AFC Cup: Why we should remain upbeat despite Ceres and Kaya's exits

MANILA, Philippines - I spent the last few days in Bacolod at both the Ceres Cup youth competition and also calling the Ceres – South China match in the AFC Cup at Pana-ad Stadium. A great deal of that was spent hanging with UFL's operations man, Ritchie Gannaban. 

He reminisced a lot about the old days of club football, when the UFL was in its infancy. Games were often held in the Nomads pitch in Merville. People today complain about the crowds in UFL that only number in the hundreds. But as Gannaban remembers, back then oftentimes it was just the players and the staff at matches, and no one else, not even wives and girlfriends. 

This was a reality as late as the 2009 and probably even 2010. Look where we are now. A league on TV, a successful national team, university games live on HD, and, occasionally, a nearly-full grandstand in Rizal Memorial for league matches. Plus regular international club competitions. Big, massive strides.

It's important to see all of this in perspective especially after the events of the midweek. Kaya were booted out of the round-of-16 via a 7-2 thrashing in Johor at the hands of Malaysian super club Johor Darul Ta'zim on Wednesday, May 25

The night earlier Ceres succumbed to Hong Kong's South China 1-0 in extra time courtesy of a world-class finish from Brazilian Luiz Carlos. A packed Pana-ad stadium was silenced.

No doubt there will be much hand-wringing now in Philippine football. But in reality, every fan should be proud of both clubs and appreciative of this place where we are in. 

Kaya allowed only two goals in their six-match group stage campaign, but surrendered seven on Wednesday in a match that reminded us a bit of the 7-1 demolition of Brazil at the hands of Germany in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. 

But this is what JDT does to other teams as well, it must be noted. In fact this rout isn't even their biggest result this season. Last February they obliterated Myanmar's Ayeyawady United 8-1. They went on to ransack their group with 6 wins out of 6 games. 

JDT won the Malaysian Cup last weekend and are atop the Malaysian Super League standings, undefeated through 12 outings. They have won the Malaysian top tier league title for two years running now and are favorites to lift the trophy again this year. 

Oh, and they are also the defending AFC Cup champs. 

JDT has a reserve team playing in the second tier of Malaysian football and two youth teams under that as well. Such is the seriousness of their intent. 

Juan Martin Lucero, the Southern Tigers' Argentinian striker, scored a hat trick against Kaya. He was brought over from Independientes, a club in the Argentinian top tier at the height of his powers. Lucero is only 24. He is no aging also-ran out for a big paycheck in a small league. The same can be said for his strike partner Jorge Pereyra Diaz, who also struck on Wednesday. Diaz is 25 and also has extensive experience in the Argentinian top flight. 

JDT tried to qualify for the 2016 AFC Champions League, the top level of international club football in Asia, but were denied in a penalty shootout by Thai club Muangthong in the preliminary round. No doubt the Johor side, which is reportedly supported by the Johor royal family, wants to play at that level. There is little doubt that Diaz and Lucero could easily suit up for sides in the AFC CL.

And yet Kaya did something no other side has been able to do all season long in the AFC Cup: score two goals against them in one match. This should be a point of pride for the Philippine club. Props to OJ Porteria for slipping in the first off an insane angle and feeding Antonio Ugarte for the second. 

As for Ceres, they were only done in by one moment of brilliance by Carlos, who volleyed superbly of Mahama Awal's headed assist. Son Yong Chan of Ceres was magnificent in corralling Awal, the speedy Cameroonian, all game long. On the goal Son tries to front up to Awal to prevent a shot on goal. Awal cleverly dishes backwards to Carlos instead, and his fierce first-time strike roars past keeper Michael Casas. 

Stephan Schrock was also excellent in his return to fitness with several very good balls into dangerous areas. But alas, he could not conjure up a goal. 

It's been said before but it bears saying again: the mere fact that two Filipino clubs even made it to the knockout stage is an achievement in itself, especially when you consider these next facts. Once upon a time the AFC had a club competition below the AFC Cup known as the AFC President's Cup, composed of Asia's weakest member associations. Filipino clubs, on two occasions, with Global in 2013 and with Ceres in 2014, attempted to qualify for the main tournament through a group stage. They had home-field advantage too, when Global hosted in Cebu in 2013 and when Ceres enjoyed home cooking in Panaad a year later.

In both instances, the Pinoy clubs fell short. But here we are in 2016, in a competition that is much tougher than the President's Cup, and we are making the knockout stage. 

So there is plenty of reason to be optimistic. Kaya may not have three reserve clubs like JDT but they do have a B team that defeated the Chinese Taipei national team 1-0 last week in a friendly scrimmage in Rizal Memorial. (Global also beat the visitors by the same score.) Kaya are loading up on some of the top young homegrown talent like Eric Giganto, and look to have a bright future.

Meanwhile Ceres has lots of ambition, and I hear that during the July transfer window of the UFL, they will not sit on their hands. Their drive to make a mark internationally is not over this year; the team is in Singapore now preparing for a match against the Garena Young Lions of the S-League over the weekend. Global are also in this knockout competition to face Nagaworld of Cambodia. 

So relax, football fans. There is no reason to panic. Pinoy clubs are doing just great. As long as we give them our support, we can expect good results going forward in return. –

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.