The crazy plan which, if implemented correctly, can put the Philippines back on the world map and on the road to greater glory, while replenishing the country's depleted coffers.

Have your emails to Thailand gone unanswered? Has your shipment from China been delayed without explanation? Has your German fafa stopped sending you money? Unbeknownst to Pinoys, the rest of the world is engrossed in the World Cup. The fact that it's not called the "Football World Cup" or the "Soccer World Cup" but just "World Cup" gives you an idea of how big an event this is. It is, in fact, bigger than the Olympics, that other worldwide sporting bonanza which, in Cebu, gets about as much coverage as the Tri-Media Olympics.

The Philippines, unfortunately, doesn't have much chance of making an impact at the Olympics, let alone winning a medal. It does, however, sit on a unique opportunity to take the 2014 World Cup by storm, a most unlikely outcome which would not just earn the Philippines the respect of football-mad Europeans, South Americans, Asians and Africans, but also help the country's economy and badly damaged self-esteem.

Close your eyes and imagine the scene. It's the final of the 2014 World Cup, being held in Sao Paolo, Brazil. A wave of OFW's waving Philippine flags erupts in wild cheering as Bobby Mendoza, the striker from Naga City, takes a cross from Albert Tan, elegantly dribbles past a defender, and hammers home a left-footer past the stunned Brazilian goalkeeper. With the score 3-0 and the game in injury time, the squad in blue, red and yellow pump their fists in the air, knowing the game is theirs. Seconds later, footballing history is made, and the home crowd gapes in disbelief as the diminutive Asians start dancing to celebrate their victory. Commentators from Moscow to Lisbon let their jaws drop in disbelief. Who are these guys, and where did they come from?

Pigs would sooner fly, I hear you say, than the Philippines would even qualify, let alone win, the World Cup. I know, I know, it sounds incredible. But read on and see if by the end of this essay I will have made a believer out of you, of this most audacious and daring of schemes ever hatched.

First, let us consider the obstacles. There is little interest, knowledge, or interest in football in the Philippines. In Cebu, the world of soccer is limited to expats and a handful of soccer-mad locals, such as the Hiroshi team, or a bunch of maniacs at Tesda, who have trouble getting together the eleven people required to field a team. Often team members will be lesser relatives press-ganged into playing by the hardcore soccer nuts, and clueless about the off-side rule and other finer points of the game.

This is not surprising, because the Philippine climate is far too hot and humid for soccer. Whereas running around for 90 minutes in a cold place like Europe is good exercise, here it is an extreme sport on par with street luging or base jumping, and could well land you in the ICU.

In addition, football pitches are huge, eating up as much space as 5 basketball courts, and when you consider that in the rural barangays people use the street for basketball, having to scamper out of the way when the odd bus passes by, you begin to realize that we have a problem with land area.

Nonetheless, I maintain that the Philippines can beat football powerhouses such as France, Italy, England, and, yes, even Brazil.

How? Well, the traditional way of turning a country with zero soccer tradition into a footballing nation with a chance at the World Cup is to develop a nationwide league. This entails building stadia all over the country, educating the population about soccer culture, introducing soccer into the school curriculum, and nurturing grass-roots talent by organizing a vivid amateur scene with regional competitions. This requires spending billions if not trillions of dollars, and this is what the USA and Japan have done.

The USA started developing its Major League of Soccer by attempting to replicate the format that has worked well for baseball and basketball. The bigger cities in the US have their own franchises, and games are family-friendly affairs featuring mascots, cheerleaders, and popcorn (as opposed to the rabid hooliganism more common in the rest of the world).

But even though the US team didn't do badly at the 2002 World Cup, the Major League of Soccer has generally been a failure, with support limited to illegal immigrants from Latin America, who cheer the teams on in Spanish. The soccer moms, it turns out, are wildly supportive of their kids' teams, but couldn't care less about the pros.

Japan's experience has been more positive. Traditionally the Japanese have been interested primarily in baseball, sumo, and martial arts, but in 1992 the powers that be got together at a secluded geisha house in Tokyo and decided that the country needed to join the rest of the world at the soccer table. Almost overnight, the soccer scene was turned from a feeble amateur effort - which was generating about as much interest as water polo at the time - into an enormous commercial industry featuring two leagues, primetime telecasts, state-of-the-art stadia with retractable roofs, and overpaid international players.

Thanks to this massive effort, fueled entirely by yen power, Japan joined the ranks of the soccer-mad countries in the space of just ten years, and the Japanese are now hooked on soccer as much as the Argentines or Iranians ever have been. Incredibly, Japan even managed to host the World Cup, along with South Korea, in 2002.

But has this colossal Manhattan project brought the Japanese sporting success in the international soccer scene? Not really. The Japanese team has managed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, but it is unlikely to go on to the second round. While a few Japanese star players play for European clubs, the national team is still weak, and the Japanese themselves are happy enough to beat South Korea, its far smaller neighbor which has a longer tradition and better track record in international soccer.

As I am writing this essay I am watching Japan getting clobbered by Australia, a country with even less interest in soccer than the Philippines, and which only got into the World Cup on account of having played no opponent stronger than Pacific island states, such as Palau, the Solomon Islands, or Guam, in the qualification process.

So how can the Philippines succeed where mighty Japan has failed? We are far smaller, poorer, and worse organized, and our entire national economic output is less than that of the J-League, the premier Japanese soccer league.

The answer? Adopt the Soviet model.

We do not have the resources nor the collective will to go about building stadia. Witness the controversy over the Megadome, which, even if built, would still be too small to host a World Cup football game.

But what we do have is millions upon millions of impoverished young people, and, by the laws of statistics, some of them - only some, perhaps as few as one in five million - will have been born with innate talent, which, if developed correctly, could lead to greatness in the global arena.

Right now, those kids with hidden sporting talent are just stuck in their barangays, not doing anything much. Unlike Japan, the Philippines does not have an unlimited supply of companies offering well-paying jobs competing for their attention, and unlike the United States, the Philippines does not have numerous professional sports circuits fighting each other over raw sporting talent. We have a basketball scene, of sorts, and that's it.

The trick is to unearth these hidden gems dispersed throughout the country and develop their talent. To this end, a committee of experts is sent on a tour of the nation, testing children in primary schools throughout the country for natural ability and physical suitability. The very best - as few as one or two per province - are offered scholarships and sent to a special training institute.

The scholarship would include a stipend of, say, PhP 4,000 per month for the family of the lucky individual - more than enough incentive to let the kid go, since in most cases the family would be happy just to have one less mouth to feed.

The training institute, meanwhile, would be located in a highland area with a climate suited for soccer and plenty of space for two pitches. Locations that spring to mind are Tagaytay, or the highlands of Cebu. The added advantage of these locations is that there would be few distractions to divert the kids' attention from football. A Brazilian coach would be imported to oversee the training, and a former military officer would be in charge of running the camp institute and instilling discipline.

The total cost of such a program would amount to no more than 20 million pesos per year.

While the amount is small compared to the cost of building even just one stadium, it isn't exactly peanuts. But it would be a worthwhile investment. In just five or six years, the program will be producing world class talent, victory for the Philippine youth squad at the Asian Games, and, within ten years, at least one contract with a European football club, which would come with a multi-million dollar transfer fee due entirely to the institute.

It should be noted that the Chinese employ such Soviet programs on a vast scale for disciplines like diving, mainly in order to boost their medal count at the Olympics, whereas the Philippine soccer program would result in not only national prestige, but also concrete financial benefits. Given the remittance-based economic model keeping the Philippines afloat, just one Pinoy in an English club, or even a Dutch or Swedish club, would be enough to feed a whole town.

A similar program in Bolivia, a country with a population of only 4 million, or about 5 percent of that of the Philippines, has already resulted in a signing at a European club. Hence it is not just a matter of speculation that such a program would deliver results.

Of course, this being the Philippines, any such program would quickly be the subject of political bickering and mismanagement, resulting in incompetent administration, the misappropriation of funds, as well as the usual nepotism.

But when I close my eyes, I can still see that moment, when, in the minds of billions of citizens worldwide, the Philippines ceases to be a producer of domestic helpers, and becomes the world's most respected nation. Gooooaaaal!

June 22, 2006


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