As a new football fan, Maricar Topular, 22, first ignored General Trias International FC. The team from her hometown was composed entirely of South Korean students living General Trias who happened to play football.
But by the time the team crashed the quarterfinals of the United Football Cup, falling to eventual champion Stallion FC in a dramatic encounter, Topular had become a General Trias diehard.
“Hindi ko kilala yung players pero sobrang cheer ako and nung natalo sila, ambigat sa puso,” she said, adding that the squad carrying her province’s name made it easier for her to cheer for it.
“I can definitely identify with them kahit nga ‘di sila Pinoy eh.”
Topular thinks it’s about time the UFL brought the country’s top football league to the provinces to make it more exciting — not just for fans, but for players as well.
Since it was established in 2009, the UFL has catered mainly to fans in Metro Manila, where most of its players, teams, and sponsors are based.
But many fans feel there is an untapped market in the provinces that the league ought to look at. While football culture is fairly new for fans in basketball-crazy Manila, many regions around the country are hotbeds for the beautiful game.
In fact, prior to the entry of Azkals with foreign lineage, most members of the Philippine national men’s football team traced their roots to hotbeds such as Barotac Nuevo in Iloilo, Bacolod City, and Cebu, among other places.
Earlier this month, a provincial team from Bacolod advanced to the finals of the Philippine Football Federation-SMART National Club Championship, upsetting highly-touted teams from the UFL. The reigning UFL Cup champion Stallion has roots in Iloilo, while the league’s second division features the province-based Cebu Queen City United, whose players and officials fly to Manila regularly to compete in matches.
Philippine football legend Elmer Lacknet Bedia believes the UFL should explore expanding nationwide to be able to promote the sport further.
“I think it should be done by next year bringing UFL outside Manila,” said Bedia, a Barotac Nuevo native who now works with Team Philippines to the Homeless World Cup as a consultant.
“It should be done home-and-away basis or else, the UFL won’t get any farther.”
With football luring more supporters and the UFL having a television deal with sports channel AKTV, the strategy could work, according to Bedia.
“I suppose with the sponsorship of every club, they are ready 100 percent,” he said.
But having home-and-away format for matches could lead a logistical nightmare for the UFL, according to the league’s marketing manager Coco Torre.
“As you know, the Philippines may not have abundance in quality pitches,” he said. “It will also be a challenge as the UFL is still a semi-pro league, meaning some players do still have their regular jobs. Perhaps a conflict on their personal schedules.”
Sun.Star Cebu editor Mike Limpag, a longtime Philippine football observer who helped coin the “Azkals” nickname for the national team, said that while a home-and-away format may not be ideal for the UFL, the league could look to the model used by the PBA to promote football throughout the country.
“The best way to bring the matches in the province, I think, would be to follow the PBA format. Have games in provinces where clubs have a strong following — say Dondon Hontiveros’ or June Mar Fajardo’s teams in Cebu matches,” said Limpag.
“For the UFL, the Stallions, Global, Kaya, and Loyola have great following in the Visayas. A game involving any of these clubs would be a hit.”
Limpag adds that the UFL could coordinate with local football associations for matches to be played during the popular festivals in the country. For example, a “Sinulog Derby” between Cebu Queen City and another Division Two squad will be a big hit for Cebuanos during the festivities.
“One advantage of this is that the schedules of these festivals are fixed. Almost a year in advance, the UFL can negotiate early, or if it falls in the regular season, plan early which teams can play.”
Limpag believes that tapping the football market in the provinces will help sustain the league in the long run.
“The UFL is already the country’s premier league, and the UFL — not the success of the Azkals in international campaigns — will determine whether football in the Philippines [can thrive],” he said.
“It’s all about getting fans and, perhaps, sponsors, outside of Manila feel involved.”
In the works
Bringing UFL closer to people in the province is one of the objectives of the league in the near future, according to league president Randy Roxas.
“It’s definitely the direction the league wants to take. Having provincial games will help spur the growth of the league and the grassroots development program,” he said.
Torre said that the UFL are now working with AKTV for the possibility of having some games played in some provinces.
Stallion coach Ernie Nierras doesn’t see UFL matches outside Metro Manila anytime soon.
“At this time, I do not see that happening on a regular basis. I think the UFL will need to address certain things closer to home. Administrative improvements, officiating and venue upgrades, as well as logistical concerns with our schedules,” said Nierras.
“But these are signs of growth within the UFL.”
For a UFL follower like Topular, she hopes the league realizes its dream in playing more matches outside Metro Manila.
“Para ma-promote yung league, mas okay na may mga provincial games. It will definitely create awareness,” she said. “Feel ko naman basta football-related, open-minded yung mga taga-province.”