December 2010 is a crazy time for Football in the Philippines, and will be remembered by long time Filipino Football fans as something they thought they would never get to see in their lifetime: When Filipinos finally discovered Football.
And all this thanks to the efforts of the Philippine National Football team, the “Azkals”.
The previous incarnations of the Philippine Football teams were treated as some sort of a joke in South East Asian Football circles, as it used to lose by huge margins. Scores like 4-0, 5-0 were common for the stronger teams when playing against the Philippines.
But all that changed, when the Azkals beat the defending champion Vietnam in the ASEAN Football Federation’s “Suzuki Cup” in December 6, 2010.
The new-found popularity of Football is evidenced by the number of fans that joined the official Facebook page of the Azkals. Before December 6, 2010, there were only about 2.5k fans in there. Two and a half weeks later, it is now at 21k, and counting.
Most sports observers know that the Philippines is a rabid basketball country. Just look at the Interbasket forums: As of December 16, 2010, the Philippines section had 165k post. The next highest section, the European section, only had 90k post.
However, basketball, as one Sportswriter pointed out, is a sport that does not love the Filipinos back. After a century of playing the sport, only one Filipino got to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA). And that guy was a Fil-Foreigner who never even got to play in Philippines.
Despite giving it their heart and soul, the Philippines have not won the Asian Games or FIBA Asia Championships in over 25 years. On the other hand, countries relatively new to the sport like China and Iran have sent players in the NBA, and has won the Asian Games, or FIBA Asia Championships.
‘Physical Handicap in Basketball’
The problem with Basketball, is that Filipinos work with a physical handicap with regards to the sport: We are just not tall enough. And I am not talking about the, “they have seven-footers, we have Greg Slaughter so we must be as tall as them” type of logic. I’m taking about the number of tall players a country has at any given time.
If you look at the major basketball teams and colleges in Europe, you will see that most, if not all of them has at least one 6’9″ player on the team. On the other hand, you can count with the fingers of one hand the number of at least 6’9″ players that are active in 2010 among all the major college and university basketball teams in the Philippines.
This handicap works against Filipinos when it comes to advancing beyond the Asian level of competition, and of sending players into the NBA. It works like a glass ceiling, like having an invisible barrier that keeps us from moving beyond that obstacle no matter how hard we try.
‘More Promising Future in Football’
On the other hand, we have no such physical handicap in Football. The best players in the sport are rarely above 6’0″. As a result, you have Fil-Foreigners playing in the major leagues of the world. These Fil-Foreigners, when put in countries where Football is king, suddenly find themselves playing competitively with the best in the world.
The current Azkals lineup, for example, have seven Fil-Foreigners who are connected one way, or the other with teams in Europe and the US. Of particular note, are Neil Etheridge, the best goalkeeper the country has ever seen, and who is also a third string Goalkeeper for Fulham. Another is Phil Younghusband, who once played as a Chelsea Reserve team.
And after the success of the Azkals, more quality Fil-Foreigners are coming forward expressing interest in playing for the Azkals.
So here we are, giving our all for basketball, and yet has little hope of sending another players into the NBA. On the other hand, you have a sport Filipinos basically ignored before in Football, and yet it has two players cracking the Premier League.
‘True International Sport’
Now, one could argue that while the Philippines is struggling to get past South East Asia in Football, it basically is a basketball god in the same region, and where its lesser players play as imports in the teams of the other countries in the ASEAN Basketball League (ABL).
That is oh-so true. However, nobody else outside of the Philippines care about Basketball in South East Asia. So its kinda tough to be king of a sport in a region, but then the other countries just don’t care about it.
On the other hand, take a look at the Indonesia versus Philippines match in the AFF Suzuki Cup. Eighty thousand Indonesians show up, along with their President. Try hosting a basketball game between the two countries in Jakarta, and you’d be lucky to get in 5,000 people into the stadium.
The point is, Football is a more popular sport, that will connect us with the rest of the world, and where our players can play in the very best leagues in the world.
I am hoping that these recent events are not just a fad, and will truly signal the arrival of Football into the Filipino conscience. For that to happen, the Azkals will have to continue to play very competitively in the international scene.
I don’t necessarily see Filipinos giving up Basketball for Football in this lifetime. Basketball is too ingrained into the Filipino mind that I doubt if it will ever go away.
What I would like to see happen, is for the Philippines to patronize more than one sport like it is doing now, become a dual-sport country. Countries like Argentina, and Spain, for example, patronize and are powers both in Basketball, and in Football. The Philippines should do the same.
– Philippines national football team Wikipedia page, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azkals
– Phil Younghusband Wikipedia page, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phil_Younghusband