Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Filipino football facing brand new era

Boxer Manny Pacquiao may be the Philippines' best loved son and basketball the sport revered across the land, but the run to the semi-finals of the AFF Suzuki Cup by Simon McMenemy's team could be about to have a major impact on football in the archipelago.

The Philippines' history in the game may not be auspicious but it is amongst the oldest in Asia; the country featured in the first-ever international match played on the continent, when the Philippines lost 2-1 to China back in 1912 and was one of the 12 founding members of the Asian Football Confederation in 1954.

But while football throughout Asia has developed markedly since, the game has barely taken hold in a country more enthralled by the influence of the United States and the sport of basketball that now so dominates the nation's sporting landscape.

The events of the last two weeks, though, could see that start to change. As the Philippines prepare for their first-ever appearance in the semi-finals of the AFF Suzuki Cup, the nation of more than 90 million people is sitting up and taking notice.

President Benigno 'Noynoy' Aquino has already sent his message of congratulations to the team and social networking sites were buzzing throughout the group stages as the country and the tournament witnessed something special taking place.

Draws with Myanmar and Singapore coupled with an historic win over defending champions Vietnam have qualified the Filipinos for the last four, an astonishing achievement few would have predicted before the tournament commenced.

Much of the credit has gone to the England-born contingent within the team's ranks and boosted the squad's quality.

Players such as the Younghusband brothers Phil and James, former Wimbledon defender Rob Gier, midfielder Chris Greatwich and Fulham goalkeeper Neil Etheridge have played key roles in pushing the team towards previously unattained heights.

And for all the talk of reaching the semi-finals and their impending clash with Indonesia, everyone within the game in the Philippines is hoping the appearance in the knockout phase of the competition will lead to longer-term achievements.

"I think it's important that we ride this wave," says central defender Gier. "We'll do as much as we can to get momentum going in the Philippines."

For a country without a football infrastructure and no national league to talk of, the achievement has been remarkable. But now one eye is fixed on using the achievement to turn the state of the game in the Philippines around.

"There's so much potential there," says London-born James Younghusband, who has been living in Manila for the last year. "There are so many kids who love the sport and it's just a shame that there's no proper structure.

"There's no opportunity for them to develop their interest and skills in the sport like there would be in Europe or in other places. But hopefully that will start to change."

The Philippines' lack of footballing facilities means the country's first foray into the semi-finals of the AFF Suzuki Cup will see them play both legs at Indonesia's imposing Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta.

Possessing their own version of the imposing 90,000-seater venue is a pipedream for football in Philippines, but coach McMenemy is hopeful that the success tasted so far in the tournament can lead to bigger and better things for the country.

"The president of the country sent us a goodwill message and he has said we are trying to make an attempt to enter the international arena of football," said the coach.

"If he's recognising that then hopefully he will recognise that we can't do that on our own and that he being president can help make those changes. Like building a stadium, for one.

"I'm told that once he said that, the channel he said that on received hundreds of emails saying: Build us a stadium, build us a stadium. We have to start thinking ahead in those terms.

"We are just hoping that this is the snowball being tipped off the top of the glacier and hopefully it rolls a long way."

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