As a nation looks forward to a first-ever AFC Asian Cup outing, Scott McIntyre believes Philippines must capitalise on this momentum to develop the domestic game.
To see what it meant for those inside the Rizal Memorial Stadium as the Philippines qualified for their maiden AFC Asian Cup with a 2-1 win over Tajikistan was to witness the power of hope and perseverance.
It was a deserved reward for the small band of true believers – those who’ve invested boundless time and a fair amount of money into this moment and for those local players who could’ve easily given up and found the kind of ‘real profession’ that many of their parents wanted them to in the midst of a protracted period of amateur football that didn’t stretch beyond the bounds of the capital.
A reward too for those from the diaspora who were enticed to wear the Azkals shirt and did so through many more lows than highs and countless cramped flights from one side of the planet to the other.
It was also a sweetener for the hardy band of committed fans that stuck with the game that still struggles for air time, sponsorship money, perception and popularity.
Finally, it’s also a massive boon for the Asian Cup itself as the thousands of expat workers from the nation dotted throughout the Middle East can be expected to add a real dash of colour and atmosphere to the finals.
More important than the win and qualification though is what this moment represents for the future of football in the Philippines.
For the first time there will be adults about to witness their nation competing in Asia’s largest football tournament and for a generation of children just beginning on this journey the hope is that it will become the start of a new norm.
It’s a moment that should represent a line in the sand where football is able to leverage Asian Cup participation into something far more long lasting and febrile.
What can’t be allowed to happen though is that this result masks over the myriad issues still facing football in the country and rather must be harnessed to advance the game.
As fine an achievement as qualification is the fact remains that the Azkals face a very stern challenge to even be competitive in the UAE in January having struggled to progress ahead of war-torn Yemen and two of Asia’s poorest and least organised football nations in Tajikistan and Nepal.
The level of competition in the finals is about to be ratcheted up ten-fold and the PFF must ensure that the team has all the resources at their disposal to see them be competitive in nine months’ time.
Even more important though is what happens on the ground domestically.
With issues over tickets not being sold in standing areas, barely 4,000 fans were on hand to witness history being made this week and with the global audience tuning in to see a bank of empty concrete stands it was far from a good look and one that shouldn’t happen again.
The initial flare of excitement over the creation of the ‘professional’ Philippines Football League dimmed to a point where two clubs withdrew from the second edition and quite amazingly the 2018 season kicked off this month with just six clubs participating.
By my reckoning there’s no other nation on earth outside of the Northern Mariana Islands that has fewer teams running around in their domestic tournament and patently this is no way to build for the future.
Proper pathways for youth development must be put in place to ensure that future generations are raised with the technical tools to equip them for sustained success, infrastructure must be improved and the league now stands at a golden moment where they must look to squeeze every drop of media space and sponsorship opportunity to grow the game domestically.
The other, inward-looking, sports that dominate the local landscape must be put on notice that football and football alone can give the nation a chance to play with pride on a continental stage and this historic chance mustn’t be squandered to improve all levels of the sport.
Generations to follow must be able to look back at 2018 as the moment when the game changed, when the spur arrived to see the domestic league flourish and the makeshift hoops that dot the archipelago start to gather dust as the ball stays on the ground underneath them.
As one colleague put it to me after the final whistle, the Philippines is a football country that doesn’t know it yet.
Here’s the moment to change that.