Long before the Younghusbands arrived to become the poster boys of Philippine football, Freddy Gonzalez was already spearheading the national team. But unlike today, when there is considerable hype and support for the Azkals, Gonzalez starred for the team when it was still far from the national consciousness more than a decade ago.
Back then, the Philippine squad was the whipping boys of football in the region, usually failing to get past the group stages, and losing its matches by huge margins.
Despite that, Gonzalez’s skill was evident in those matches. After all, he had been playing football since he was six years old, and earned a scholarship to play varsity football at University of Portland. He also had playing stints in Europe during his prime, leading observers to believe that he could have been the best Filipino football player since the legendary Paulino Alcantara, the Spanish-Filipino mestizo who starred for FC Barcelona more than a decade ago.
Freddy still remembers how hard it was to hack out a football career in the Philippines then.
“During my time, yung mga super hardcore lang yung mga nanonood,” said Gonzalez. “It was very hard to get any support. No money is coming into football.”
The situation was even worse for the national team, for which he first suited up in 1997 and led for more than a decade. The team was barely able to prepare for tournaments, training just two to three weeks ahead of the competitions. Because of lack of resources, the team was unable to organize training camps.
“We didn’t have any allowance, they didn’t give any football shoes, we didn’t even have balls,” said Gonzalez, whose mestizo good looks today makes him seem less like a star footballer and more like a leading man in a Mexican telenovela.
Today, the Azkals are darlings of the public, getting ample support from many sponsors and fans. They have the privilege of training abroad before tournaments and even playing friendly matches against top clubs such as the Los Angeles Galaxy late last year.
But for Gonzalez, who toiled in anonymity when football in the country was still an afterthought, said that he’s happy for the national footballers today.
“I’m happy that football is finally growing, finally getting the attention of the people,” Gonzalez said. “Masaya ako para sa kanila.”
Now 34, Gonzalez could have just hung up his cleats for good and focused on his various business interests. He retired from playing four years ago, but returned to see action for Pachanga FC in the United Football League, playing against younger, faster, and more skilled opponents on the pitch.
Gonzalez is the first to admit that he now carries a few more pounds than he did in his prime, and that his skills are not as sharp as it was a decade ago.
But the numbers tell a different story. In 19 matches, Gonzalez has scored a whopping total of 30 goals to lead Division Two; his goal totals exceed those of Division One leaders Phil and James Younghusband.
“I am really punishing my body to try and get back into my decent shape,” Gonzalez said. “I’m still not 100 percent yet.”
But despite not yet being in prime shape, his magnificent numbers has driven Pachanga’s amazing run in League competition. The team has not lost any games, with the only blemish on its record a draw. Pachanga has routed opponents by large margins, registering 13-0 triumphs twice, including twice in a 15-day span last March against Sunken Garden United FC and Lions Meltique Beef FC. Sunken Garden United fell prey twice to Pachanga, yielding another 13-0 defeat last May 19.
All in all, Pachanga has scored 109 goals while giving up just seven for an astonishing goal differential of 102 – dwarfing the total of any other team in the league, in both divisions.
Gonzalez’s contributions go beyond the pitch. Apart from being the team’s leading scorer, he also owns the team.
Team manager Jojo Rodriguez said most of the credit for Pachanga’s should be given to his boss Gonzalez. He boasted about how the team has been well taken care of, from uniforms, laundry services, and even transportation. The team even has a van to bring players to match and practice venues.
“When you train with Pachanga, you only have to train with your football shoes,” Rodriguez said.
Business before Azkals
After retiring, Gonzalez, whose mother Terry was a member of the shipping magnate Razon clan, concentrated on his various businesses. His firm distributes one of the most popular clothing lines in the Philippines, as well as an imported slipper brand in the country. He also owns a brand of surfing apparel.
But when he displayed amazing form during his comeback, he turned more than a few heads, including some Azkals, who invited him to rejoin the team.
Gonzalez felt honored by the invitation, especially since he used to be the team’s star. With football rising up to unprecedented heights, here was his chance to make his introduction as one of the best homegrown football players the country has ever had.
But he had other things in mind.
“Unfortunately, my life is not really football anymore,” he said, adding that business priorities forced him to decline the invitation to play for the Azkals.
For Gonzalez, getting the opportunity to play every week is enough.
“I like the way it is now,” Gonzalez said. “I’m playing again.”