There aren’t many nations across Asia where football isn’t the main game in town but as the crowds at the recent AFF Suzuki Cup showed that is the case in the Philippines.
Hopes are high though that it might not be that way for much longer as the country’s first truly national league is finally about to kick off with the ambitious aim to overtake basketball as the sport of choice and in the process revitalise the Azkals and propel the Philippines into being a genuine regional power.
Following years of struggling amateur competitions where the bulk of clubs were based and played out of the capital, Manila, the Philippines Football League brings top-flight football to several regions of the sprawling nation that haven’t had a taste of the big-time and has the potential to be a huge game-changer for the sport in the archipelago.
The first season will see eight clubs participate in a two round home and away format with the top four playing off in a ‘finals series’ to determine the inaugural champion. This means teams will have a minimum of 28 matches across the season while plans are already underway to push into a second division with promotion and relegation then the aim.
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Moreover, more than 50% of the matches will be available on free-to-air television and that will hopefully see rapid growth of the sport in a nation where 20% of the population is aged 18 or younger.
It took years of research, planning and preparation to get to this stage and FOX Sports Asia spoke this week with one of the driving forces behind the project, PFF General-Secretary Ed Gastanes, who didn’t hold back in his belief that the new league can be a real turning point for football in his nation.
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FOX SPORTS ASIA (FSA): How excited are you personally and the nation as a whole about the launch of this long-awaited national league?
ED GASTANES (EG): Well, I’ve just come from the office of the chairman of the Philippines Sports Commission to personally invite him to our tournament and I can certainly say that the entire Sports Ministry is pleased with what’s happening in terms of elevating club football and that spreads right across the country from the owners, to the players and the fans and everybody is excited and hoping to see the success of this professional league.
FSA: Do you see this as a chance to really propel football right into the mainstream and perhaps even knock off some of the other sports that have dominated the landscape in the Philippines for a long time?
EG: Certainly, subconsciously, we have that objective but we while we don’t want to fight with basketball we can see that their league is plateauing.
Even the professional basketball league keeps changing the names of the teams and there are fewer and fewer people watching that competition on television and all of their teams are based in metro Manila so we see football as having a real advantage there.
We are a truly national league, with 50% of our matches to be available on free-to-air television, and we have had an extensive grassroots program in place for four to five years now and we’re really reaping the benefits of that with huge numbers of both boys and girls now playing football.
In fact so big are those numbers that one of our main challenges will be to ensure that we have enough facilities and pitches for all those children to play on given the surge in popularity of grassroots football.
— FOX Sports Football (@FOXSportsFC) May 3, 2017
FSA: The first season of the league will start with eight clubs – do you feel that’s the right number and what are the plans for future expansion or moves to promotion and relegation through a second division?
EG: Eight was actually the number that I was hoping for as it allows us to meet our responsibilities to FIFA and the AFC in terms of the minimum number of matches required to run a professional league.
We’ll have a finals series too and whilst there might not be a cup competition in the first year due to the late start that will definitely also be a feature from next year and we know that in years to come we must also move towards promotion and relegation.
FSA: For the first time this will be a truly national competition with clubs based in Ilocos in the north and Davao in the south as well as in Cebu and Bacolod; what will this do for football right across the Philippines?
EG: We have two brand-new clubs in Davao and Ilocos and six existing clubs although some have relocated but all of these regions are strong tourism centres and many are places that haven’t seen top flight football or any kind of elite sport before and that was important for us.
Take Ilocos for example where they have a lack of big events on the weekend and they have a brand new artificial pitch with the stadium a walking distance from the city centre and it gives people something to really do on the weekends.
We wanted to make sure that these clubs are a deep part of their communities and that was a requirement of awarding the licence as was cooperation from local governments and we really feel that will be a positive in strengthening those bonds between club and community right across the nation where all clubs must also use the name of the city where they are based in their club name.
Moreover, it’s also a requirement that clubs invest in youth development with a mandatory regulation to have two youth teams as part of their club at Under 14 and Under 18 level and that will also benefit the future of the sport.
FSA: On that topic, do you see this league as really being of a huge benefit to the national team as well?
EG: That was one of our main objectives in launching this league, yes, because with more matches should come better quality players.
The problem we’ve faced for the last couple of years is that we’ve had to call up players from abroad and sometimes they couldn’t come and with the matches in the old league not at a high level or large number then that was an issue too.
Everybody knows that regular, high-pressure, matches are the key to improving and maintaining skills and that will not only help us improve our national teams – and our women are also doing well at the moment – but also help us attract good quality players from abroad.