The Philippines was thrown into the world’s spotlight in dramatic fashion on the 8 November this month. Typhoon Haiyan has took its toll with the current death toll at over 5,000 people with thousands more missing. The sporting world saw first-hand the consequences as recent Golf World Cup Champion and Australian-born Jason Day revealed he lost eight members of his family. Also UEFA quickly prompted a sign of support with banners unveiled at every Champions League football game this week reading, “You are not alone, Philippines.” Generally football in the country has battled against the most popular sport, basketball, and struggles to gain enough popularity to grow organically. The national team continues to be one of the weaker across the globe and the domestic league remains effectively semi-professional with future plans to change that. However look beneath the surface and you will see a game that has been heavily influenced originally by Britain, Spain and more recently the rest of Europe. Remarkably when football was at the height of popularity the country even produced a Spanish football legend.
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In the late 19th Century football was introduced by Hong Kong-based British sailors, reportedly members of the Manila Club based in Manila Bay, scene of the legendary Battle of Manila Bay of the Spanish-American war. The British encouraged the game to take hold, helped by Filipino students bringing back the fundamentals from their schools in Hong Kong, China. This early love affair with football would be stunted with the outbreak of the Spanish-American War but with the American victory came another burst of progress.
With a decade of growing popularity the Philippine Football Federation formed and oversaw the first official international game against China in 1913, a 2-1 victory in Manila. This promising debut was not the start of an Asian superpower and scant resources ensured international competitive games were centred around South-East Asia, the highlight in this era a 15-2 mauling of Japan in Tokyo, their biggest win in history to date. In this game the Filipino team were led by the mercurial talent of Paulino Alcántara, a prolific striker that single-handedly took apart the Japanese. Alcántara would only appear for the nation of his birth for a short period; born in the Philippines with a Spanish military officer father the family returned to Spain and his talent would be nurtured on the streets of Barcelona. Unearthed by the Swiss founder of FC Barcelona, Joan Gamper, Alcántara quickly become a phenomenon, scoring a hat-trick on his debut and in the process becoming the youngest player in history to score for the Spanish giants at fifteen years old, a record that still stands today. When his family returned to the Philippines in 1916 he continued to study to be a Doctor, appeared for the Filipino national team and even managed to represent his country at Table Tennis. When Barcelona begged for him to return he obliged and from 1918 to 1927 became the club’s highest goal-scorer in history with 357 goals, another record he still holds today. Not to be content with such mediocre achievements he played six times for Spain, scoring five goals; such was his legend would even manage the Spanish national team in 1951 and rightly so is claimed as the greatest Filipino footballer, likely never to be beaten.
The first half of the Twentieth century would prove to be the peak of the nation’s football success and was gradually pushed aside as an American influence emerged and Basketball began to take hold as the country’s most popular sport. Between 1930 and 1974 the Philippines would only once enter qualifying for the FIFA World Cup in 1950 and quickly withdrew, followed by another withdrawal in 1974. This barren period was depressingly redundant until a relatively strong resurgence, entering qualifying for the 1998 and 2002 World Cups. Despite this progress the “Azkals”, or “street dogs” roughly translated, did not win a qualifying game in nine attempts and chose not to enter the running for 2006 or 2010.
Most recently they returned for Brazil 2014 qualifying and managed their best performance yet, reaching Round 2 with one win and one draw from four games against Kuwait and Sri Lanka, the latter being their first ever win in World Cup qualifying. Their endeavours on the continent have mirrored their World Cup form with just one win in 20 games in Asian Cup qualifying from 1956 to present and not one appearance at the final stage. However there has been some promising developments and cause for celebration on a more local stage with a 2012 Philippine Peace Cup win, their first trophy since the 1913 Far Eastern Games.
After reaching an all-time low FIFA ranking of 195 in 2006 the last decade has been fruitful in developing young talent and they currently sit at 137 in the world. The undoubted stars of the team have consistently been the English born but now Philippine based ex-Chelsea striker Phil Younghusband and his midfielder brother James. 26 year-old Phil has 34 goals and 53 caps to his name with James racking up 61 caps. Remarkably in 2005 a young gamer playing the popular Football Manager contacted the Philippine Football Federation and made them aware of their heritage. This divine intervention has made their fans eternally grateful to the anonymous tipster.
Veteran English-Filipino defender Rob Gier has formed the heart of the defence since 2009, playing his club football for English non-League club Ascot and has formed a strong partnership with the Spanish born Juan Luis Guirado. The 34 year-old gentle giant only gained his first cap in 2012 after a career spent in the second tier of Spanish football. A handful of German-based talent has recently been called up to the squad but arguably the most talented of the European stock has been wing-back Stephan Schröck. A regular fixture since 2011 he currently plays for Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga and despite representing the always impressive Germany up to U-20 level, he chose the Philippines out of respect to his Filipino mother. Between the goalposts the squad has a healthy competitive battle between German born keeper Roland Müller, a regular in the Bundesliga until his move to Switzerland’s Servette FC, and Fulham’s talented English born squad keeper, Neil Etheridge.
Domestically football flourished in the early 1900s with the formation of British teams such as the Nomads and the Sandow Athletic Club. After 1910 Filipino teams began to develop talented teams of home-grown players and would take their lead from their European-led rivals. Bohemian Sporting Club were on of the most successful Filipino teams in these early years and by the 1920s Circulo Social Deportivo and Casino Español, reminders of the Philippines Spanish history, fought to challenge them for their superiority. The annual football championship of the Philippines finally gained official status when amateur teams across the country formed the Philippine Amateur Athletic Federation in 1921.
Fast forward to today and football has undergone a huge makeover. The current United Football League was only formed in 2009, starting as a semi-professional competition. Ten teams compete in both Division One and Division Two and the season runs from January to June to avoid the excessive rain season. Private investment, corporate sponsorship and strategic alliances over the past few years have ensured the league has improved each year and is becoming more commercially viable and sustainable. Over the four seasons played the Philippine Air Force team has won two titles in 2010 and 2011 followed by Global FC and Stallion FC; with Global FC and Kaya FC finishing up runners-up twice each. Interestingly the Air Force team has only Filipino players and has even taken two UFC Cups to effectively be the most successful team to date but were relegated in 2013 and will compete in Division Two in the 2014 season. Gradually as the standard steadily increases foreign players and coaches are becoming more prevalent and half of the Head Coaches and Team Captains consist of people from nations including Scotland, Australia, Iran, Italy, Poland and the Netherlands.
The future of Filipino football lies in the ability of continued investment, both economically and tactically that will prevent the team falling back down the world rankings. The core of the national team were not born in the Philippines and have largely represented the country as an after-thought or later in their careers. A sound and long-term plan should be the next step for the authorities and will ensure that home-grown talent will prosper in the likes of Europe and bring back that expertise, ensuring a cycle of development. With links between German born and based national players the Bundesliga has recently stepped forward to offer some hope and suggested an investment in the nation’s game, a plan that could see it’s popularity eclipse that of it’s current foe Basketball.