By Michael Angelo S. Murillo
STARTING OUT as a semi-professional tournament in 2009, the United Football League (UFL) evolved into a thriving league in five years and has since become part and parcel of why the sport of football is now better appreciated in the country. -
A league based in the National Capital Region and governed by the Football Alliance and the United Football Clubs Association, the UFL has become the premier football league in the Philippines in such short a time, with proponents and observers expecting better things yet to come.
Aimed at reviving, and eventually sustaining, the Filipinos’ interest in football, the UFL has two divisions -- Division 1 and 2.
The league operates on a system of promotion and relegation instituted only in 2013. Under the system, the top two teams from Division 2 have a chance of being promoted to Division 1, relegating the bottom two for the latter division.
Currently, the league has 10 Division 1 teams and 11 in Division 2.
Division 1 teams are Global FC, Loyola Meralco Sparks, Kaya FC, Stallion FC, Green Archers United FC, Pachanga Diliman FC, Philippine Army-GTI FC, Team Socceroo, Ceres-La Salle, and Manila Jeepney FC -- the latter two being newly promoted teams.
Through the years, the UFL has introduced new formats, schedules, and tournaments to make the league fresh as well as to keep development of football in the country going.
“The UFL wants to make sure that we provide our clubs with quality tournaments the whole year round. As we proudly say it here in the UFL: ‘Football Never Stops!’” Rely San Agustin, UFL general manager, said in an e-mail interview with BusinessWorld.
Mr. San Agustin said the year 2014 has been a busy one for the UFL, highlighted by a packed schedule for the season.
“It was a very busy year for the league. We staged four tournaments in 2014. We had the 1. UFL League. 2. UFL Youth League. 3. FA Charity Cup and 4. FA League Cup. You can even add in the UFL Cup which was held during the latter part of 2013,” he said.
The UFL League kicked things off in January with nine teams in Division 1 and 12 teams in Division 2.
The tournament saw Global FC, Loyola, and Kaya FC tightly contesting the title. In the end, however, it was Global who emerged victorious as it defeated Loyola in the finals.
Global’s title conquest leveled it with Philippine Air Force (now playing in Division 2) with two league titles so far. Stallion has one under its belt.
Ceres, meanwhile, bagged the title in Division 2.
Global continued its top form in the FA Charity Cup, the annual knockout competition of the league, in July, as it defeated Kaya FC, 3-1.
In the first-ever FA League Cup, which took place from September to November, Global barged anew to the finals but was stopped by the newly promoted Ceres-La Salle FC in the finals, 2-1.
The UFL Youth League, meanwhile, is the league’s way of “hitting all levels of the football spectrum,” Mr. San Agustin said.
The tournament, which took place from April to June, featured boys under-9 (Xavier School FC -- Champion), under-11 (Loyola Meralco Sparks A), under-13 (Pachanga Diliman B), under-15 (Agila MSA), under-17 (Kaya FC), and under-19 (Pachanga Diliman) divisions.
Under-17 girls champion is Green Archers United.
Given the kind of year the league has had in 2014, Mr. San Agustin could not help but be amazed at how far the UFL has gone since opening shop half a decade ago.
“It has gone a long way indeed. From playing in small venues and even school fields, the league has now established itself as the current premier football league in the Philippines,” he said.
“The quality of football has risen to a whole new level. Foreign players are now bringing their talents to Manila. The competition has become more intense. Participating clubs are now operating like real professional clubs. Our local players are playing now at top level. The UFL has contributed in part to this development. We created the possibility and here we are today,” Mr. San Agustin, himself a former UFL player, added.
And the “high level of play” in the league right now also stands out for Ryan Fenix, InterAKTV’s resident football analyst who has been covering the UFL.
“The quality of play in the league has also risen. There was a time when weekend warriors could play in Division 1. Nowadays, it is extremely difficult for those not full-time players, or at least those who don’t train four times a week, to make the grade in Division 1,” Mr. Fenix said in a separate interview with BusinessWorld.
He also highlighted the league’s major television deal with AKTV/TV5 in 2011 -- reportedly valued at P150 million spread over five years -- as a major accomplishment for the UFL, since it “has given the league more exposure to not just the watching audience but also nationwide.”
But apart from developing its knees as a league and building its brand, the UFL has become a steady partner in the renewed development of football in the country, which was for the longest time overshadowed by basketball, the most popular sport in the Philippines.
“The UFL provides all aspiring football players in the country a chance to fulfill their dreams of playing professional football. Just as basketball has the Philippine Basketball Association, Philippine football now has the UFL,” Mr. San Agustin said.
He added, “Gone are the days that a player’s career ends with college football. Now, there is a continuation of this path to footballing greatness. To play at a professional club level and opening doors to achieve national team status.”
Mr. Fenix agreed, saying “The UFL has given young players a platform to pursue their footballing dreams after graduation. It may not yet be able to match the salaries of those in the PBA, but it is growing year on year.”
He also emphasized that it is not only the players who are benefiting from the UFL but other people in the local football community as well.
“You have to throw in the people around football as well -- referees, match commissioners, ball kids, and staff from TV,” Mr. Fenix said.
“The UFL is a blessing also to Philippine football because it gave rise to a league in Metro Manila where players can play,” Edwin B. Gastanes, general secretary of the Philippine Football Federation, said in an interview with BusinessWorld.
“It’s not the national league but it has a character of having teams and clubs coming from all over nationwide. It’s the top league we have right now,” added Mr. Gastanes, who reiterated the local federation’s support for the league.
The UFL has also been partly credited for the success of the Philippine men’s national football team, or the “Azkals,” which is ranked 128th in the world, the highest-ranked team in Southeast Asia.
And this is something the UFL is proud of, Mr. San Agustin said.
“If you are to look at the current national team lineup, [as an] example in the [recent] ASEAN Football Federation Suzuki Cup, 18 out of the 21 players [came] from the UFL. This is a big achievement for the organization. We can proudly say that the UFL has provided our players the highest level of competition in order for them to compete internationally. And we will make sure that we continue to live up to this vision,” he said.
Grand plans are in store for the UFL in 2015, Mr. San Agustin said, including taking the games to the provinces.
“We are now in the works of staging our first UFL match in the province.
We will also be staging a UFL All-Star weekend in May. Even an Iloilo-Negros Occidental All-Star match is brewing. 2015 promises to be an exciting season…” he said.
Mr. Fenix also trumpeted a bullish tone for the UFL moving forward, saying, “… [If] handled and marketed properly, the UFL can reach the popularity of other sports. Better attendance and awareness from the public are certainly things I would like to see.”
And as much as things are looking for the UFL, the same goes for Philippine football, according to Mr. San Agustin.
“We will continue to rise in the Asian ranks for sure. Our local players will continue to excel and more kids will be playing football. And the UFL will be here to support them all the way,” he said. -