What to expect in Philippine football in 2016

Bob Guerrero
What to expect in Philippine football in 2016
Your handy guide for everything in Filipino football this year, from the Azkals to youth teams

Azkals 

The men’s national seniors team will be playing their final two group matches of the FIFA World Cup and AFC Asian Cup joint qualifiers in March. On Sunday, March 24, they travel to Tashkent to try and avenge the 5-1 hammering in Bulacan at the hands of the Uzbeks. Five days later, they close out the campaign with a game against Korea DPR at Rizal Memorial.

Azkals manager Dan Palami hopes that the squad can come together 10 days before the games.

The Azkals are already out of the running for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, but the Philippines can still automatically qualify for the next qualifying group stage for the 2019 Asian Cup. That stage will take place next year. 

The Azkals only need to avoid being one of the 4 worst fourth placers from the 8 groups. Thankfully, they cannot finish fifth in the group anymore since Yemen lost again after beating them and can no longer overtake them in the standings. Palami is confident that the 7 points the Azkals have amassed are enough to see them through to Asian Cup qualifying. If they somehow do not make the next stage, they enter into a playoff stage for the Asian Cup, which will take place likely during the June FIFA international window.

The Azkals boss says the Philippines will likely use all of the FIFA international dates this year for friendlies. The windows after March are May 30 to June 7, August 29 to September 6, October 3 to October 11, and November 7 to 15.

Palami tells me we should save June 7 on our calendars. The Philippines will likely host a friendly somewhere in the Visayas against an opponent that has yet to be determined. 

I have heard Cebu’s Abellana field is a dustbowl at the moment but since they have 6 months to prepare, they just might be able to get it match-ready by then. The other obvious option is Bacolod’s Panaad Stadium, with a field that tends to be in great shape all year round. The Iloilo Sports Center might be a dark horse. 

The Azkals are set to play Kyrgyzstan in a pair of friendlies, one home, and one away, as part of the lead-up to the AFF Suzuki Cup. One match will likely be in September and another in November. 

The Philippines will host one of the two Suzuki Cup four-team round-robin groups in December. I have not been able to find out when the draw is. (Please, no Thailand!) 

Palami says that the Philippine Sports Stadium in Bulacan has the inside track for the hosting of the 3 Azkals games, with Rizal Memorial likely the venue for the non-Azkal game that will be played at the same time as the third and final Azkal group game. 

The Suzuki Cup is not held during FIFA dates so it is unlikely that any European-based players will be able to suit up for us then. 

Palami says he and Azkals coach Thomas Dooley are looking at another Filipino-German striker currently plying his trade in the German second tier. Palami was unable to tell me his name because he says he is unable to pronounce it. No, I cannot make this up. 

United Football League 

The country’s highest-level league will have 12 teams this year. They first play in the Cup that begins on February 6 and ends in April. The Cup will be a single round-robin of two groups of 6, then quarterfinals, semifinals, and a final match. 

The League is slated to begin on April 21 and will be a pure double round-robin league, (without playoffs), involving the 12 sides, who are now in one division. No more two tiers as in previous seasons. It should finish by late September. 

The league is reverting to having one competition after another, instead of running them concurrently as in most other footballing nations. I think that in our situation, this is a good idea. Last year, they had the first round of the League, then the group stage of the Cup, then the second round of the League, then the Cup playoffs. Not very easy for new fans to follow.

As of the moment the teams who have confirmed for 2016 are Ceres, Kaya, Loyola, Green Archers United, Global, JP Voltes, Laos, Pachanga, Forza, Agila, and Stallion. The twelfth team has not yet been set but it’s likely either Nomads, Pasargad, or Navy Fleet Marine. These teams have to play in both the Cup and the League as well as field squads in the UFL Youth competitions over the summer. This has been mandated by the PFF, said UFL General Manager Rely San Agustin. There will be no more guest teams who play only in the Cup but not the League. 

San Agustin says that 12 clubs is the maximum the league can accommodate, considering how much time they have this year. They want to allocate the end of the year to the Azkals for Suzuki Cup preparations. 

Just like last year, the League champ will get an outright berth into the group stage of the 2017 AFC Cup while the Cup winner gets a playoff slot for a chance at a group stage spot.

San Agustin said a short invitational “Super Cup” involving the League and Cup champs, plus maybe a team from abroad, could take place in October. 

An all-star weekend is also being planned. Last year there were two games: the Iloilo-Negros Occidental all-star game and a clash between the Philippines and the Rest of the World. 

Another big change for the UFL will be the reduction of the foreigner limit to just 4 on the field instead of 5. One of the 4 foreigners will also have to be Asian. This is in line with AFC guidelines for the AFC Cup and AFC Champions League. San Agustin said that in a squad of 25 players, a club may have more than 4 foreigners. But in its match day list of 18 (11 starters and 7 substitutes), there can only be 4, including the Asian import.

The UFL will be playing its matches at Rizal Memorial on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Aksyon TV will remain as the league’s broadcaster for this season. 

This is meant to be a transitional year for Filipino club football since the national league is planned to begin in 2017. 

AFC Cup

Ceres and Kaya will play 6 international club matches each in the AFC Cup. This competition is the second tier of international club competition in the Asian Football Confederation, just below the AFC Champions League. 

Ceres qualified by virtue of their winning the 2015 UFL League in runaway fashion. UFL Cup winners Kaya were only supposed to get a playoff slot to give them a chance at the group stage. But with Indonesia suspended by FIFA, they were given an outright group stage berth. 

Both teams will play 3 home matches and 3 away matches. If either of the teams get one of the top two spots in the group, they make the knockout stage. Last year, Global narrowly missed the knockout stage. They needed a win against Pahang in the last match and had to settle for a 0-0 draw.

Kaya will play their home matches at Rizal Memorial. They host New Radiant of the Maldives on March 8 and then entertain Balestier Khalsa of Singapore exactly a week later. Kaya next plays at home in the AFC Cup on April 26 when they face Kitchee of Hong Kong. 

Ceres will enjoy the support of the boisterous Negrense crowd in Panaad Stadium on February 23 against Selangor FA of Malaysia, on April 12 against Singaporean outfit Tampines Rovers, and on May 10 versus the Bangladeshi side Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi.

The home matches will be aired on ABS-CBN Sports+Action. Hopefully, the away games will also be shown. 

The Philippines’ having two teams in the AFC Cup is a big boost to the national team’s preparations for the Suzuki Cup. The AFC Cup will be fantastic exposure for the Azkals on both Kaya and Ceres.

Global will probably also get another taste of international competition. Palami said his club side intends to play in the RHB Singapore Cup again. Last year, they reached the semifinal stage.

University-level football

The UAAP begins its seniors men’s football season on February 7. Two-time defending champs FEU are once again pre-season favorites, but the Tams should expect stiff resistance from DLSU, UP, and a resurgent Ateneo. 

ABS-CBN Sports+Action will again be televising Thursday matches plus the final four and final.

The big development this year is the change in venue. Matches will now be held at Ateneo’s Moro Lorenzo pitch and at McKinley Hill in Taguig. No more trekking to Don Antonio to play games in FEU Diliman.

The small pitch in McKinley might cramp the style of the players, but at least it will be easier for fans in the BGC and Makati areas to catch games. Like the UFL, there will be action on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

Ideally, the final matches of the women’s and men’s competitions will be held at Rizal Memorial like last year. 

The NCAA Season 91 football tournament is winding down. They are in the round-robin final four stage. The Arellano University Chiefs raised eyebrows by sweeping the first round. In the second round, contested only by the best four teams, AU beat Lyceum on Tuesday, January 12, 3-0. A win over Benilde on January 14, Thursday, and a draw or win versus San Beda on January 16, Saturday, will be enough to give them the crown that has been with the Lions for some time now. Under NCAA rules, any team that wins both first and second rounds is declared the champion. 

Should a team other than Arellano come out on top after this final 4 stage, then there will be a winner-take-all clash on January 19, Tuesday, between that team and Judy Saluria’s Chiefs. 

Youth national teams 

Coach Aris Caslib, the PFF Technical Director, told me the Philippines will participate in several age-group competitions at international level. 

The country will enter Asian Football Confederation tournaments for U14 boys plus U14 and U16 girls, as well as for U19 women. The U14 girls have also been invited for a tournament/training in Japan this March. 

The Philippines is also slated to join ASEAN Football Federation competitions for U16 boys and either U18 or U19 men. (The cutoff date has not yet been confirmed.) China has extended an invitation to the Philippines for the U19 team.

Jefferson Cheng, the SEA Games team manager, said there will be a camp for U19 and U21 players later this month.

Unfortunately, the Bolkiah Trophy, a mostly U21 ASEAN competition with a few older players held in Brunei, appears to have been scrapped. 

Other developments

Palami said a football academy will begin in Tacloban this coming school year as part of the St Therese Educational Foundation school. One section of 30 boys will be in the academy starting Grade 7. Eventually, every grade from Grades 7 to 12 will have kids in the academy. Palami is looking for sponsors and plans to source talented kids from all over the archipelago. 

I spoke to Gil Talavera, who is part of the coaching staff of the futsal national teams. They intend to field young players in international competitions this year, including some true futsal specialists. 

The Philippine Football Federation is also revamping its structure. Different provincial Football Associations will now be merged. For example, Cebu and Bohol will form a regional bloc while Iloilo, Aklan, and Capiz will be one association. Let’s hope it results in better development.

The Smart-PFF U22 national competition is set to contest its semis and final next week in Panaad. The smart money is on the Negros Occidental Football Association (NOFA) to win the whole shebang. – Rappler.com

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH

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