By Sid Ventura
Realizing that the national team must also develop homegrown players and not constantly rely on Fil-foreigners, the Philippine Football Federation (PFF) is banking on the success of the Suzuki U23 National Cup to discover promising footballers from all over the country.
The tournament for players below 23 years of age is the first of its kind in the country. Its short-term goal is to identify players for the November Southeast Asian Games in Indonesia, while its long-term one is to jumpstart a nationwide grassroots program for the PFF.
“We can see that football is becoming popular because of the Azkals,” said PFF president Mariano “Nonong” Araneta during a brief press conference last week at the opening of the tournament’s North, Central and South Luzon cluster in Los Banos, Laguna. “And I’m glad that Suzuki is supporting football, and with this support I think we’ll have a better future.”
Araneta said around 30 football associations from all over the country distributed across six regional clusters are participating in the U23 Cup. The football associations of Laguna, Masbate, Cagayan De Oro, Davao, and Zandifa (Dipolog) have all topped their respective clusters to book their tickets to the finals. Still awaiting a winner are the Central Mindanao and Visayas clusters.
“We have to start somewhere here and look at the local players, and also the foreign players later on to make a good selection for our under-23 SEA Games team,” said Araneta.
While the nation has celebrated the Azkals for their achievements, right now there is no farm system in place to groom future Azkals. It’s something that national team manager Dan Palami readily acknowledges and hopes to correct.
“That is precisely the problem we are trying to address, and that is the lack of available talents locally,” said Palami. “And competitions such as this will allow the younger players to have a goal, which is to participate in tournaments such as this. It starts with interest. When they know something is happening, they get interested in the game. And then from there, their skill level and match fitness will follow. It’s a long-term process, forming a national team. We always have to start somewhere, and I think this is a very big way to start the whole process of selecting players for the national team. I’m quite optimistic that we will be able to find under-23 representatives to the Southeast Asian Games.”
Palami added that all things being equal, he will always choose a local player over a Fil-foreigner. “My policy as manager of the national team is if there’s not much difference between a foreign-trained player and a local one, then I prefer to really develop and nurture talents locally.”
If things go according to plan, the under-23 tournament will be held every other year to coincide with the SEA Games, alternating with a proposed under-21 tournament which will make its debut next year.
Azkals coach Hans Michael Weiss, who will also handle the under-23 team, said he hopes more support will pour in for the football programs of the PFF now that the Azkals have given the sport a boost. “Other people should also step in,” said the German mentor. “This is a matter of national interest, so the government should think about the popularity of the team and the promotion we do for the Philippines overseas. I wish potential sponsors could step in and support the development not only of the Azkals but also the whole development for Mr. Araneta, the PFF, and all of us together now to really start with a basic program from grassroots, young players.
“We shouldn’t only look towards the next World Cup. In 2018, 2022, I think the Philippines might be stronger than now. So we have to start eventually and I hope the success of this team can help to lift the sport.” Source