I remember spending a Saturday night back home in 2010, relaxing from all of the hustle and bustle of life by kicking back in the living room of my house and just watching TV. As I flipped through the channels, something on Balls Channel (which has since been dissolved) immediately caught my eye: highlights of a local Filipino Football league. This immediately caught my attention as it was a change of pace from the usual basketball and volleyball games that are often aired.
At first, I was amazed by how the PBA (Philippine Basketball Association) had its counterpart in the football scene, the United Football League (UFL). Although the latter was only a semi-professional league, it made an invaluable contribution to the development of the game in the country.
Fast forward to December of that same year where the Philippine Azkals finished as semifinalists in their fairy tale run in the ASEAN Football Federation Suzuki Cup. In that tournament, I even remember reading the news and witnessing on TV how the Azkals were forced to play their “home” leg of the semifinals on Indonesian soil. Despite losing, that had sparked a football revolution in the Philippines, and our men’s football national team players became rock stars.
Back in 2011, during the qualifiers for the Brazil World Cup in 2014, I remember people scrambling for tickets to watch our team play. I thought I had seen it all in the race for tickets after witnessing people desperately fighting for the chance to watch the DLSU Green Archers and ADMU Blue Eagles faceoff in Game 3 of the UAAP Finals, or hearing about die hard Barangay Ginebra fans frantically trying to get tickets to watch Mark Caguioa, Jayjay Helterbrand, and company take home another PBA title. At that point in time, I thought that Rizal Memorial was too small for the Philippine football scene, and it was time to look elsewhere for a bigger venue.
Following our defeat to Kuwait and elimination in the aforementioned qualifiers, it had all of a sudden become a walk in the park to watch the Azkals play, as the growth of football led the way to live telecasts of UFL games, Azkal games, and UAAP Football games.
Today, however, things look a little bit different—less football games are telecasted live, although AKSYON TV broadcasted UFL games prior to the end of the league, whose future is still unknown. Only the UAAP to this day receives coverage for its Thursday games. The Rizal Memorial Stadium no longer gets filled to the brim. Although there is now a larger stadium in the Philippines, the Philippine Football Stadium is located in Bocaue, Bulacan, on the outskirts of Metro Manila.
Despite securing a stunning 3-2 victory in March 2016 over North Korea in the World Cup Qualifier—yes, the same team that played in the 2010 World Cup, interest still appeared to be low. I still have those memories of Neil Etheridge, Juani Guirado, and Amani Aguinaldo holding the fort against the towering Koreans, or with how Javier Patino, Miguel Tanton, and company beautifully setup unforgettable goals by Misagh Bahadoran, Iain Ramsay, and Manny Ott.
Attendance in the past three Suzuki Cup editions have also been low in the Philippines, particularly when we co-hosted the competition in 2016. There was no talk in town, no hype, no advertisements. I was wondering why, as the Azkals even clinched bronze and silver medals in the two previous versions of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Cup. A number of its core members even reached celebrity status and went on to endorse products.
I was fortunate enough to speak to professional sportscaster Mico Halili earlier this year and he had noticed that football had all of a sudden gone off a cliff in terms of popularity.
In the middle of things, Bacolod City continues to be the stronghold of Filipino Football, with their local club Ceres FC filling up the Panaad Stadium to the brim on game day. The players are on billboards and I have read and heard from people how upcoming games would become the talk of town.
In the recent international football friendly of the Philippines and Malaysia, the game was not televised, unlike in the past, although the Philippine Football Federation (PFF) managed to give a livestream in coordination with the AFC. This is another great move by the PFF and the supporters of local football to create interest and give the sport another boost. Let us do our part by supporting the Azkals and their female counterparts, the Malditas, in their respective bids to qualify for the Asian Cup.
With the expected establishment sometime this month of the Philippines Football League (PFL), the professional league in the country, local players are set to have a future playing the sport. Back in November 2016, I remember speaking to former DLSU Football goalkeeper and team captain Patrick Deyto, a regular member of the Azkals. He mentioned that there will be that option for football to become a career and a source of livelihood for people. Let us see and hope that football will be able to regain its popularity, particularly behind our men’s and women’s national teams and the upcoming PFL.