COUNT eight years before the Azkals are bannered by domestic talent, Philippine Football Federation president Mariano Araneta says with a bit of unease.
Araneta expects that by the time 2021 rolls around, the PFF’s grassroots program will have methodically developed local players to alter the face of the national team—from mestizo to mostly brown and homegrown.
Although often bursting with Fil-European stars and other foreign players with Filipino roots but crowding out domestic players, the Azkals have led a resurgence of soccer in the country after a long slide toward stagnation.
Their heady appearances in the Asian Football Confederation in the last four years—including a gutsy third-place finish in the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup in Nepal and a semifinal stint in the 2010 Suzuki Cup—have greased the creaking gears of local soccer.
With the Azkals, “futbol” is in overdrive and has increased PH’s reputation among the confederation’s emerging countries. The game is relevant again and continues to attract potential national players, especially in the countryside, who tend to get hooked instead on basketball, the country’s sport of choice, albeit the wrong one.
As proof of the Azkals’ influence in molding Pinoy pitch prodigies, Araneta reports that the PFF’s grassroots program that hardly started has recruited 56,000 youngsters, and counting, nationwide.
With the upsurge in interest, soccer’s national sports association, under its long-term youth agenda, is hammering out teams for regional pitch wars for players under 13, 14, 17, 19 and 23 years of age.
Last year, an under-14 Azkals team finished third in an invitational tournament in Japan and showed in striking fashion the NSA’s drive toward a truly homebred national squad.
Thinking strategically, soccer’s governing body will bring in Roy Thomas, a German expert in grassroots youth soccer system to multiply its rising share of domestic standouts. Thomas is due next month under a cooperative venture with the German Foreign Ministry.
Local soccer’s current age-group model frets the PFF head some. He says that Indonesia and other countries unfettered by dual-citizenship laws are likely to emulate our Azkals experience; they would recruit nationals abroad to transform their teams.
A largely domestic, certainly not a domesticated Azkals team, came up while Araneta and I chatted about Fifa dates when international clubs are inclined to release players for national team duty.
The Fil-Europeans, obedient to their clubs, are in peril of missing the Azkals team, a group winner in the recent qualifiers when it joins six other national contingents and host Maldives in the AFC Challenge Cup next year.
The winner of the Maldives tournament, scheduled outside the Fifa calendar, will secure a slot to the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia.
Araneta said the PFF will appeal to the AFC executive committee at its meeting in Kuala Lumpur next month to have the Challenge Cup moved to international Fifa dates.
Does the PFF have the numbers to sway the committee? Araneta would like to think so.