Although the number of enthusiasts was never a problem, it was widely believed that despite being part of the football-crazy Southeast Asian region, the sport of football would never reach mainstream success in the Philippines.
A mere two years ago, Philippine football was ravaged by politics, and filled with pessimism, cynicism and the general belief it would never come out of the shadow of the nation’s love for basketball. It was difficult to imagine the Philippine national men’s football team playing exhibition matches against David Beckham, and little kids from Payatas playing the “beautiful game” growing up to want to become football players.
It took a group of people, eight to be exact — a collection of individuals who set aside any intention of financial gain — to pursue a vision that not too many others believed in. Formed in 2009, this crew was composed of Santi Araneta, Randy Roxas, Phil and Chris Hagedorn, Javier Mantecon, Dong Longa, Mike Camahort and Monchu Garcia. Each had a different personality and specialty, but they all shared one thing in common: a massive fanaticism for football. Also, each of them believed that with the proper structure and support, the game they’ve played, followed and loved their entire lives would someday find a home to prosper in their country. They called themselves the Football Alliance.
In order to achieve their goal, they took the United Football League, back then a weekend league of sorts, to the next level. They expanded the league to include a Cup phase, invited the best teams to join and ensured that a proper “professional” season would be played. Sponsors were brought in, media outlets were tapped, and numerous venues locked down. The football community was buzzing. Finally, the sport was getting a chance to flourish, with spectators given the opportunity to witness the country’s talents on a weekly basis.
The buzz created by what was deemed the “arrival of football in the Philippines” initially brought crowds to the venues, but that did not last for too long. Despite an exciting conclusion to the inaugural UFL Cup, which determined which clubs formed the First and Second division, the buzz slowly died down and fans became quite difficult to find at the matches.
Except for friends and relatives of the players on the pitch, not too many others came out to catch the games and it wasn’t too difficult to understand why. With venues like Ateneo de Manila University, ASCom football field, San Beda Mendiola and Nomads Sports Club, spectators weren’t really treated to the typical fan-friendly environment. Also, given the lack of monetary incentive for clubs, certain teams didn’t take the competition too seriously, resulting in boring lackluster affairs. In fact, some teams even ended up defaulting their games due to a lack of players. Although the UFL had developed greatly from its initial structure, it still unfortunately felt like a Sunday league at times during its maiden season.
There were definitely signs pointing to an eventual success for the league though, evidenced by the Football Alliance’s ability to attract even more sponsors, lock down better venues and continually be in the media. For the few that came out to watch, the UFL delivered some unbelievable matches, especially from the top teams. These advancements, coupled with growing competition between clubs, led to big name investors like Dan Palami and Charlie Cojuangco to start opening up their checkbooks and create a situation where players were actually starting to get paid for their talents. At a time when earning from football was simply unheard of in the country, these were massive steps in the movement toward the goal of creating a full-on professional competition. Things weren’t moving rapidly, but it was quite clear that through the UFL, the Football Alliance was certainly moving in the right direction. No one knew that they were just about to be given a tremendous lift.
In the middle of the second season, the Azkals flew to Hanoi, Vietnam to compete in the 2010 Suzuki Cup. This tournament determined the best in Southeast Asia, and was a competition the Philippines was routinely destroyed in. Filipino fans were ecstatic about qualification, but weren’t too hopeful about much success, and it didn’t help that former winners Singapore was the team’s first opposition.
While many felt the Philippines would battle to simply avoid an embarrassing score line, under Coach Simon McMenemy, and team manager Dan Palami, the Azkals had other ideas. Defending brilliantly throughout, and frustrating Singapore, Chris Greatwich scored in the 94th minute to give the Philippines a shock 1-1 draw. The footballing world was stunned. Suddenly, the Azkals, full of confidence and new found belief had transformed from bottom feeders to actual contenders. It was the 2nd of December, the day that changed the landscape of Philippine football forever.
Most believed the incredible result was a fluke however, and that in the next game against Vietnam, the Azkals would be sent back to earth in front of a rowdy Hanoi crowd. Instead, goals from Chris Greatwich and Phil Younghusband secured the Philippines a 2-0 win, sending waves throughout the entire region that the days of taking the Azkals lightly was a thing of the past. Although Indonesia ultimately put an end to the team’s fairytale run in the semi-finals, the players returned home heroes, and for the first time in the modern day era, football was on the tip of every Filipino’s tongue. Continued success for the Azkals brought the sport to an all-time high, and this resulted in the UFL reaping a bucket load of benefits.
The biggest development was an unprecedented P150M, 5-year deal with AKTV that would bring local football to every Filipino’s home — progress that not even the most optimistic would’ve imagined so soon. The quality of players also saw a large improvement, with the likes of Phil and James Younghusband, Angel Guirado and Mark and Matthew Hartmann all deciding to ply their trade domestically where they will be on show for all the fans week in and week out. With more money being pumped into the UFL than ever before, young footballers face the prospect of having a league in the future where they can actually make a living through their talents in the sport.
Just last Monday, some 3,000 fans were on hand to enjoy an immensely exciting pair of UFL Cup semifinals matches between Loyola Meralco and Kaya Cignal, and Air Force and Global.
These days, on any given weekend, you will now be able to walk into the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium and witness a healthy crowd enjoying a quality game of football — a hell of a sight for the fanatic that has been worn down by the pessimism surrounding the sport for so long. There was once no hope for Philippine football, but it seems when people come together for a common goal, great things can happen — things that people wouldn’t have ever dreamed of. The “beautiful game” is finally here to stay, and we owe a debt of gratitude to the Football Alliance. It’s still early, but it’s safe to say the future looks incredibly bright for football in the Philippines.
Josue Jamlang covers football for InterAKTV and announces matches for AKTV on IBC. He served as an assistant technical director for the UFL during its maiden season. Follow him on Twitter for more football discussion.