By DR. BERNARDO M. VILLEGAS
The failure of the Philippine national football team in the AFC Asian Cup 2019 should just be a learning experience. We should not stop “Dreaming the Impossible,” the hashtag of the Azkals when they went to compete in the United Arab Emirates. Let us learn from other countries how to produce world-class football players. We should aim to qualify for the World Cup at least by 2030, if not by 2026! That’s dreaming the impossible!
The best football clubs in the world (e.g., FC Barcelona, Manchester City, Paris Saint Germain, Bayern, Real Madrid, Juventus, etc.) attract the best players from all over the world because they pay high wages to their players. Because they have the best players, they win championships in domestic leagues as well as international competitions. A corollary I would like to derive from this finding in the book Soccernomic sis that the best players from these clubs help their respective nations do well in regional competitions such as the European League and in the World Cup. For example, in the World Cup of 2018 held in Moscow, the top two teams were from France (the champion) and Croatia (the runner up). Although winning is always a team effort, one could say that the French national team got a big boost from players like Antoine Griezmann (who plays for Atletico de Madrid), Raphael Varane (who plays for Real Madrid), Ousmane Dembele (who plays for FC Barcelona), Paul Labile Pogba (who places for Manchester United), and Samuel Umtiti (who plays for FC Barcelona).
Much is commented about how Croatia is such a small country of only four million people. But the Croatian national team was fortunate to have Luka Mordic (who plays for Real Madrid and was awarded the Balon d’Or for 2018); Ivan Rakitic (who plays for arguably the best football club in the world, FC Barcelona); Mario Mandzukic (who plays for Juventus, the Italian club that is now on top of Serie A); and Demagogy Vida (who plays for the Turkish club Besiktas). Likewise, Brazil and Argentina are usually in the semi-finals of many a World Cup competition because their top players like Maradona, Pele, Messi, Luis Sanchez, Neymar, Philip Coutinho, Angel de Maria, Thiago Silva, Paulinho, Roberto Firmino, Douglas Costa, Marcelino, Fernandinho, Sergio Romero, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, and Ever Banega, etc. play or have played for the best football clubs in Europe.
If we want to excel in international competitions we have to discover the top talents among especially Filipino football players with double citizenship like the Younghusband brothers or Neil Etheridge who can qualify to play in the best European or Asian clubs so that they can reach world-class standards. It will take a long time before Philippine clubs can pay the high wages that can equal those paid by European clubs or just even our neighboring Asian clubs, like those in Japan, China, or South Korea. Of course, there is always the threat that the playing schedules in these international clubs may conflict with those of the international competitions in which the Philippine team qualifies to play. A good example was the decision of Neil Etheridge not to play for the Azkals in the Asian Football Cup in the UAE this January, 2019, because of his commitment to the English club Cardiff that is playing in the top domestic league in the world, the Premier League of England. Etheridge is the first Southeast Asian to play in the most lucrative football league in the world. Another example of a scheduling conflict was that of Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Korean player Son Heung-min who missed the AFC Asian Cup opener against the Azkals on January 7 in Dubai because of his commitment to play for Tottenham.
These scheduling conflicts are unavoidable. The solution is to have a long list of football players with Philippine citizenship who are playing for some of the best football clubs, especially in Europe, who can be approached whenever the Philippine national team qualifies for one international tournament or another. I am aware of the fact that Azkals manager Dan Palami had approached Alphonse Areola, one of the goal keepers of the winning French team in the 2018 World Cup, to play for the national team in the past. Both parents of Areola are from the Philippines. Another outstanding player of Filipino descent is David Alava who plays for one of the top teams in the German Bundesliga, Bayern. My point is if in the next 12 to 20 years, we implement the strategy described above of having a thoroughgoing campaign to promote the playing of futsal and football among the masses of the next Filipino generation born after 2000 (Generation Z), we can spot among the cream of the crop some talents who can be encouraged and actively helped to do everything possible to be incorporated into one of the leading football clubs in Europe or Asia.
We cannot realistically aspire to reach at least the quarterfinals of the World Cup if we do not have players who have been tested by fire by playing for the top national leagues such as the Premier League, the Spanish Liga, the Italian Serie A, or the French Ligue 1. Our scouts have to be especially on the lookout for the children of Overseas Filipino Workers who are married to Europeans or Americans, usually a winning combination that provides good genes for potential world-class football players. Because of my two-year stint teaching in Barcelona and traveling all over Europe, I learned that the countries that would provide the greatest probability to find these Filipino “mestizos” are Spain, Italy, Germany, and the UK where there are large concentrations of Filipino workers and professionals. We may also ask for the help from the football clubs themselves to identify our outstanding products of Philippine football programs who can be admitted into the football academies of the European clubs. An example was the way FC Barcelona offered to train a grade school student of Southridge in its Escola six or seven years ago. This youth, Sandro Reyes, after graduating from the FCB Escola, has already been playing for football clubs in the Catalunya region. The Philippine Football Federation, in cooperation with some of the NGOs active in the spread of football among the Filipino youth, could develop a specific program that will formalize the cooperation between such leading football clubs as Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, FC Espanyol, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City, Bayern, etc., either through completely private MOUs or as part of the Official Development Assistance (ODA) of the respective European governments. From my own personal experience, I have already come to know of embassies of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico, among others, that also have specific programs to help the Philippines strengthen football as a national sport through football clinics and tournaments among especially the children in depressed areas. Who knows, we may discover from these children of the underprivileged the future Peles and Maradonas (world class players who came from poor households in South America) of the Philippines!
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