MANILA, Philippines – With 4 minutes left, Kaya Iloilo was in trouble.
Last June 11, league-leading Ceres Negros had just gone ahead. A Mike Ott strike in the Iloilo Sports Complex meant a precious 1-0 lead for the visitors. The sizable crowd of 1,895 souls, mostly Ilonggos supporting Kaya, was growing restive as a mere 4 minutes remained on the clock.
Kaya had never lost on Ilonggo soil since moving to Iloilo a few weeks into the season. They didn't want to blemish that record now, especially against Ceres, who they were tailing in the race for the 2018 Philippines Football League (PFL) title.
Deliverance came in the form of Shirmar Felongco.
The former UST standout was born and learned his football in Calinog, 61 kms northwest of the ground, and even further away than the traditional Ilonggo football towns of Barotac Nuevo, Santa Barbara, and Janiuay.
Felongco had just shifted to a higher position in the field in a desperate attempt to grab an equalizer.
A long hopeful ball from the middle 3rd floated into the box. A Ceres defender tried to chest it back to goalie Toni Doblas. But he didn't realize that Felongco was lurking behind.
Felongco slithered behind the defender, pounced on the ball, and danced away from a backtracking Busman before turning and powering past Doblas for 1-1.
The grandstand erupted in complete bedlam. See the celebrations here. Supposedly some fans even wept.
Jubilation in the stands after Shirmar Felongco's late equalizer! What a feeling Thank you to Cheryl Rose for the video. #UnaKaya #KayaIloilo pic.twitter.com/LM9vSwH8HG — Kaya Futbol Club (@KayaFC) June 10, 2018
The score stood until the final whistle. Kaya had remained unbeaten in the ISC and had, at that moment, kept within 6 points of Ceres, in striking distance of first place. Unlike last year, the PFL is employing a pure round-robin league for the first competition of the season sans a playoff phase, so Kaya must stay abreast.
Ilonggos embrace Kaya
Last year Kaya represented Makati in the PFL but this they righted one of the glaring wrongs of the league, the lack of representation for the country's most fabled football hotbed. A few weeks into the season they decamped to Iloilo and rechristened their side “Kaya FC-Iloilo.”
The team management is encouraged by the welcome the team has received. The nearly 2,000-strong crowd in the Ceres game is very high compared to other PFL matches, and Iloilo charges admission too.
“We are fortunate and grateful to be here,” says general manager Paul Tolentino.
“A fair amount of people have accepted us. I honestly thought it would take longer.”
Photo courtesy of Kaya FC-Iloilo
The club has had mall events that have been well-received. Kaya fans in Iloilo have banded together and organized for home games, conjuring up their own cheers. A new fan club has emerged, Hubon Fuerzas Kaya Iloilo.
They are a knowledgeable bunch too, says Tolentino.
“I have never been in a crowd in the Philippines that cheers a defensive interception,” marvels the GM.
“They also moan and groan when a creative 1-2 move doesn't happen. They're seeing what is happening on the pitch and appreciate it.”
Tolentino also notices that the Iloilo crowd makes their own energy in the stands rather than reacting to what's going on in the game, which he sees happening with Azkals games.
There are even rabid Kaya fans who attend training. Head coach Noel Marcaida says they remain silent during the actual drills but beat drums and cheer during water breaks.
Laying the groundwork
Tolentino knows that maintaining this newfound ardor for the team will depend on two things: building roots within the community and performing on the pitch.
Last weekend, Kaya brought their Manila-based youth teams for games against a Barotac Nuevo selection and a team from Tamasak, a barangay in the legendary Ilonggo football bastion.
Tamasak, coached by the father of their Ilonggo star Jovin Bedic, prevailed 3-1. The team also tackled a Barotac Nuevo LGU squad and fell 4-1. The day after the youth teams battled Westbridge, a private school in Iloilo city, and came out on top 6-3, recovering from a 0-2 deficit early.
Photo courtesy of Kaya FC-Iloilo
Kaya has conducted clinics with youth players in Iloilo City, including a hastily-organized one on May 2, the day when they were supposed to play their maiden home game against Global. The opponents shockingly backed out of that match days before, citing lack of funds.
Tolentino says they will branch out with clinics in places like La Paz and Santa Barbara as well. La Paz produced Stallion Laguna striker Jhanjhan Melliza, who was the PFL's leading Filipino striker last year. Santa Barbara is where former national team players like Bervic Italia, Jason Cordova, and Jovanie Simpron come from.
"We have a lot to do," says Tolentino, the former Ateneo standout, in terms of building linkages in the community.
"We really want to work with everyone," continues the GM. That task will not be as simple as it sounds. Ilonggo football can get balkanized. Kaya will do well to navigate the shoals of Ilonggo football politics with great care. Even within the football towns, intramural factionalism exists.
But in the roster Felongco is an inspiration to the local kids, as is Jovin Bedic, from Barotac Nuevo. Bedic was an Ilonggo prodigy growing up who used to overwhelm many youth matches. Now he wears the captain's armband for Kaya.
"Nakakatulong na mas marami ng local players sa team ngayon," says Bedic.
"Magiging inspirasyon yan sa mga bata sa Iloilo na makita nila na kaya din nilang makipaglaro sa mataas na league."
(It helps that there are many local players in the team now. They serve as an inspiration to the kids in Iloilo that they too can play in a high-level league.)
Photo by Don Laczi
Kaya has a total of 13 Hiligaynon speakers in the club, but most of them actually come from Negros, like Camelo Tacusalme from Bacolod, and the Soriano brothers, Janrick and Jalsor, who hail from Talisay.
Goal-poacher Eric Giganto and goalies Ref Cuaresma, Ace Villanueva and Zach Banzon are the other locally-bred standouts who boost the team alongside overseas-born Pinoys like Miguel Tanton, Connor Tacagni and Woody Ugarte.
Tolentino and Marcaida really notice that Bedic and Felongco seem to give an extra effort when playing in Iloilo. Both enjoy special sections in the grandstand, populated by friends and family, complete with banners. According to Bedic, usually 7 jeeploads full of Barotacnons make the trip from Barotac Nuevo to Iloilo just to see the club play.
Closing the gap with Negros
Iloilo will need the hometown support to overhaul that gap between them and league-leading Ceres. Negros might be the class of the league but Kaya is hanging in there with still plenty of games to be played in the season.
The senior team itself is a blue-collar mix of hard workers from different backgrounds who scrap for one another. There seem to be no high-priced superstars.
Thanks to injuries and suspensions, Kaya drew Ceres with only foreigner, veteran defender Masanari Omura. That was the second game in a row they picked up a result without strikers Robert Lopez-Mendy and Jordan Mintah, and defender Alfred Osei. In the match before that they defeated Davao 3-2 in Iloilo. Mintah, a prolific Ghanaian, is lost for the season with an injury.
Iloilo also knows that Ceres has been unlucky too. Midfield string-puller Manny Ott is out with a fractured eye socket sustained in a match against JPV. Another important player for Negros, Spanish attacker Bienve Maranon, is also injured and is in a race to get fit before the AFC Cup zonal playoffs resume in August.
The AFC Cup campaign also works in Kaya's favor because it could distract Ceres from the local league. Ceres will duke it out with Singapore outfit Home United over two legs on August 1 and 8. That could leave them a wee bit weary when it comes to playing in the PFL, which could help Kaya pull closer.
The Ilonggos did themselves a big favor by downing JPV Markina 4-2 last Wednesday at home, keeping their enviable unbeaten record in the Iloilo Sports Complex intact. Robert Lopez Mendy, their Senegalese striker, perhaps inspired by his country's performance in the World Cup, knocked in another 3 goals.
With Ceres beating Stallion Laguna 2-0 on Wednesday, the gap between the two teams is at 9, but Negros still has two trips to Iloilo before this season is over.
"If we are going to catch Ceres, we have to do it with the Kaya spirit," says Tolentino. "We will need to stick together and believe in our players. We need to move in the same direction."
With a whole football-mad province behind them, they just might pull it off. – Rappler.com
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.