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The World Cup is a pipe dream


“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,” wrote Bernardo Villegas, the eminent economist and Harvard PhD, on this page last Wednesday. He was referring to the dream he expressed in a book he authored in 2016 titled Philippine Football: Its Past, Its Future. On the dedication page of the book, he 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.”

Mr. Villegas is known to all you BusinessWorld readers as the Prophet of Boom. But I think he is overly optimistic about the prospects of Filipino children being in the World Cup if not in 2026, at least by 2030. He has high hopes the Azkals, our men’s national football team, would be in the World Cup  by 2026. He cites our women’s national football team having already qualified for the Women’s World Cup next year.

Long before small countries Croatia and Morocco beat big countries Germany, Brazil, and Spain in Qatar, countries much smaller than the Philippines have been beating Western world powers in the World Cup. Fourteen years ago, in June 2006, a year before Mr. Villegas got enamored with football, I wrote here, “Why are we not in the World Cup, many sports fans are asking when Third World countries with population less than seven million like Paraguay, Togo, Croatia, Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago (whose population is only one million) can each put together a football team good enough to play against football strongholds like England, France, Brazil, Germany and Argentina. After all, height is not a factor in football.”

That did not inspire Filipino children with passion for football to hone their skills to be able to play in the World Cup in 2010 or the World Cup in 2014. Home grown football players are not motivated to sharpen their skills comparable to those of the Japanese and Koreans, who represented the Asia-Pacific region in Qatar. They know they will not find fame and fortune in Philippine football. 

Most of the Azkals he hopes to be in the World Cup in 2026 are not home-grown players. They are Stephen Schrock, Kenshiro Daniel, Gerrit Holtmann, Mike Ott, Manny Ott, Patrick Reichelt, Jovin Bedic, Carli de Murga, Angel Gurado, Amani Aguinaldo, Amin Nazari, Javier Patino, Iain Ramsay, Dylan De Ruycker, Simone Rota, Alvaro Silva, Oskari Kekkonen, Diego Bardanca, Daisuke Sato, Neil Etheridge, Michael Falkessgaard and Quincy Kammeraad. They are children of a Filipino mother or father but who were born or who grew up in countries where football is a very popular sport, if not the most popular.

So are many members of the Philippine women’s football team that will play in the 2023 Women’s World Cup. They are Tahnai Annis, Sarina Bolden, Isabella Flanigan, Quinley Quesada, Katrina Guillou, Carleigh Frilles, Kaya Hawkinson, Jaclyn Sawicki, Sara Eggesvik, Tara Shelton, Jessika Cowart, Sofia Harrison, Chantelle Maniti, Dominique Randle, Reina Bonta, Maya Alcantara, Ryley Bugay, Chandler McDaniel and Olivia McDaniel.

Athletic Filipino boys are driven toward basketball where they can gain glory and money. College dropouts get a guaranteed pay of P200,000 a month in their first year in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA). The average salary of Filipino football players in the professional leagues — United Football League (2009 to 2016), Philippine Football League (2017 to present) is P336,241 a year, according to the Economic Research Institute.

Mr. Villegas wrote that as a result of having been colonized more recently by the Americans, football is eclipsed in mass popularity by basketball and boxing, driving away many football talents and contributing to the lack of success of football. If that were so, baseball should be the most popular sport in the country as that was the first sport introduced by American soldiers.

Just weeks after the Battle of Manila, a baseball game between a unit of Astor Battery and a squad of the Army was played before Filipinos. Governor-General William Howard Taft, who played catcher for the professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds, when he was a student in Cincinnati Law School, promoted baseball to replace cockfighting as Filipinos’ favorite sport. Basketball was introduced by American teachers through the YMCA and the public school system as a women’s sport in 1910. It was played in interscholastic tournaments until 1911.

Basketball and football were the only sports in the program of the National Collegiate Athletic Association when it was founded in 1924. Baseball must have been added in 1928.  A La Salle coffee table book has a photo captioned “1928 First La Salle Baseball Team.”

When UP, UST and NU broke away from the NCAA and formed the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) in 1938, football, basketball and baseball formed parts of the new association’s athletic program. The government, through the Philippine Athletic Association Federation (PAAF), fully supported the programs. It built the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex in 1934, providing venues of international standards for all sports.   

Both the NCAA and UAAP resumed their sport programs after World War II, but the NCAA dropped baseball. While all schools fully supported their basketball and football teams, basketball games drew bigger crowds among students and the public.

Just like basketball in the 1950s and early 1960s when there was the commercial league Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association (MICAA), there were also the semi-professional Manila Football League (MFL) and Manila Bay Baseball League (MBBL).

Just as Yco, San Miguel and Yellow Taxi fielded teams in the MICAA, so did these companies field teams in the football commercial league. The other squads were San Beda AC (the NCAA team reinforced by alumni), William Lines from Cebu, South Star and Cheng Hua, the last two fielded by the Manila Chinese community. The MBBL was composed of the  Canlubang Sugar Barons, Ysmael Steel Admirals, UST Gold Sox (alumni plus stars of UAAP team) FEU Tamaraws (alumni plus UAAP players) and teams from the American military bases Clark Field Red Wings, Sangley Point Bluejays and Subic Bay Renegades. 

Competition in the MFL and MBBL was fierce, drawing sizable crowds. But like in collegiate sports, basketball drew much bigger crowds than football and baseball. Filipino sports fans just find football slow and boring compared with basketball.

A soccer game takes 90 minutes, sometimes extended to 120 minutes. Much of the time, the ball is kicked back and forth. A skilful attacking move lasts no more than 30 seconds because a defender kicks the ball away from the attacker. That is why goals are rare. Many games end scoreless or tied 1-1. Knockout games ending in a tie are decided by penalty shootouts. Penalty shootouts reduce the game of soccer to a contest between two players — the opposing goalkeepers. All 120 minutes of skilful dribbling and beautiful passing for naught.

Basketball has fast pace of play. All 10 players in the court are constantly moving. All can play offense and defense and all can score at any time. A shot could mean two or three points. That makes an offensive play trickier, getting spectators involved as they guess how the play would evolve. Every time a play results in a score, the fans are gratified. As scores in basketball go as high as 80, fans go home fulfilled.

Most athletes like to play before big crowds. They are motivated to play harder to please the crowd and draw their admiration. Ed Ocampo and Eddie Pacheco, both voted Mr. Football and Mr. Basketball by the Philippine Sportswriters Association in different years, chose to spend their remaining playing years on the basketball court, Ed donning the Yco uniform and Eddie different uniforms until he settled for the Ysmael colors. The three sons of baseball great Filemon Codinera chose basketball over baseball. All three played in the PBA, though Jerry was the only one who achieved stardom and earned a fortune.

I think my good friend Bernie Villegas (he was one year ahead of me in high school and in the Lia-Com (AB-Commerce) program of La Salle but we were fellow members of a number of campus organizations) was right in 2016 when he wrote his book on football. In that book, he expressed his hope that Filipino children would qualify for the World Cup before the 21st Century is over.

Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a retired corporate executive, business consultant, management professor and a multi-sport enthusiast. He has taught sports marketing in DLSU’s Graduate School of Business and in the Philippine Olympic Committee’s Sports Management program.

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