MANILA, Philippines – On Thursday, Ian Clarino's 21st minute strike off a JB Borlongan free kick was enough to give the Fighting Maroons a second UAAP crown in 3 seasons. It capped an undefeated season of brilliance for UP. Here are my takeaways about this most recent accomplishment.
Success begets success in Diliman
I was chatting with former UP striker Jinggoy Valmayor after the match ended yesterday. He was speaking about how the skill level of this UP team is much better than it was in his time. That it allowed a higher level of tactics from the players.
Credit coach Anto Gonzales for this development. This is Anto's 5th title for UP. He is known to be a stickler for fitness with a clear tactical vision for his squad. He espouses a philosophy of ball possession involving precise off-the-ball movement, patient build-up from the back, speed on the flanks, and lightning-quick transitions from offense and defense. He also favors a high defensive line, which requires a modern type of keeper, one unafraid to venture out of his area and tidy up.
This game plan has produced plenty of wins over the years. But it also needs personnel. And this is where Gonzales has thrived also. His early success burnished his reputation as a great coach, making UP a magnet for talent. Young players might get better scholarship or allowance deals with other schools, but many believe that the best path for development is under the tutelage of the 37-year old former Azkal.
This reputation has helped him corral outstanding players like Rookie of the Year Fidel Tacardon, striker Kintaro Miyagi, winger Ray Sanciangco, and the brainy and gifted Christian Lapas, who is all set to be another Paolo Bugas.
Five years ago, Gonzales also coached the U15 national team in an ASEAN competition featuring regional club sides. That is where he mentored Borlongan, who was so good in a 4-0 win over Brunei that the Bruneian players had pics taken with him after the game. That squad also featured midfielder Sean Patangan, who also went to UP. It was no surprise that these kids made a beeline for Diliman as soon as they graduated from high school.
Patangan did his knee in the semifinal last year when they lost to FEU and is still recovering. If not for that cruel piece of luck, we could be talking about a 3-peat right now.
So many top players want to play in UP. Two years ago in the Ang Liga preseason tournament, UP was even able to field two squads. With such a huge pool of talent to choose from, it's pretty easy for coach Anto to rustle up a good side.
Things will only get better for UP. The artificial turf field in UP Diliman is now finally getting worked on. It should be ready in time for Season 81. Then, the Fighting Maroons will have their own perfect pitch to train on in their own backyard.
When I watched UP dominate UST on Thursday, (yes, dominate is correct, since UP outshot UST 14-3), I couldn't help make the comparison between them and that other great Pinoy squad.
Like UP, Ceres Negros seem to be a class ahead of the competition. Through 5 games in the PFL, the Busmen are a perfect 5-wins-for-5. They are also through to the knockout stage of the AFC Cup. They also boast of a solid tactical foundation, and like UP, they seem to be just a little bit better than the opposition, week-in, week-out.
So for me, the obvious question is this: Friendly game, anyone? I'd pay to see that.
What's next for Anto Gonzales? It should be obvious. He must be the leading candidate to coach our SEA Games team next year. We will be playing at home, and he will have something of a golden generation at his disposal, namely Borlongan, Lapas, Tacardon from his UP team plus Jarvey Gayoso, Jordan Jarvis, Dylan DeBruycker, William Grierson, Lawrence Colina, and others. If the competition reverts to U23, then Jayrah Rocha is also good to go. Marco Casambre is also eligible. It could be our best chance to do what no other Philippine SEA Games team has ever done: Get a medal.
I hope the powers-that-be make it happen.
Ian Clarino faces a bright future
The centerback bid farewell to a stellar collegiate career with not only a clean sheet, but a goal to boot. The defending on the score was suspect, but there are no doubts about the quality of the finish, as he expertly placed his shoe under the Borlongan free kick to allow the ball to fly into the net over Thomasian keeper Zaldy Abraham. Watch it here.
Clarino is now hot property in the midyear PFL transfer market. He is a tall, internationally-experienced central defender with leadership skills and a Filipino passport. Even in the uncertain landscape of Pinoy club football, he has tremendous value, since he is basically a unicorn in cleats. Such is the dearth of quality young Filipino centerbacks.
How committed is he to the game? He once missed his own sister's wedding to play for the national U21 team in the Bolkiah Trophy in Brunei.
The man has class, too. After his goal, he stifled his celebration because as he said afterwards, “Malaki ang respeto ko sa UST (I have great respect for UST)," which is where he played his high school football.
UAAP Football deserves more of our love
This week has been a difficult one for Philippine football. We heard the lousy news that Global Cebu defaulted on its midweek PFL match against Kaya Iloilo. The team says it has run out of cash and couldn't make the trip. Read their statement on their Facebook page here.
Club football is in a tough place. But maybe Pinoy football fans, instead of pining for a healthier club scene, need to shift their attention to the UAAP. It is an 8-team league that has a pair of games telecast nationwide on both free TV and on HD on cable. The games are competitive, and unlike the PFL, the players are mostly from here, which means audiences can relate to the stars very well. With a massive pool of alumni from all schools, the fan base could potentially be huge.
There is no chance of any of the teams folding up. Each of the UAAP schools are financially sound, and profitable institutions who are supporting their football teams get better and better each year.
UAAP football is my favorite Pinoy football league and I hope more and more Filipinos grow to share my passion for it. Season 81 can't start soon enough. – Rappler.com
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.