AFC Cup: Ceres, boosted by Negrense pride, aims for regional glory

PLAY FOR GLORY. Left to right in yellow: Luke Woodland, Kevin Ingreso, Junior Muu00f1oz and Iain Ramsay look to step up against Istiklol. Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

PLAY FOR GLORY. Left to right in yellow: Luke Woodland, Kevin Ingreso, Junior Muu00f1oz and Iain Ramsay look to step up against Istiklol.

Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – It's a balmy but overcast Wednesday afternoon in Panaad Stadium in the outskirts of Bacolod. A gentle breeze tickles the leaves of the eucalyptus trees that ring the venue. Hordes of dragonflies zip around the park, distracting the Ceres and Meralco players warming up for their Philippines Football League match. 

In one section of the grandstand sits Jan Eleven Gozon. Yes, that's really his middle name, and it's fitting that he bears a number so associated with the game of football. Gozon is in a section of the grandstand festooned with banners, flags, and scarves along with a cadre of other Ceres fans known as the Ceres Ultras. 

“We started out as 4 members only but now we have more than 50 active members,” says Gozon, who graduated from Bacolod's University of St La Salle.

“With the recent success of the club it has added up sa passion namin in supporting Ceres and for the whole football scene in general. Parang na fuel lalo kami at ginanahan pa ng sobra (Our passion has been fueled even more and we are more motivated)," he adds.

Gozon and his cohorts have seen the fervor for the Busmen grow as the club has marched further into the AFC Cup. 

“With the recent success of the club sa AFC it has attracted other audiences aside sa mga usual fanbase. Though we can't say na passionate na sila but its a great start. They'll eventually grow to be passionate. just keep the fire burning and the support coming para sa (for the) club and for Negros.”

Ceres has responded to the fans with a dazzling run in this year's AFC Cup. Last season they fizzled out in the first knockout stage, stumbling at home to South China in the first knockout stage. This year the format has been tweaked, with the ASEAN clubs in their own groups and bracket. Ceres won their group with 3 wins, two draws, and a loss. 

In the first ASEAN Zone playoff tie, they stared down Malaysian superclub JDT, winning on away goals over two legs after the teams finished 4-4. Then their biggest scalp, a 3-2 aggregate win over Singapore's Home United that culminated in a magnificent 2-0 win in Panaad in front of 7,534. 

“Most of us were crying while waiting for the final whistle in that game,” recalls Gozon. “Emotions were so high that night that were were not able to contain them. You saw tough guys crying.”

And now another two-legged home-and away series against Tajik club Istiklol. The first leg will be in Tajikistan just outside the capital Dushanbe on Tuesday before the second match in Panaad on the 12th of September. 

The Tajiks will have revenge in mind. Some of the Istiklol players were in the Tajikistan national team that lost at 4-3 home to the Azkals in AFC Asian Cup qualifying recently. If they hurdle this round it's yet another two-legged tie against either Bengaluru of India or North Korean club April 25. The winner there proceeds to the AFC Cup final where either Al Wahda of Syria or Al Quwa Al Jawiya of Iraq, the defending champs, await. 

Ceres will need more than just the midfield supremacy of Manny Ott and Stephan Schrock or the scoring prowess of Spaniards Bienve Marañon and Fernando Rodriguez, who have rippled the nets 13 between them in the AFC Cup. The support of the home fans will be key to victory. And Ceres management, led by owner Leorey Yanson, has made a huge effort to stoke the passion. 

Everywhere we traveled all over Bacolod you could see banners, still yet to be taken down, advertising the last game against Home United from the week before. 

Ceres has also made a commitment to creating lifelong fans for the club by visiting scores of schools in the area. The team's stars like Ott, Schrock, Iain Ramsay, and Roland Muller are usually mobbed on those school visits. According to Ivan Gayares of their media staff, after visiting one school a barkada of kids from there has religiously attended games and even practices. 

The team has also done radio guestings and TV appearances to raise the profile of the club. 

And then there is the annual Ceres Cup youth tournament that Rappler reported on last year. This year 450 teams from all over the nation took part.

Leorey Yanson's brother Ricky, the head of the local FA also holds the Dynamic Cup eleven-a-side men's senior competition as a means of promoting the sport in and around Bacolod. There are 3 conferences a year, with the University of St La Salle team that the Yansons support usually coming out on top. Two USLS standouts, midfielder Joshua Dutosme from Bukidnon, and defender Nessi Ramos from the Escalante/Sagay area were roped into the Ceres side in the transfer window. 

The result of these off-the pitch efforts has been impressive crowds for many of the matches. Against Meralco it was more than 1,800, amazing for a 4 pm kickoff on a weekday for a venue that's 9 kilometers away from the city center. But they have enjoyed overflow crowds in excess of 9,000 for AFC Cup matches against Selangor and Tampines last year. 

Club Admininstrator Nicolas Golez says that getting crowds for AFC Cup games are easier than packing the house for PFL matches, since AFC Cup games are almost never rescheduled while PFL matches sometimes are. That hampers the club's promotional efforts when it comes to streamers and banners. It's tough to promote an event that may not push through. Still, they have had up to 4,000 fans in Panaad for some local league matches. 

SUPPORT. The Ceres Ultras, with Jan Eleven Gozon far left in yellow. Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

SUPPORT. The Ceres Ultras, with Jan Eleven Gozon far left in yellow.

Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

The Ceres brand has even made its mark on the OFW community it seems. I'm sitting with Golez in a sports bar watching the U22 national team beat Cambodia in the SEA Games when, to everyone's surprise, the camera shows the small bunch of Filipino fans in the crowd. One of them, a young lady, is wearing a yellow Ceres shirt. 

Golez says that when the Busmen played Home United in Singapore's Jalan Besar stadium, 80% of the left side of the grandstand was full of Singapore-based Pinoys. 

But the club administrator admits that there is still a lot of work to do. Ceres might be able to pack Panaad, but they don't yet charge admission. It remains to be seen how rabid the Ceres faithful would be if they had to pay to watch matches. 

Their Ultras are loyal and vocal in games, but some unsavory sniping between them and the Apo Bahani, the Davao Aguilas' diehard fans, has already occurred online. 

The team is also facing challenges on the pitch. Missing Ott and Schrock, the Negrenses lose the first game of the year on home soil, falling 2-1 to the Meralco Sparks. Ceres are fourth on the table, 11 adrift of league-leading Manila. True, they have four matches in hand on the Sparks and five on second-place Kaya Makati as of press time (Kaya plays Global Cebu on Saturday, August 19), but that only means a more congested schedule later in the season. Several PFL matches involving Ceres were postponed because of AFC Cup games. 

Negros must play 16 more league matches in a season that everyone wants to end before Christmas. A tough ask considering there are three FIFA International Windows left in the year, in September, October, and November, when club play will not be permitted. 

Many of the Ceres starters are also in Thomas Dooley's Azkals squad that will play Yemen on September 5 in an AFC Asian Cup qualifier, meaning even more games and fatigue in a short amount of time. Thankfully, that game is happening in Panaad, so the home crowd will likely give them a lift. 

The tiredness from all these matches could take its toll, especially if they keep on winning in the AFC Cup. The two-game interzonal final series is on September 27 and October 18, with the Cup final on November 4. More success means an even greater strain. 

But all these issues will be set aside on Tuesday as Ceres hopes to bring Philippine club football to yet another level. Pinoy pride, and Negrense pride will be on the line against Istiklol. And Golez says it best.

“Our accomplishments are so great now. I am thankful to be a part of this club.”

Istiklol vs Ceres Negros

AFC Cup Interzone Semifinal Leg 1

10 pm Philippine Time

Tuesday, August 22

Hisor Central Stadium, Hisor, Tajikistan

LIVE on Fox Sports

– Rappler.com

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH. The author is the Media Officer of FC Meralco Manila.