All systems Go for Filipino football

Football in the Philippines is making great strides and a local coach is proving his worth on the big stage, as Scott McIntyre discovered...

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Never mind Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Periscope, Vine or any other myriad social media tools that are supposed to make modern life more efficient. Ali Go remembers what things used to be like for footballers before the explosion of satellite TV, live streams and matches on demand.

“When I was growing up as a child, all we used to have was old video cassettes and for many in the Philippines even those weren’t accessible,” Go recalls.

“Instead of just watching (Lionel) Messi or (Cristiano) Ronaldo and copying their moves, we had to come up with things on our own. We would improvise and play on the streets for hours and that really was the only way that you could improve your technique.”

Growing up in a basketball-obsessed nation, Go wasn’t exactly an oddity, but neither was he part of the football wave that is now washing across much of the archipelago.

From fan to player and now manager – currently coach of reigning domestic champions, Ceres – Go has seen the evolution of the sport in his homeland and he’s dreaming of a continued rise for Filipino football.

“We should be aiming to win the Suzuki Cup within the next decade, definitely,” the 39-year-old said.

Go (2nd from right) with his Ceres coaching staff

“The talent is here there’s no question, but what we need is a sustained development model where you just don’t take every Fil-foreigner you can find.

“We need to use local children as the basis for our future growth and that needs to be done in a measured, professional way.”

If the rise of the ‘Azkals’ – the name of the Philippines’ national team – is to continue, you get a sense that Go may be right at the forefront of it. Earlier this year he found a place in FFT’s Top 15 ASEAN managers.

Already regarded as the best local manager in the country in just his fifth year coaching, the job he did with Ceres this season made waves across the region and beyond.

After leading the club to promotion from the second division at the end of 2014, Ceres demolished all-comers in their maiden top-flight campaign, losing only two matches all season to finish eight points clear of two heavyweights of the local game, Global and Loyola.

While the club had the financial backing of local businessmen Ricky and Leo Rey Yanson, which allowed them to significantly bolster the squad, what they didn’t have was any kind of home advantage.

Although things may change for the next campaign, last season all league matches were played in central venues in the capital Manila.

It meant Ceres, in essence, won the league playing only away matches some 450 kilometres from their Bacolod home.

“It’s tough sometimes with the organisation,” Go admits.

“In many other leagues the schedule is released at the start of the season and you know what will happen and where you are going to play.

“Here though things are often changing and maybe we will come to Manila and have a match on the weekend, one mid-week and then another at the following weekend, so you can imagine how tough that is on my players.

“One time we played a cup match at home and there was five or six-thousand people there, so of course we want to be able to play our matches at home.

“This is a right of every football club.”

It is not only a hindrance to the club, it is also a great shame for its supporters, who hail from one of the two regions (along with Iloilo) regarded as the heartland of the game in the Philippines.

Indeed, way back at the turn of the last century, Bacolod-born Manuel Amechazurra became the first Filipino to play professionally in Europe, where he performed with distinction across two spells at FC Barcelona from 1906-1915.

Go's next target is the AFC Cup second round

“Right from as far back as I can remember this was where people loved football and now we want to keep making the local people happy as we go into Asia next year,” Go said.

That campaign will be in the second-tier AFC Cup, where Ceres will face the likes of Malaysian giants JDT and Pahang, and Go is setting his sights high.

“For us, this competition means we are not just representing Ceres but also all of the Philippines. This is our first step to really helping to our establish our football in Asia.

“Winning the league was a wonderful moment and that was a credit to all of the players and staff, but this is where we want to be and we’ll double our efforts to make sure we meet our target of at least progressing from the group stage.”

That will be another signpost as to how far the Filipino game has moved on from when Go was playing, when the bulk of the club sides were amateur and if you were a good player, you played wherever and whenever possible.

“Those times when I was playing for the national team were wonderful, but it was a different era where we would be called into camp for a month and then you would play for multiple national teams.

“I remember at one stage I was representing the Philippines at outdoor football, futsal and beach soccer – all at the same time and that’s not something you really hear of in too many countries across the world.”

One thing you also don’t hear too much of these days is local coaches in charge of national teams in Southeast Asia, but at some point in the future Go wants to break that mould and follow in the footsteps of a man who is currently blazing a path of success.

“I remember playing with Zico (current Thai coach Kiatisuk Senamuang) and now look at the success he is having.

“The foreign coaches can bring a lot to Southeast Asia, but sometimes they come and they don’t really give much back to the country.

“Some countries, even mine, have their youth coaches as foreigners and I think that should be the level where local coaches are getting involved to learn the international game.

“You see they may have passion, but it’s never the same as what a local coach can bring where they care deeply about the team and the country.

“So sure, one day down the track I would love to lead the Azkals.”