The rise of the Azkals is something that we longtime Azkals fans are truly relishing. It is what we dreamed of. And it has largely made possible by the emergence of foreign-born Pinoys.
It all began when Chad Gould, Anton Del Rosario and Chris Greatwich broke into the national squad in 2004. Then the Younghusbands followed a year later for the SEA games.
Pretty soon Neil Etheridge would come on board along with Rob Gier and Jason Dejong, as well as Ray Jonsson and all the others. Now the Azkals starting XI is almost completely composed of foreign-born Filipinos and are a force in South East Asian Football.
Their success on the field has led to attention and investment off it, which can only spur the development of the sport in the long-term.
I welcome these players as Filipinos. They've made great sacrifices to embrace the nation of either one or both of their parents. Many of them have played brilliantly in raising the standard of Pinoy Football to new heights. The inference that they are not true Filipinos is unkind. I should know how that feels. Their story is my story too.
In 1988 I returned home from living in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore for 10 years. While abroad I studied in International Schools and my family spoke English at home. Although we went back to Manila for a month every year, my Tagalog was almost nonexistent and my adjustment to Filipino culture was at times trying.
Most Pinoys are born in this country and take being Pinoy for granted. For others it's a process, oftentimes a difficult one. I've made the journey and I admire the Fil-foreigners who live here for doing the same. Special props to Phil Younghusband, who gamely tries to conduct interviews in Filipino.
Although I love and appreciate the foreign-born Pinoys like Phil, I don't hide the fact that I have a soft spot for homegrown players. It's the reason why I'm a Philippine Air Force Phoenix fan. I cheer for all our boys , but I confess that I'm just a wee bit happier when the homegrown players excel.
Whether we like it or not, a significant number of our Fiipinos like to see full-blooded home grown Pinoys represent our country. And seeing a team of all Fil-fors on the pitch is unsettling to them. I'm not saying it's right. I'm saying it's reality.
The Azkals should always be a mix of the finest foreign-born Pinoys with elite homegrown talent. There should be a balance. I'll try to explain why.
I have been to Football's hotspots in the south. I spent a few days last December in Barotac Nuevo, Iloilo attending Ian Araneta's youth tournament. I saw hordes of kids, boys and girls, many of them barefoot, playing the Beautiful Game with unbridled passion while hundreds of townsfolk looked on. Many of the kids also hailed from neighboring towns like Santa Barbara and Calinog.
Two months later I was at the Dumaguete Ball Field. My good friend, Pere Sienes, coach of the Negros Oriental U23 squad, was mentoring his team in the Siliman Cup. It was a night game and the light was abysmal, but the kids played hard.
Six hours west is Bacolod, Negros Occidental, which won the U23 title last year. Bacolod is a known football mecca with a well-organized league. A satellite-image scan of the city reveals several pitches. In 2005 and 2006 I traveled there to watch the SEA Games squad and the full Azkals team play. Panaad stadium was packed, just like it was last February against Mongolia.
And a few hours' drive back east is San Carlos City, where UP's precocious striker Jinggoy Valmayor comes from, as do Green Archers Arnie Pasinabo and Tating Pasilan.
Cebu has its share of players too. Queen City United's coach Mario Ceniza bolstered his squad for the league with young blood and they are now one of the best in Division 2.
I've chatted with Air Force's Peter Jaugan. He tells me about his hometown, M'lang, North Cotabato, and its seething Football culture, thanks to its Ilonggo ancestors.
Vince Santos, manager of Loyola Meralco Sparks and Football coordinator for FEU, speaks glowingly about the young recruits from nearby Compostela Valley that drove his powerhouse FEU juniors squad and will now take centerstage in the seniors competition.
We are a footballing nation. Basketball may have reigned supreme all these years, but these communities have kept the football flame alive for decades.
These communities are part of the Filipino footballing family. Their sons (and daughters) shouldn't be ignored when it comes to selecting our national team. Giving their players a shot at the Azkals is a way of making them feel like they're a big part of the Pinoy football renaissance. They deserve nothing less.
There's another reason why homegrown players should not be shut out from the team: they play the role of the underdog so very well. And we know that nobody loves underdogs more than Filipinos.
In last December's UFL Cup Final, an undersized all-homegrown Air Force Phoenix squad battled and hustled their way to a 2-0 victory over the Younghusbands and Hartmanns of the glamorous Loyola Meralco Sparks. It was an epic triumph witnessed by thousands in the Rizal Memorial, and countless more on TV. What they saw was Ian Araneta poaching an early goal, Tats Mercado stoning Phil Younghusband time and time again, and the ageless Yanti Barsales sealing it with a late strike.
The message of that game was clear: Fil-foreigners may be awesome, but Pinoy footballers who are born and bred here can play too. It was a result that was good for football in this country. It was a result that can inspire footballing kids all over the nation to dream of one day being an Azkal.
Chieffy Caligdong is the ultimate underdog. The pint-sized Air Force man is nothing less than Manny Pacquiao in spikes. From humble beginnings in Barotac Nuevo he has risen to the pinnacle of Pinoy football. One by one, every position on the Azkals starting XI has been usurped by Fil-foreigners. But thanks to 13 international goals, six last year alone, Left Wing remains with Caligdong.
He's now a media darling, shilling everything from sports drinks to cars to vinegar.
Would Chieffy be half as popular, half as beloved, if he were a Fil-German or Fil-Brit? I'd like to think not. It's his status as the finest homegrown player of his generation that makes him unique.
Who is the next Chieffy Caligdong? There are plenty to choose from. I believe that with the influx of foreign talent playing in the UFL, our homegrown players are better than ever. When you play against better players, you become a better player.
Consider Jake Morallo or Jayson Cutamora. Both from Negros Oriental, the Meralco midfielders are quick and skillful. Cutamora is a wondrous passer of the ball with great vision.
It could be Tating Pasilan from Green Archers. The You Tube clip of his stunning outside-of-the-boot free kick goal against Air Force should leave you slack-jawed. The San Carlos native is tied for third in the league with 9 goals.
Balot Doctora has been solid as captain for Stallion FC in a roller-coaster season. When he got in the second half against the Australian Olympic team, his relentless work rate prompted Rob Gier to say he "changed the game."
There's also Joven Bedic, a talented forward from Pachanga, as well as Meralco's towering teen striker Amani Aguinaldo. Need a keeper? Check out the phenomenal Patrick Deyto, who might be a big reason why Green Archers will stay in the First Division.
Then there's Valmayor. And Neckson Leonora. The Soriano brothers from Talisay. The list goes on. It's longer than you think.
Over the last few years Azkals management has searched long and hard for foreign-born Pinoys to play for the team. Some of the new players have been terrific, like Jeffrey Christaens, Roland Muller, and of course Stefan Schrock. But a few who have been capped have been underwhelming.
This is another issue that needs redress. There seems to be a sentiment in Pinoy football circles that being a Fil-foreigner gets you in the Express Lane to the national team at the expense of gifted homegrown kids. Everything should be done to disprove this notion.
The word is out among our disapora, and there is no shortage of foreign-born Pinoys applying to be an Azkal. We should be very, very selective. There are some Fil-foreigners, like Schrock, who play at the highest levels (he has just been bought by Bundesliga team Hoffenheim after leading Greuther Furth to promotion there). They are so ridiculously better than anyone here that they should be welcomed with open arms without question.
But some Fil-foreigners have never really proven themselves at any significant level abroad, and yet have gotten capped for the Azkals. Some have subsequently disappeared right after. This practice has to end. If you wanna be an Azkal, prove yourself in the UFL first, I say.
If there is a choice between a marginal Fil-foreigner based abroad and a homegrown of similar quality based here, then we should go with the homegrown.Which brings us to another point.
INDIVIDUAL QUALITY VERSUS TEAMWORK
There is another way to frame this whole issue. Instead of "homegrown" and "Fil-foreigner" we can also see it as "foreign-based" and "Philippine-based."
Last November we fielded our under-23 squad in the SEA Games. Hopes were high for a medal finish. Instead we ended up dead last in the group, dropping four of five matches and even losing to Brunei, a nation of just over 400,000 people.
In hindsight, the SEA Games train wreck was always going to happen. The team was a gumbo of foreign-based players and locally-based players hastily thrown together for a camp in Japan just before the event. (Why a team playing a competition in Indonesia prepares in chilly Japan might be best explained by team management.)
On the park they looked disjointed, and according to one local collegiate coach, unprepared.
In football, teams need to play together often so they can gel. The SEA Games squad never stood a chance against the other cohesive teams that had played together for years.
I tip my hat to Fil-foreigners like Lexton Moy, Angel Guirado, Carli De Murga and of course the Younghusbands. Instead of playing abroad and just showing up for Azkals duty when there are games and competitions, they put down roots here to raise the standard of Filipino football. This is how it ought to be. Plus they make themselves easily available for Azkals training.
I believe our national team should be mostly based here, with the exception of a few truly exceptional players like Neil Etheridge and Schrock.
LOOKING TO JUNE
The Azkals roster for the June friendlies has been released, and it pleases me. There is good representation of our best homegrown players, including four young Ilonggos from Stallion FC.
I hope some of them get decent playing time in June. These are friendlies, not competitive matches, and should be treated as so. These games should be considered as laboratories to test young players, and not merely win-at-all-cost grabs for FIFA ranking points.
This is especially true of the Bacolod game against Guam. The Azkals coaching staff would do well to field more Negrenses and Ilonggos than usual for that match. It would be a classy move to give them caps in front of their friends and families.
It would also be great if these young players get MEANINGFUL minutes in games. At least 20 minutes. These token 1 or 2 minute appearances in the embers of matches are pretty much pointless.
I am not saying we should have a quota of homegrowns on the starting XI. That would be ridiculous. The best players start, period. Neither am I saying that we should have a moratorium on new Fil-foreigners.
All I'm saying is that talented homegrown players should be given every chance to be an Azkal. They should be allowed to dream big. As much as possible, we shouldn't allow them to become endangered species in our national team.
While the lead roles in the Azkals might be played by outstanding foreign-born Pinoys like Phil Younghusband, the supporting cast can be partly composed of players born here.
When we cultivate homegrown stars that shine alongside foreign-born Pinoys, we are ensuring the long-term popularity and success of the Azkals. That's one goal we should all work for.