As the World Cup rampaged through the month of June to the month of July and some of the world’s finest athletes took the largest stage in the world, all eyes were fixated on the riveting action on display—all except for the Philippines.
That, of course, is an exaggeration. It’s not as if no one here is watching the world cup. The damn thing is live on ABS-CBN Sports. However, it’s no secret that the Philippines hasn’t quite fallen in love with the so-called beautiful game in the same way most of the world has. In 2012, a survey was conducted in the country in an attempt to determine the most popular sports in it; basketball (of course) won with 74.4% of the votes, while football finished a measly fourth with 17.9%. In addition to that, in a survey conducted in the same year determining the most common sports played in leisure time, football didn’t even make it on the list.
Why is this the case? Why doesn’t the Philippines play a more significant role in the football world? Some would argue that it’s because the Philippines is far different from the countries that do have football as a very centric sport within their culture. However, that argument is easy to pick apart. We have a lot in common with Spain (our former colonizers), as a lot of their beliefs are rooted in our own traditions. And if one might argue that they, a European powerhouse, are more advanced than our measly third-world land, we share many other similarities with other countries that have found success in the footballing world. We share Brazil’s extremely crowded cities and sweltering heat, while we share Asian roots with South Korea and Japan, who are Asia’s best representatives in this year’s World Cup.
It might even be fair to argue that we as Filipinos are more naturally adept at football than we are in our most popular sport, basketball. Our more diminutive heights give us a disadvantage in that sport, where in football, shorter players such as Lionel Messi, Alexis Sanchez, and Andres Iniesta have made names for themselves in spite of their height. That, coupled with our natural hardworking, diligent and fierce natures, alongside our European upbringing in the Spanish era, would suggest that Filipinos could play a significant role in the footballing world.
However, that is most certainly not the case. The Philippines has barely made a dent in the footballing world, the lack thereof growing larger by the day.
It’s important to take a look back through the history of football in the Philippines to truly understand why this is the case. For one thing, it’s not as if there hasn’t been a Filipino player who’s been able to make a significant impact on the footballing stage. Paulino Alcantara is a name that’s hardly every brought up when discussing the country’s greatest sportsmen. This is baffling, considering how much he’s done in the footballing landscape. Born in Iloilo, the man is FC Barcelona’s 7th highest goalscorer, only behind legends such as Lionel Messi and above players like Samuel Eto’o and Rivaldo. He represented the Philippines, playing a role in our biggest ever international win, beating Japan 15-2. And yet, he isn’t spoken of in the same vein as Efren Reyes or Gabriel Elorde. The world of football can be extremely hard to break into, and here is a man who has not only done it, but has thrived in it, having earned the nickname of “The netbreaker” during his time in Spain. Alcantara, who might just be the Philippines’ greatest footballer, is often forgotten, his name hardly ever brought up.
Then there’s the talking point that is the Philippine National Team. Known as the Azkals, the team made history in 2011 when they advanced to the next round of FIFA World Cup qualification for the first time, beating Sri Lanka. This was the first time in a long time that a good amount of people took notice of their national team, with players such as the Younghusbands, Neil Etheridge, and Stephan Schröck playing important roles. The run the Philippine National Team had was promptly put to rest by Kuwait, who beat the Azkals in the next round.
It is however sad to think that this is one of the best periods of our Philippine national time in recent memory; a staggering seven years ago. The highest the Philippines has ever finished in FIFA’s world rankings is 111th, and our country has never qualified for the prestigious World Cup. And when the national team has had even the slightest of challenges, it hasn’t usually ended well. Defeats to Kuwait and US football club LA Galaxy haven’t given the country any reason to be confident in the side. It leaves football fans questioning what chance our team really has, especially leading up to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, where we’ve been drawn in a group with South Korea, who are one of the few Asian countries to have made it to Russia in the World Cup, and who have beaten Germany despite making an early exit in the competition. Only time will tell, but if history is of any indication, victory isn’t the most plausible outcome.
Yet despite our relative lack of skill and recognition on our side, there is still a lot of pride to be had in our players. Phil Younghusband is one of the most prolific goalscorers on an international level, scoring 50 goals in 96 caps. Stephan Schröck, despite some controversy regarding his relationship with the team and coach, has had a career playing in Germany’s top flight league, the Bundesliga. And in August of this year, Neil Etheridge will be making a name for himself in arguably the most popular football league in the world, the English Premier League, with Cardiff City. He could become the first Southeast Asian player to ever grace the Premier League.
All of these small steps, while not quite comparing to the heights of players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and such, are to be lauded. And yet, there is hardly ever that much talk regarding these players. Many Filipinos would often leap at the opportunity to put out that little “Filipino Pride” appreciation post for these kinds of things, but there is very few of these to be seen regarding Filipino football.
Perhaps that is the issue at play. Whether our countrymen are hitting the heights of Paulino Alcantara or achieving smaller successes, such as qualifying for next year’s AFC Asian Cup, Filipino football often goes by overlooked, glossed over by other things. It’s baffling to what extent we as a country are so disconnected from the riveting expanse that is the world of football. There may be many reasons as to why the beautiful game isn’t prevalent in our country. People have their own preferences, and it might just so happen that the ones in this little archipelago of ours aren’t as excited by a glorious equalizer in the 88th minute of a game from a free kick than they are about a sweep in the NBA Finals. So be it if that’s the case; there’s nothing wrong with that. There is an element of tragedy to it however, seeing as the seeds of a footballing nation are already sown into our history. Thus, the Philippines lays with yet unrealized potential. And while Filipinos might not quite have made a name for themselves in footballing lore as of yet, it wouldn’t come as a surprise at all should the day come that we do.