Why I don’t cheer for the Azkals

Miguel N. Bermundo
Why I don’t cheer for the Azkals
Where are the linkages between street football communities and the Philippine national team?

“Greatness isn’t born, it’s grown.” – Daniel Coyle.

The entire sports bar was stunned silent. I smiled and wondered about the crowd’s reaction as I watched from my bar stool.

“Really? Did the defeat really surprise you?” I was one of the many football fanatics who watched our Suzuki Cup match at a bar where the collective cheers and jeers were the closest option to a live game at a stadium. I watched our countrymen go down hard. 3-0. Secretly, I thought, it is the right time to lose like this more often. 

I can explain.

Defeats like these are very telling of a deeply rooted issue in Philippine football.

Recent controversy in the UAAP and NCAA gave rise to the term “hugot-mentality”. The 2012 stir created by Arnold Clavio sparked outrage and interesting discussion on being “brown-skinned” and who could and couldn’t be called a Filipino.

In 2010, Vietnam blasted the Azkals for “naturalizing” its players – a statement released after the Azkals’ upset win against them at the Suzuki Cup. It was the victory which echoed around Southeast Asia and placed the Philippines on the football map of respectability. It was arguably a path toward success in the next years.

Foreign recruitment increased in the last decade. With it, the winning followed.

If my research serves me correctly – in 2004, 20 active players in the national team out of 22 were locally developed – over 90%. In 2007, this decreased to 70% (17 out of 25). Just 4 years ago, the percentage dropped to a third (9 out of 30).

Our FIFA rankings improved from 193 right below Somalia to 179 and 149, respectively.

Which brings us to 2014.

The country is now ranked 129, above Vietnam. Though many will argue that the rankings indicate level of activity more than who has the better team, the country’s quick rise to a Southeast Asian football powerhouse is also undeniable. The roster today is bolstered by 19 foreign-raised Filipinos, 17 of whom trained and competed in Europe, mostly in England; a couple in Germany, Spain, Italy, among others.

And, the count of locally raised players? That number has dwindled to two.

This is not a brown-skinned attack on foreign recruits, or a rant on what qualifies as “true” Filipino. I disagree with critics and purists who lobby against fielding Filipinos born or raised internationally, or those of foreign descent.

I believe the people who question eligibility of players this way are unconsciously racist. We are a nation with a tenth of its population working or residing abroad. Having a steady influx of internationally-based Pinoy talent follows basic probability.  

This, more than anything, is an attempt to shed light on an issue in Philippine football. An issue that is too often overlooked when the Azkals keep winning. After all, why change a system that has been for the most part, working phenomenally.

Secret of successful football nations

In Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, the author shares about a Brazilian game called “Futebol Del Salao,” Portuguese for “soccer in the room.” Players trained on basketball-court-sized spaces of concrete wood or dirt with 5 players on each team.

“In its rhythm and blinding speed, the game resembled basketball or hockey more than soccer. It consisted of an intricate series of quick, controlled passes and non-stop end-to-end action.”

This is where the Peles, Ronaldinhos, and Neymars are created. We, too, witness a modern strand of this game. We know it as futsal and street football. 

A study by Liverpool University found that the “secret” behind futsal’s and street football’s effectiveness can be explained by simple Mathematics. Primarily, futsal players touch the ball more often than soccer players – 600% more often per minute. Secondly, the heavier and the smaller the balls used, the more precise handling is required for decent ball control.

In effect, players with strong foundations in futsal and street football learn sharp passing and usage of angles very quickly. 

In Europe, the success of Spain’s football programs did not happen overnight either. The country meticulously developed its youth academies through clubs. And because most Spanish clubs worked with limited resources, clubs operate mostly with Spanish players and less foreign players. This, in turn, helped the national team in the long term. La Liga president Jose Luis Astiazaran emphasized the importance of a strong grassroots program for long-term success.

“The most important thing is to be patient. If you are making good progress with home players, the supporters will understand if it is not a good year because next year they will have, say, 3 home-grown players. In 6 years, it might be 11 home-grown players.”

Talents ready, but framework isn’t

Despite the country’s new-found love for football, the exponential success being achieved by street football communities in effectively developing players in the grassroots level, despite little resources, is barely getting the attention it deserves.

A street community team standing barely 5 feet tall, toppling a private school varsity team fielding 6 footers in every position, is a glaring but common sight in local youth tournaments now.

SipaG, Gawad Kalinga’s grassroots football program, fields special selection teams from their football communities to compete in premiere football festivals in Metro Manila. Equipped with skills they just learned from weekend football clinics, the club competed in last year’s UFL youth league and finished 4th out of 16 top tier clubs.

The strength of the country’s grassroots program is evident too in our team’s consistent performance at the Homeless World Cup Tournament, which hosts teams composed of underprivileged players to compete in a global setting. The Philippines has been a regular in the competition since 2003 and currently ranks #15 out of 27 countries, above football giants Argentina, France, Germany, and Spain.

The Fair Play For All Foundation launched a campaign that sent two selection teams to the Street Child World Cup in Rio earlier this year. The boys’ team reached the quarter finals, while the girls came home with the silver, second only to host team Brazil. A local from Davao went home with the Street Child World Cup Golden Boot Award.

Other notable communities like the Futkaleros FC, Dream Big Pilipinas FA, Leveriza FC, Payatas FC, are all regulars in the football festival circuits and all are competing at the highest level. Street football clubs from Barotac Nuevo, Bacolod, and Cebu enjoy the same, if not better, success.

The open secret of as to how these street communities churn out pools of talent with limited resources, is simply the result of “Futebol Del Salao.”

Unanswered questions

Where are the linkages between street football communities and the Philippine national team?

What happens to the Homeless World Cup national players after they come home from tournaments? 

What opportunities in the Philippine youth national teams were made available to the kids of the Street Child World Philippine team? And the phenoms from Futkaleros, Dream Big Pilipinas, Leveriza, and Payatas, and others?

Football is a sport of the masses and should therefore give access to the masses. This is critical for any nation to be successful. Without a deliberate push by the Philippine Football Federation to develop street football as the fundamental element to create homegrown talents, expect more of the same “hugot” strategy.

For now, the Azkals’ foreign recruitment campaign is working, somewhat. But for how long? If the last few matches were any indication of national team potential, the plateau feels very close by. The Azkals towered over Thailand with an average height of 5’10” Thailand’s is at 5’7”.

Vietnam, who just last week outclassed the national team 3-1, is the same. Height and strength were completely negated. Both teams not just outran and outpaced our national team, the quality of their touches and ball control were also visibly superior – and cause for reasonable concern. From a coach’s standpoint, the value of grassroots football in achieving mastery of football fundamentals could not be more relevant.

There is no doubt that the Azkals, in the past few years, have brought in a priceless and almost fictional wave of interest for Philippine football. Sadly this cannot be sustained any longer without giving importance to local grassroots development. The leadership of the Philippine Football Federation in grassroots development is paramount.

Meanwhile, from a thousand miles away, the country awaits its prodigy: FC Barcelona-based 10-year-old Sandro Reyes, who many believe will be the focal point of the Azkals in several years. However, the success of our national team by then, will be determined by the groundwork set today by country’s football movers. 

Perhaps more devastating losses will lend more ears to major change. – 

Miguel N. Bermundo is a co-founder of Dream Big Pilipinas FA, a non-profit organization that uses football as a tool for community development in underserved communities. He is a FIFA-AFC licensed football coach, and member of the Global Shapers Community. He also leads the implementation of The Globe Football Para Sa Bayan campaign, a grassroots program that equips street football communities nationwide with access to training resources and coaching education. 

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