The rise and rise of Philippines football

Football in the Philippines is thriving, both at club and international level, but can that success be sustained?

Last week, the Philippines rose to their highest ever FIFA world ranking. On Tuesday, Ceres and Kaya FC are in line to progress to the last 16 of the AFC Cup in what will be an incredible turnaround from the dire form exhibited in last year’s competition. Football in the Philippines is on the rise, and it’s evident in both club competition and on the international scene.

Thomas Dooley’s Azkals have moved up to 115th in the world, a ranking some 76 places higher than the low reached just over a decade ago; no longer are the Philippines the easy-to-beat minnows of Southeast Asia.

The rise up the pecking order hasn’t come overnight; the groundwork was laid first by German manager Michael Weiss and the Azkals have since flourished further under Dooley, who recently signed a new two-year contract. A record of one win from 13 matches has been turned around in a remarkable fashion which has seen the Philippines win three of their last eight fixtures.

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Philippines’ success in the second round of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers means that they have progressed to the third round of qualifying for the 2019 AFC Cup, an achievement in itself given that the Azkals have previously had to use the AFC Challenge Cup as a potential qualifying route. Should they qualify for the event which will be held in the United Arab Emirates, it will be the first time that the country has achieved such success.

There is one factor that has had a massive role to play throughout the Philippines rise: The presence of foreign-born players who received their footballing education in Europe.

The Philippines have benefited greatly from having being able to select foreign-born players with Filipino heritage who learned their football in Europe.

Of the 21 players who turned out for the Azkals in their last 2018 World Cup qualifier against DPR Korea, only eight were born in the Philippines.

“Martin Steuble was born and raised in Switzerland and played for Zurich and eventually moved on to the MLS, and now he’s playing for Ceres FC, but his whole football culture, his mentality, his understanding of the game, his coaching has come from his professional career in Switzerland,” former Kaya FC head coach Fabien Lewis told FOX Sports Asia.

“There are players like Patrick Reichelt who played in the Bundesliga and played at a good level for some time before moving to Global FC. He was another player who came to the Philippines having had some of the best coaching in the world.”

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Lewis continued: “If you look at the guys in the Philippines side, even the ones that didn’t have professional experience before coming to the Philippines, they were born and raised in a footballing country, and this has made the players a bit more cultured.

“So I’m not at all surprised that they have been able to have success in Southeast Asia and at a professional level in the AFC Cup, because the players that are playing for the national team are actually foreign players with Philippines heritage – and that’s not to disrespect the locals. Every football country, if you go back in their history you will find that foreign players and players who played in a foreign country, came back and brought their knowledge of the game, and the Philippines has taken advantage of the skills that these players have.”

On the face of it, such a situation may seem like one primed for short-term success. A cynic may ask: How can long-term gains be made if imports are responsible for the progress? It would be very easy for this competitive era of Philippines football to be a flash in the pan, with the country soon descending down the ranks once more. However, those working behind the scenes at grassroots level are doing everything they can to ensure this is not the case.

It’s hard not to be taken in by the passion with which Lewis speaks of Filipino football, and in particular, the development work that is taking place.

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“The clubs and players are working hard on this,” said Lewis. “They have attracted a lot of local players who are now really excited about football in the Philippines because of what the Azkals have done and what some of the professional clubs have done. So there are a lot of local players who aspire to play for the Azkals, who aspire to play for the professional teams and they are entering the academies of these professional teams.

“All the top teams have academies and they have those experienced players working in the academies, so now those players are passing on their knowledge to the younger players.

“I hope, I can only imagine, that their efforts will prove to be a success down the line, but they must always be thinking ahead, there must always be a plan of action regarding how you want the players to train and how you want the players to play. They need to be thinking about how they want the teams to be playing 10 years from now, 15 years from now. The players now need to pass down those ideas and I think thus far they have been able to accomplish that.”

The future is indeed bright for the Philippines, but there is much work to be done to ensure that this success is long-term. The right building blocks are being put in place, and if the plans in place are correctly implemented there is no reason why Philippines football cannot continue to thrive.

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