PHILIPPINE football had its humble beginnings at the dawn of the 20th century. There exists a long running dispute on whether the British or the Spanish brought the world’s most popular game into the country. One thing was apparent though from the very start: Filipinos, with their innate balance, agility, medium height and built, seemed tailor-fit for it.
Indeed, it can be argued that the country was the cradle of Asian football – with the early records to back it up. Believe it or not, among the sport’s earliest stars was a Filipino: Striker Paulino Alcantara, who played for multi-titled FC Barcelona, the same club that Ronaldhino suits up for. An Ilonggo by birth, Alcantara, at 15, became the youngest player to wear a jersey for the storied side.
Alcantara’s glory years with Barcelona from 1912 to 1927 – when he scored an impressive string of 357 goals – also marked the ascent of the Philippines as an Asian soccer powerhouse. The country won the men’s football gold medal in the 1913 Far Eastern Games, the forerunner of the Asian Games.
Alcantara missed the 1913 Games. But four years later, he played a key role in the RP side’s 15-2 rout of Japan in front of its red-faced countrymen when the meet was staged in the Japanese capital of Tokyo.
On the local front, Manila became a popular destination of visiting European squads. Top clubs such as Turba Salvaje, YCO Athletic, Nomads and Bohemian Sporting Club could always be counted on to give the foreign booters a run for their money.
Formed around 1911, Bohemian proved to be the dominant squad during its time with eight national championships from 1912 onwards. Bohemian’s monopoly would later be challenged by other clubs such as the San Beda Athletic Club and Nomads FC, which was composed mostly then of British expatriates, and remains active on the local football scene until now.
The creation of the Manila Football League, featuring most if not all of the country’s top clubs, in 1936 marked another significant event in the sport’s local annals.
The Filipino-Chinese community became an active participant on the local football scene in the 50s that saw the rise of strong teams such as the Lions Football Club and the Cheng Hua Tigers, challenging the other sides dominated by Spanish mestizos.
From the 30s until the 50s, Filipino footballers were at par, if not superior, with their Asian neighbors. More often than not, they held their own against recognized regional soccer powers such as Japan and Korea, which, since then, have made even greater strides. Sadly, the Filipinos were virtually left standing still, as basketball steadily gained a foothold and captured their compatriots’ imagination.
Among the historic highlights of this era was the formation of the Asian Football Confederation in Manila on May 8, 1954. Its founding members were Afghanistan, Burma, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.
In 1961, all of the country’s football stakeholders became officially organized with the creation of the Philippine Football Association, the predecessor of the Philippine Football Federation. Actually, records show that the PFA was the sports organization that first gained autonomy from the old Philippine Amateur Athletic Federation because it had its own constitution and by-laws.
The PFA leadership sought to rekindle interest in football, noting its decline among the youth. It certainly got a lot of help from the private sector and individuals. Among the PFA’s sports patrons then were Don Manolo Elizalde, the founder of the YCO Athletic Club and an avid football fan, and Don Andres Soriano Sr., another football fanatic and chief of the San Miguel food conglomerate.
There was also businessman-sportsman Leo Prieto who contributed a lot to the sport’s grassroots development. Prieto’s brainchild was the Boys Football Association (BOFA), an immensely popular program among the youth that had camps, courses and tournaments virtually the whole year round for various age groups. BOFA became a model program not only for football but for other sports as well.
On the other hand, San Miguel, with Soriano as the moving force, spearheaded the hiring of foreign coaches to lift the sport’s deteriorating standards. The food and beverage giant hired British coaches Alan Rogers and Brian Birch in late 1962. Both coaches were able to cobble a Philippine team on short notice that was still able to hold fancied Selangor, the Malayan champion, to a 1-all draw in March 1963.
Not content with that, Don “Andy,” as he was fondly called, took the next step of recruiting four top Spanish amateur players to compete in the local commercial leagues. He hoped that their superior performance would rub off on the Filipinos, while drawing Filipino fans back into the game. His plan was only partially successful.
The same experiment was tried once again in the early seventies. This time, San Miguel lured six professional Spanish players to play in the country. The gambit also achieved modest results at best.. Juan Cutillas from the first batch and Tomas Lozano from the second batch have settled in the Philippines for good. (Cutillas went on to become coach of several national teams, migrated to Australia, but has settled down in Manila again. Lozano has made a good living out of organizing youth football courses and events.)
Homegrown talent, on the other hand, would usually come from football bailiwicks such as the Visayan provinces of Negros Oriental and Negros Occidental and Iloilo, all traditional arch rivals, and Davao and North Cotabato in Mindanao. Manila, Laguna and Baguio were the Luzon epicenters of soccer, which they remain until this day.
Soriano continued to inject new life into football by hiring German expert Bernard Zgoll, who arrived in 1979 to oversee the setting up of eight football centers in strategic sites nationwide. These centers would be where young football hopefuls 18 years and below could be nurtured and developed until they could rise from the ranks and someday play for the national team.
There is an anecdote about Zgoll that perhaps describes the state of football then. Seeing the condition of the Rizal Memorial football field for the first time, Zgoll called it a “potato patch.”
Nonetheless, Zgoll was dedicated to his mission and among the products of the program were former national team members Elmer Bedia, who migrated to Australia, Ramsay Padernilla, Rodolfo Alicante and Herman Bingcang, to name a few.
While the program died a natural death, a new one took its place: Enter the Coke Go-for Goal age-group clinics and competitions in 1984 spearheaded by Rene Adad, who would eventually become one of the PFF’s distinguished presidents. For nearly two decades without fail, the Coke Go-for Goal became a regular fixture in the country’s football calendar, beginning with its nationwide regional competitions and culminating in the national finals at the different site annually.
Most of the national players that would come years later would credit their first taste of tough competition from this program, which, sadly, was eventually shelved as the softdrink giant shifted its directions and policies.
1982 was a watershed year with the Philippine Football Association reorganized to be known as the Philippine Football Federation, whose aim was to set up more regional associations nationwide to popularize and propagate the sport. The most notable football feat in the nineties occurred during the 1991 Manila Southeast Asian Games when the Filipino footballers reached the semifinals. After this accomplishment, overseas victories until the late 90s were hard to come by.
But a new foundation was laid for a new generation of football players with the launching of an aggressive grassroots program in 1998 known as Kasibulan, under former PFF president Johnny Romualdez. The program was funded by FIFA and the German government.
This comprehensive plan included courses, clinics, camps and tournaments for children 12 years old and under in 50 provinces and 300 cities across the country. Trained PFF instructors also went around nationwide to teach PE teachers the football fundamentals with the hope of passing their instruction to the schoolchildren under their care.
With globalization, a glimmer of hope also marked Philippine football as it entered the new millennium. The national teams, both men and women, became reinforced by foreign-bred Filipinos whose football savvy helped enhance the country’s campaign in international competition. Foreign-sounding names such as Younghusband (English), Hartmann (English), Gunn (Australia) were becoming commonplace on the national roster.
As the Philippines celebrates a hundred years of football, who knows? Among these players may yet emerge the next Paulino Alcantara, whose skill and prowess can spawn a new crop of Filipino football players at par with the best in the world.
By Manolo Pedralvez, Maria Virginia de Guzman & Reignell Francisco
Pinoy Football Magazine Centennial Edition