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Dreaming about the World Cup


(Part 1)

The recent great excitement among football fans in the Philippines, stimulated by some of the most gripping matches (especially the final) I have ever watched during the World Cup 2022 in Qatar, reawakened in me the dream I expressed in a book I co-authored in 2016 with some of the leading sports writers of that time, i.e., Ignacio Dee, Ric Olivares, Manolo “Bong” Pedralvez, and Bill Velasco. The book was titled Philippine Football: Its Past, Its Future. On the Dedication page, I wrote: “I dedicate this book to all Filipino children who have developed a passion for the beautiful game. You are the hope for the World Cup before the 21st century is over.”

I was overly conservative in giving the stakeholders of Philippine football a very long period to qualify for the World Cup. After witnessing small countries like Croatia and Morocco perform wonders in the last World Cup, overcoming at some stages of the competition such world champions as Germany, Brazil and Spain, my hopes have been raised. Given more support from the Government and the business sector, the Philippine national men’s football team should aspire to qualify for the World Cup, if not in 2026, at least in 2030. Our women’s national football team has already qualified for the Women’s World Cup that will be held in Australia and New Zealand next year! Despite the odds, it should be easier for the Azkals to be in the World Cup in 2026 when the number of teams in the group stage will be increased from 36 to 48.

The Philippines was not always positioned at the cellar in world football. As Bert Ramirez wrote in the book we co-authored, “The sport’s history in the country may be divided into several eras: the early years when it spawned its first practitioners, produced the greatest player in the sport’s local annals (Paulino Alcantara, a Filipino-Spanish mestizo born in Iloilo) and the Philippines was a legitimate football force in Asia (1895-1940); the period that spanned the postwar years when the sport started to decline, despite a number of structures that had assumed their place (1941-1958); the period that was marked by lopsided defeats for the country in international competitions as the sport hit rock bottom, even as several programs were undertaken to arrest its decline (1959-2003); and the current era that may be seeing the revival of football in the country, as well as various programs at sustaining that revival ((2004 to the present).”

An entry in Wikipedia describing the Philippines national football team may give us an international view about the sport as played in our country. Corresponding to the periods described by Ramirez, the entry stressed the fact that prior to World War II, the Philippines had regularly competed with Japan and the Republic of China in the Far Eastern Championships, at times winning matches against their more richly endowed opponents. It was pointed out, however, that the Philippine national team has never qualified for the FIFA World Cup and has qualified for the AFC Asian Cup only once, in 2019. The Azkals finished second at the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup after losing to Palestine in the finals.

It was rightly observed that, as a result of having been colonized more recently by the Americans, football is eclipsed in mass popularity by basketball and boxing in the Philippines. This drives away many football talents and contributes to the lack of success of football in the country.

As Ramirez wrote, “Although the Second World War undoubtedly affected football adversely in terms of both popularity and development, particularly with the destruction of football fields, many old-timers were of the consensus that the decline of the sport could be attributed directly to the rise of basketball. The sport, which was introduced by the Americans during their colonial rule (1898 to 1946), became part of the curriculum in Philippine schools in 1910. Although it had a relatively slow start, basketball started to catch the public’s fancy and, worse, replaced football in the youth’s imagination, thanks to the early success of Filipino basketball teams.”

Despite its being a newcomer to the game, the Philippine basketball team finished a strong fifth in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. This rising popularity of basketball was further fanned by a still-unmatched bronze medal finish by the national squad in the 1954 World Basketball Championship in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Symbolically, this spectacular feat spawned new breed of sports heroes that included Carlos Loyzaga, the son of five-time national footballer Joaquin Loyzaga.

In the second decade of the present millennium, there was some kind of renaissance of football in the Philippines. The campaign of the Azkals at the 2010 AFF Championship under the tenure of Simon McMenemy was a breakthrough. Holding a prime ticket as one of two teams, along with Laos, that had to qualify for the tournament, the Philippines advanced from the group stage for the first time, did not concede a single defeat, and their win against defending champions Vietnam was considered one of the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history. The match, which would later be referred to as the “Miracle of Hanoi” (like Saudi Arabia beating Argentina in the group stage during the 2022 World Cup), is considered to have started a renaissance of football in the Philippines.

Unfortunately, in the knockout stage, the Philippines lost both games to Indonesia, where football is literally a sport to die for.

The campaign to qualify for the World Cup continued to be elusive during the 2010s. Following a relatively successful debut in the Asian Cup, the Philippines began their 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification where they were grouped with Syria, China, Guam, and Maldives. Unfortunately, a loss to China 0-2 at the final stage of group competition prevented the Azkals from reaching the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Nonetheless, the third place in their group meant the Philippines qualified for the third round of the 2023 AFC Asian qualifiers in which they ended up as the worst runner-up.

The effort to qualify for the World Cup continues.

(To be continued.)

Bernardo M. Villegas has a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard, is professor emeritus at the University of Asia and the Pacific, and a visiting professor at the IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain. He was a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission.

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