Why Pinoy football fans should care about the AFC Cup

 

Ceres-La Salle vs Selangor FA

6:45 p.m. Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Pana-ad Stadium, Bacolod City

LIVE on ABS-CBN Sports+Action and ABS-CBN Sports+Action HD

 

 

Kitchee vs Kaya

7:45 p.m. Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Mongkok Stadium, Hong Kong

LIVE on Fox Sports and Fox Sports HD

Delayed telecast on ABS-CBN Sports+Action

 

International football competition is usually a step up from local competition, especially at our level. In the coming months two of the Philippines' finest clubs, Ceres and Kaya, will get their fill of it in the AFC Cup.

First, a bit of background. This competition, founded in 2004, is for clubs from developing nations of the Asian Football Confederation. The tournament for the stronger Asian clubs is the AFC Champions League, and the winner of that, Guangzhou Evergrande, participated in the FIFA Club World Cup last December. 

In the AFC Cup there is a group stage involving 32 teams from all over Asia, that eventually gets halved to a knockout phase with a round-of-16 which leads to a one-game final on November 5. 

Last year it was Global who represented the Philippines well in the group stage. They narrowly missed making the knockout round, with a late 0-0 draw in Bulacan against Pahang denying them a round-of-16 slot. 

Malaysia's Johor Darul Ta'zim are the defending champs. They defeated Istiklol from Tajikistan 1-0 in the final match. JDT was both good and lucky. Kuwaiti clubs tend to do well in this tournament, and their two semifinalists, Al-Kuwait and Al-Qadsia, both led their two-legged semifinal ties comfortably after the first leg. Then FIFA decided to suspend the Kuwait FA, thus forcing the two Kuwaiti teams to withdraw. Istiklol and JDT thus proceeded to the championship match via walkover. 

This year it is the Philippines, and specifically Kaya, who benefited from another FIFA suspension. Kaya won the UFL Cup, which was supposed to get them a playoff slot for the group stage. When FIFA suspended Indonesia, a berth directly into the group stage opened up and was handed to coach Chris Greatwich's men. Ceres are straight into the group stage because they captured the UFL League, which is considered more prestigious and a more difficult piece of silverware to win. 

Ceres and Kaya will both play 6 matches, 3 home and 3 away. Every one of them will be aired on ABS-CBN Sports+Action and many will also be shown on Fox Sports. (S+A cannot air both of Tuesday's games live because the Kaya game kicks off an hour after the Ceres match.)

These games will be a boon for the Azkals, who have the Suzuki Cup later in the year. There are several of them on both teams. Stephan Schrock, Manny Ott, Martin Steuble, Patrick Reichelt, Juani Guirado, Kevin Ingreso, and Paul Mulders play for Ceres. These proven internationalists can get into fighting form with these matches. 

OJ Porteria, and Kenshiro Daniels, Jovin Bedic, all with senior caps, are in Kaya. Other young Filipinos who have a realistic shot of making the senior team, like Miguel Tanton, Nonoy Felongco, Woody Ugarte, and Charlie Beaton, are also there.

What this means is that after these twelve matches are done, (and there could be more if they reach the knockout stage), Azkals coach Thomas Dooley will have a much, much bigger pool of players who have been tested in the crucible of international combat. That will help him make an even stronger team for the Suzuki Cup . In football, experience is everything. You can't really train yourself to be better, you have to play. The AFC Cup will help massively in that respect.

On a related note, the Philippines U19 mens team is in China playing in a tournament there. There are only two UAAP players on that side, JB Borlongan and Christian Lapas, both from UP. The rest are from NCAA teams, like Jumbel Guinabang from champions Arellano, and other sources. Green Archer United Globe sent Mathew Custodio. So even more youngsters are getting international exposure. Insert celebratory smiley here.

Another reason to train your peepers at this competition: the home games for Ceres could be a test case for the upcoming national league. Ceres will hold Tuesday's game in Pana-ad, which is sort of modern Philippine football's spiritual home. They may hold one of the other two home matches at Rizal Memorial, although that is not set. 

Ceres hopes to draw a big Negrense crowd on Tuesday. This match could therefore provide insights on the viability of the national league that is set to begin next year. Will the stands be overflowing or will they have swathes of empty seats? Can a provincial city really support a professional football team? We'll be closer to an answer after this game. 

Ceres has already hosted international play in front of big crowds in Pana-ad. A few years ago they narrowly missed out on qualification for the Presidents Cup, an AFC competition for emerging nations that sat below the AFC Cup. That tournament has since gone the way of the Dodo Bird, and the AFC Cup has been expanded to pick up the slack. 

Another reason to get into the AFC Cup is that Pinoy club football needs a boost. And these games could give it that . 

The Philippines is one of the few countries where the national team is practically the only football the nation's sports fans follow. In most other places, clubs take center stage. Club football is the bread-and-butter of the calendar, with international matches mostly as side shows. The national side only becomes a big deal during big competitions like the World Cup or continental championships like the upcoming Euros. 

Fox Sports commentator Paul Masefield told me last week that the ratings of the Malaysian top tier exceed those of the English Premier League in Malaysia. 

We need to develop and grow our local club scene. This is vital for the long-term sustainability of the game here at all levels. The UFL is doing its part, but maybe this international club event will help move it along, especially if the teams do well. 

But perhaps the best reason to tune in: these are two pretty bad-ass Pinoy football teams, who just might be able to make their mark internationally. 

Ceres has been the dominant force in local club competition lately. The signing of Stephan Schrock adds even more quality to their squad. In the ongoing UFL Cup they defeated Loyola 2-1 then thrashed two essentially semi-pro teams, Nomads and Pasargad, 15-0 and 9-0.

The mauling of Pasargad can be viewed here.

You can see the Ceres - Nomads game highlights here in the second half of this clip.

Ceres also has two superb Spanish attacking threats, Bienvenido Marañon and Adrian Gallardo, to complement the Filipino stars.

Kaya has stuttered a bit in the Cup, dropping their first match but rebounding with a fine win against MSA-Agila. Watch the highlights here.

OJ Porteria has been unlucky to miss the last two Suzuki Cups with illness and injury. He has already scored goals for the Azkals but perhaps the AFC Cup is where the dribbling wizard's star will really shine. 

Kaya's secret weapon could be returning Filipino-American Anton “Woody” Ugarte who is back in the black-and-yellow after playing in the Thai second tier. His international experience will be crucial in an attacking midfield role. 

There are storm clouds, though. Both teams have men in sick bay. Guirado has a hamstring issue. Mulders is grappling with an abdominal strain. Ceres' brilliant Nigerian-Northern Irish winger Orman Okunaiya has been laid low with a groin pull. On the Kaya side, Louis Clark, their English goal-poacher, got an MRI last night for a quadriceps problem. New signing Shirmar Felongco is also just getting back into fitness, although he did come on as a sub against Agila. 

Neither opponent will be taken lightly. Selangor FA, who were runners-up in the Malaysian Super League, held champs JDT to a 1-1 draw last week. Kitchee, traditionally one of the island territory's football powerhouses, will be a tough nut to crack, especially on their home patch. 

The Philippines is leveling up in club football. It might not be easy, but this is an important part of our football story. And on Tuesday, the spectacle shouldn't be missed. – Rappler.com

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.