A new year is upon us. Here is what I would like to see in the coming year that would make Football in the Philippines more awesome.
A cap on foreigners in the United Football League. Foreign players like Meralco's Park Min Ho, Global's Izo Elhabbib, and Kaya's Saba Sadeghi Garmaroudi have brought a lot to Philippine Football. Their individual quality raises the standard of Football in our country, which makes other players better. When you play against better players, you undoubtedly improve as well.
But when there are too many foreigners, then Filipino players get shut out of the top tiers of Football. And that can't be good. Bringing in foreign stars to spice up the league is a good idea, but so is giving young Filipinos, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds in the province, a shot at a better life because of the game. Plus having more Filipinos excelling in the league will help bring in more fans.
The other benefit: having more Filipinos in the top teams raises their games and gives us a bigger, more competitive pool for the Azkals.
The issue is not as clear-cut as it may seem. Foreigners have helped keep Football alive in the country in very many concrete ways. For example, Nomads was the home of the UFL for a long time. We should all be grateful. But on the top-tier, something must be done.
The league plans to incrementally reduce the maximum number of foreigners in each roster. This is a good idea, but it needs to start now.
I'd start with a rule that any team, even all-Korean General Trias International and Nomads can follow: you must have five Filipinos in your roster of 23 players. GTI can rope in some talented Cavitenos, and Nomads can pick up a few Filipinos to go with their Fil-Brits like Aaron de Rama and Jason Arroyo.
(Yes, I count Filipinos who have grown up abroad who may have one non-Filipino parent as Filipinos. As long as you have a passport, you're Pinoy as far as I am concerned, and not a foreigner. It's important to make this distinction.)
Filipino AFC Match Commissioner Gue David has a great idea: for every foreigner a team brings in, it must pay a luxury tax whose proceeds will go towards grassroots development for the game in the provinces, say through the Kasibulan program.
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The Azkals treat friendlies like friendlies. Of course no one wants to lose. But friendlies are also supposed to be laboratories for testing out young players and experimenting with tactics and formations. They are not supposed to be played like World Cup finals.
Right now we are not yet a mature Footballing nation. We demand wins so that the team and the game can sustain its popularity and attract sponsors.
But often we need to take one step back sometimes in order to take two steps forward. We should follow the lead of USA Men's National Team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who during friendlies uses marginal players, young players and experiments away. This gives a broader pool a taste of international play and bloods green but talented youngsters.
Of course the fans need to be understanding as well. They can look at the example of Singapore. They may have lost two friendlies to the Azkals but when it mattered most in the Suzuki Cup, the Lions came out on top.
The other irony: friendlies are usually on FIFA International dates, when the Euro-based Azkals are free. But the competitions like Challenge Cup and Suzuki Cup aren't. So we often get the top European-based Azkals for the games we don't need, and when we have competitions they can't make it. Thankfully it seems that the Challenge Cup qualifiers have been rescheduled to FIFA International Dates.
National Team selection based on performance in the UFL. In my opinion, we need a National Team composed of mostly Philippine-based players in the UFL. That makes cohesion so much easier. And truth be told, there are some terrific players already in the UFL. The gap between UFL-based Azkals and Euro-based Azkals is as narrow as ever and will continue to narrow.
True, having Euro-based players like Stephan Schrock come in for some games is great but I would be very selective on who I would bring in.
We should also start becoming like other nations; where league form is a ticket to the national squad. Currently we have players like Mark Hartmann, Balot Doctora, and Tating Pasilan who have terrorized their league opponents but have not found favor with Azkals selectors. That needs to change.
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The other issue is how we spend funds for Football. I think it costs around P100,000 for a round trip ticket from Europe. That is money that could be used to have more Football festivals and tournaments in the grassroots level. Or kit up several teams. Or hire a good foreign youth coach. Or rehabilitate a field somewhere. We have to wonder if it is worth all of that to bring in a certain player at a certain position when there could be a perfectly competent player right here.
I am not saying that we should never spring to have our Euro Azkals here. But we should think about how we allocate our resources for the long-term growth of the game and the team.
No more scheduling issues. This one hits home. I missed the UFL Cup final because it got rescheduled to a time and day when I had a previous appointment. The stakeholders need to sit down and fix a schedule early in the year and stick to it.
More games and competitions. I love the fact that we will now have a PFF Smart National Club Championship, plus the UFL League and Cup plus the Super Cup. This means there is more Football being played in many different places, and that can only help. More experience for everyone means a higher standard of play and better fitness too.
The next logical step for the UFL is to have reserve and/or youth teams that play in a league against each other regularly. Kaya and Nomads are ahead of the curve here with their youth teams. Green Archers can field their high school teams. Other top teams need to follow suit. It should be a prerequisite of getting into UFL's Division 1 that a team has a youth or reserve team.
Better preparation for the SEA Games team. The 2011 SEA Games U23 team was a hastily-thrown together mish-mash that got drubbed in Indonesia, losing to Myanmar, Vietnam, Timor Leste, and even lowly Brunei. This year we have more time to prepare, and the coaching staff will be completely different from that of the senior team. I am told that the Yanzon brothers who own Ceres FC will be involved, which is great.
Certainly we have the talent to compete. Jeff Christiaens will still be eligible, as will be Manny Ott. Ditto for Mark Hartmann. Jonjon Melliza, who is tearing up the UAAP, would be a great addition, as will be Jinggoy Valmayor. Josh Beloya and Ohjay Porteria will also give opponents fits. Having Patrick Deyto in goal would be terrific.
My suggestion: have the 2013 UFL Cup as early as possible so that the SEA Games team can play in it and gel properly in the crucible of competitive play. This is what Singapore and Malaysia do with their youth teams.
Singapore's Young Lions play in the S-League while the mostly young LionsXII squad plays in the Malaysian Super League. Malaysia returns the favor by sending over their Harimau Muda A (young tigers) team of U22 players to participate in the S-league while Harimau Muda B, the U19 team, plays in the Malaysian Premier League, the country's second tier.
The results speak for themselves. The neighbors have won the last two Suzuki Cups with players bred in that system.
Follow Bob on Twitter @bhobg333.