Thursday 09 February 2017, 07:30

Philippines set sights on new horizons

Football is currently enjoying a significant growth spurt across many parts of south-east Asia. The same is true of the Philippines. A sprawling nation comprised of thousands of islands in the western Pacific Ocean, the Philippines boasts a population of 100 million, making it one of the largest in the world. It is a country with enormous potential in the world game.

Change has come quickly to the men’s game in a relatively short space of time. The national team has made significant progress under firstly Michael Weiss and, more recently, Thomas Dooley, the former USA national team skipper. They have reached the AFF Championship (South-east Championship) semi-finals on three successive occasions in recent years, having never previously progressed beyond the group stage.

The Azkals, as they are affectionately known, were also just one match away from qualifying for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup. Meanwhile, at domestic level a new national league is just two months away, while local side Global FC recently became the first Philippines side to compete in the AFC Champions League.

While the same level of growth hasn’t yet been achieved in women’s football, there has been clear evolution. The new women’s league is already three months into its maiden season. Above all though, there is a realistic chance of reaching the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – qualification to the FIFA Women’s World Cup™.

Road to riches Last month’s draw for Asian Zone qualifying revealed the pathway towards France 2019. One ticket to the eight-nation AFC Women’s Asian Cup is available in a group that includes Philippines, Bahrain, Iraq, United Arab Emirates and Tajikistan. Jordan are also in the group for competition purposes, though they qualify automatically as hosts of the 2018 continental event. Of those eight teams competing next year, five will represent the world’s most populous continent in France.

Can the Philippines do it? One person who has a better oversight than most is Marielle Benitez. After 12 years in the national team, and having experienced the 2015 Women’s World Cup qualifiers, Benitez, who still plays in the national competition, is part of the pool of coaches assisting the senior national team and currently manages the U-15 national team. She also somehow manages to find time to tour locally and internationally with the Philippines National Folk Dance Company.

Famous names capable of promoting the cause of women’s football are thin on the ground in the Philippines, but former national team captain Benitez is very much an exception to the rule. She is a well-known TV host covering club and international football, and helps provide a much-needed public profile for a game that has traditionally been some way down the pecking order in terms of popularity.

“I have always believed that the women’s team has a better chance of reaching the World Cup first, ahead of the men’s team,” Benitez told “The ball is round as they say, but there is always a chance of qualifying. A lot depends on preparation and the availability of players.”

Up to half of the national team are based in USA, which in itself provides challenges, but the new national league has, Benitez believes, provided a stronger platform for the national team.

“It is an exciting time, but you always want to achieve more and push for more improvement at grassroots and development at the top level, if we are to achieve that goal,” she said. “The women’s league has helped national team players keep their fitness at the right level. We also have a bigger pool of players to select from now.”

Building for success Thailand opened the door for south-east Asian nations at the last Women’s World Cup in Canada, proving that the gap between the traditional elite and rest is starting to narrow. And Benitez says that success for the national team would provide huge spin-offs for the game.

“It (success) is very important because we have seen that the success of the men’s national team has brought attention to football,” she said. “Development among the youth has grown and that has helped lift the standard in Philippines football. So the same thing can happen in women’s football. The general interest is there.

"We need more matches and that has now started with the new national league. It is important that the national team does well, as it provides an outlet for young girls and an opportunity to dream of representing their country.”

The signs among the youngest age groups are encouraging. Last year the Philippines finished second in the AFC U-14 Championship – where Benitez was the assistant coach - achieving a new high for the nation at continental level.

“The grassroots of women’s football here is very successful,” Benitez said. “The players from our first U-14 team are now in the older teams, and you can see already the level of quality improve. Individually, our players are very technical now. Tactically, the players are also smarter now. It is so exciting for me to see the growth of women’s football.”