The BIG challenge: Improving Philippine grassroots and youth football

Grassroots Football Philippines

At the time of this writing it is a known fact that the Philippine youth teams (U-19 and U16) had forgettable campaigns in the ASEAN Football Federation Championships.

There have been some glimpses of potential and promise, particularly in the U-19, but there still needs a lot of improvements to be done based on how the rest of the tournaments panned out.

With this it’s not that hard to come up with a conclusion that the gap between the senior squad which was trailblazing in its campaigns and shattering records upon records, achieving milestones upon milestones, seems to be getting farther and farther compared to the junior squads.

It’s easy to do reflex finger-pointing as to what needs to be done for the junior squads to improve in their level of competitiveness in international tournaments. Some insist better preparation time is needed, while others point out that schools and mother clubs (if there’s any of them playing at such a setup) should release their students or players for national team trainings and duties.

But the reality is, the challenges are much bigger than those and the solution required are actually much bigger and complex that there needs an overhaul of the system, or better yet systems, some of the most important of these – grassroots and youth development.

What grassroots and youth development in the Philippines need when it comes to football is a paradigm shift, a monumental change of geological/seismic proportions that will take at least a few years to be completed, but it needs to start now. We also need brave and enterprising investors as pioneers to invest as they apply the wholly different approach when it comes to youth football and break the existing mould that is really not applicable in international football.

With the current state of the Philippines’ grassroots programs, there needs a series of changes in youth development from a footballing perspective – MASSIVE CHANGES.

Football Academy System vs Traditional School Varsity System

This is one of the most obvious yet also one of the hardest to change in the current footballing setup in the Philippines. For years, Filipinos put education at a very lofty pedestal in terms of prioritisation for matters pertaining to children’s futures. But almost all Filipinos, parents and non-parents alike, think of education that is traditional in nature: K-12, college and university. There’s nothing wrong with this usual path when it comes to building a child’s education, but it is far from ideal for a kid who’s gifted with immense potential in football to develop his talents for the sport with a view to playing at the highest level as a professional.

For a budding footballer, he must undergo a football-centric development and it must be a complete and holistic approach applying the full cycle without cutting corners, from identification, formation, and enhancement of the footballing athlete’s skills up until the post-playing career phase and for a legitimate prospect it usually starts at a young age when ordinary kids are in elementary schools.

Such process of football development for the youth can only be achieved by a football academy system, which unfortunately in the Philippines, is non-existent.

Currently, the way to identify talent in this country is through football festivals, varsity tryouts or pay-for-play. This is passable for now because the Philippines does not have any other existing framework for talent identification, but in reality, this approach is actually far from good. Why? Because it’s too short-sighted and too quick-fix of a method as real talents fall under the cracks.

For example, in a short-format tournament, chances are a team or a scout can most probably unearth naturally talented youngsters who at first glance might have the physical ability and the promise to be a decent footballer in the future, but actually don’t have the intangible essentials – mindset, motivation, and passion, that would propel a prospect to the highest level of competitive football for a long-haul career.

In a football academy where potentials can be meticulously filtered not just by their natural raw skills but their overall attributes, a much better assessment can be laid out on a per-person basis where flaws can be pin-pointed early on and corrected to better improve the budding player into a more complete footballer capable of plying his trade at a professional level.

Aside from the in-game essentials, football academy players are also groomed and educated with the requisite set of knowledge specifically for the sport, mainly linguistics and sports science and trained also for life long after their playing days with precursor knowledge on team management, coaching, and other possible roles off the pitch.

A football academy is what the Philippines needs. And the usual setup is academies are either owned by or affiliated to a professional club with an already established reputation.

Having football academies are well and good, definitely one that will help the grassroots because they act as factories, or conveyor belts, of young talents who play and train solely for a professional career as the main objective. This also addresses the continuity of talents coming up the ranks benefitting clubs in their aim to maintain their ambitions and reputations as institutions in the sport.

But the big problem in the academy system that makes it a risky approach from a business standpoint is where the money will come from in funding such a grand setup, since once youths are considered as solid prospects, their development are done for free as the academy is the one that invests to the talents rather than the players who pay the academy for training.

And the investment for each youth comes at a high price since most academies provide boarding and lodging, training facilities, education, clothing (kits/outfitters), nutrition, medicine and sports science – the works.

How this monetary aspect for clubs who run academies can be addressed, will be discussed in a latter point.

The Philippines needs a YOUTH LEAGUE

What is the point of having good football academies if their players do not play high level competitive games?

For now, each club in the Philippines joins (or creates their own) pocket tournaments in which their youth teams compete in. However, ensuring that the level of competition is at its most competitive, based on the teams competing, cannot be assured.

Therefore there needs to be a federation sanctioned league at the national level to make this come into fruition. And the format should adhere to the divisions set by FIFA and the AFC (e.g. Under-20, Under-17).

Note that this is not the school or collegiate leagues that are already established and are thriving (and in reality the main talent source of the current national youth teams). But the school setup is not geared towards a focused development for football since the players in those leagues are student-athletes geared towards professions based on the courses they are enrolled in.

The national youth league should be made up of players under footballing academies, mainly from clubs competing at the highest level.

A National Development Academy run by the Federation

Aside from academies run by clubs, there’s also the need for a National development system (the Federation’s own version of an academy) to augment the development of the best of talents from each football club around the country for a chance to mould them for the national youth team for seasonal trainings along with their peers from other clubs to create a sense of camaraderie and unity from a national team standpoint and learn the system as well of playing and preparing for an international football tournament.

A national federation-run academy though will only be optimal if there already is a thriving academy system across the nation.

For now the complex in San Lazaro Leisure Park in Carmona Cavite is being envisioned as such, and the method of assembling national team prospects there for trainings, camps and other purposes such as tryouts is starting to take hold, but it is still far from the intricate setup that other advanced footballing countries are already putting into regular practice.

But to reiterate, a national headquarters for the development of national teams, particularly the youth squads will only reach its full potential if clubs have their own established academies geared to grooming athletes towards a serious footballing career at the highest level.

Club financing systems (Investment) to support their youth programs

Club academies have been mentioned previously, but such a setup surely would siphon out loads of cash down the drain – something that is a daunting proposition for any rational-thinking businessman, particularly in this nation. But why do clubs in other footballing countries thrive even though they invest in academies, grassroots and youth programs? It’s because they have viable sources of incomes which are much more than just gate receipts and shirt sponsors.

Note that aside from academies, clubs spend a much bigger chunk on first-team-related costs, basically the main squad, from transfer window acquisitions, infrastructure costs and operation costs which we won’t delve much into details. But one thing is sure: They COST… A LOT.

There are several ways a football club is financed but in terms of the basics, there are two most prominent approaches: The Chairmanship or ownership, and the “Socio” or Shareholder system.

Chairmanship/Owner/Main Benefactor Model

The ownership model’s most prominent examples are English clubs in which rich personalities or business owners own the club who serve as the main benefactor for most of the club-related expenses.

Most clubs in the Philippines follow such construct.

The Shareholder/Socio System

The other approach is the “socio” system, which seems a much better option as fans and investors own a stake in the club via a shareholder scheme. Good examples of clubs that employ the socio system are Spanish and South American clubs. The reason why this is a better approach is because there is a balance between those shareholders who really care and the purely business-minded people. For clubs to make the most out of this setup is to tap on their most hardcore fans (not hooligans) from an investment perspective. They (the most passionate fans) can be the pillars for true fan support, even if it begins small, as it eventually extends to others who are more of the pragmatic type but are also willing to invest until the number of investors grow into a massive and viable financial source. There just needs to be a board of directors who will serve as stewards in terms of the overall management aspects of the club.

The only problem for a socio system is it needs time to grow and develop. And is susceptible to internal politics and power-plays. A good example of such in-house political turmoils are massive clubs Real Madrid and Barcelona which, on the outside, may seem successful on the pitch with everything seemingly fine and dandy in a purely footballing perspective, but in reality outside the camera and the din of the stadium, regularly experience political squabbles. But it’s part of reality for football clubs that is owned by a group of people, it’s just a matter of having a political will of putting the welfare of the club first and above all else.

TV and Sports Media

There are still other sources of income: Per club TV rights, Season-passes, and Regional TV deals.

Focusing on the third item, TV deal, is what’s interesting. The Philippines is made up of many islands divided into several regions. Big TV media outlets have their own regional facilities and mostly these just relay content from Metro Manila with a few local/in-house productions.

It would be more practical for a league, (in this particular case, The Philippines Football League) to strike several regional TV deals instead of a full-suite national coverage contract. For example, games of teams representing provincial cities (e.g. Iloilo, Davao, and Bacolod) will be shown via their respective regional TV networks live. What’s good in this is the games will be shown to the intended target audiences who live within the region where their city is located. That means, the interest and viewership most probably will be there, because the team playing is their home team – ins short, it’s a captured audience.


Ad board

Advertising is also one thing where clubs can get their income outside of the traditional gate receipts and funding from sponsors. But given that football does not have stoppages, there just need a new advertising approach: Ads will be shown while the game goes on with the use of side graphics, at the same time they could exploit the use of situational advertising, where events such as throw-ins, corner kicks, free-kicks, goals and penalties can be opportunities where paid advertising can come into play.

The challenge: It is a wholly different model from what is currently prevailing in the domestic sporting market and the concept is almost foreign to to the Philippine market which is used to using breaks in the game to show advertisement.

Defocus off the capital and go to provincial key cities in other islands

For all of what was presented above, the best place to apply them and see if they will work is to go to the provincial cities outside of the very strong influence of the capital region.

The reasons are the following:

– Hungry for recognition and proving something
– More open to change and likely to break from the status quo, Hence
> more room for creativity and more talent pool
> Higher probability to succeed

A good example of these are: Ceres Negros, Kaya Iloilo, and Davao Aguilas. Stallion Laguna meanwhile, despite their proximity to Metro Manila are also relatively doing fine and actually a bit of an exemption.

Once a platform has been set it might not work immediately but eventually it will be able to gain footing (small at first) and then a momentum until it becomes a system.

Just a footnote, in good old England, the most successful clubs in history are not from London. They’re from the northern cities far from the capital – Manchester United, Liverpool and currently Manchester City are in locations which here in the Philippines could be considered as provincial cities. If it is the case over there, which is “the home of football”, why not here?

In conclusion: NOW WHAT?

This is far from comprehensive, and definitely far from perfect, but the football setup in the country is a good platform to try something new and radical as long as it is done with the right planning and execution (with consultation and reference to existing models that are working in other countries/cultures).

If it works, definitely the youth system will benefit and it’s highly likely that the youth teams will begin to improve.

The players of the senior squad, for sure Philippine Football’s “Golden Generation”, are not getting any younger. A few even already hung up their boots. Now, for all their notable exploits to be maintained or improved, it will lie on the next batch of players who most will likely come in via the grassroots system that needs to be drastically improved by starting to apply the necessary changes.

With all the points laid and discussed, one thing is still certain: This is just the tip of the iceberg. For Philippines’ football grassroots and youth programs to improve to the level that is at-par with our ASEAN neighbours, at the very least, monumental efforts are required from different elements that make up Philippine Football – from the federation to the clubs, to the fans, the owners, and the media, and even the government, their helping hands are very much needed. The question is, does everyone have the will for the improvements to happen and become a reality? The answer to that is a totally different discussion in itself.

In the end, it’s all about the MONEY and RESOURCES. But money earned and spent well on resources by applying systems that WORK. The systems are already laid out there by other nations and the Philippines just need to apply it as well. THAT is how football grassroots in the country could MAYBE change for the BETTER and be able to compete at the highest level.

Photo credit: Ceres Cup Facebook Page

Related article: Indonesia wallops PH youth eight nil, but did we really expect much?