC Barcelona was Paulino Alcantara whose mother hailed from Iloilo. In fact, I already have in mind a small school which can be the seed of our version of La Masia. This is called WestbridgeHigh School in IloiloCity. The school has a football team that has beaten all the high school teams in Iloilo City. This is quite a feat in a city where there is a passion for football.
Only through a systematic talent development program can we hope to ever send a Philippine team to the World Cup. I think some of our football officials got carried away by their enthusiasm after the Suzuki Cup victory. Some dared to mention that we may be able to qualify soon for the World Cup. This prompted a cynical remark from a long-time Spanish resident, who played for the famous Real Madrid in his younger days and who has been coaching soccer teams in Manila. I did agree with his cynicism: "Not in our lifetime." It may take decades before we will be ready for the big league. But, as I told him, the journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step. So let us start that version of La Masia somewhere in Iloilo and with Westbridge as a possible cooperating school. For comments, my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org