The Bleachers King: Patriot games
I wasn’t the very least surprised about the negative reaction to the news that James and Phil Younghusband will not being joining the Philippine Men’s Football National Team in their upcoming trip to the United States in August.
The brothers have opted to remain behind to attend to their Younghusband Football Academy and the upcoming Clear Dream Match that coincides with the second of the two exhibition matches the Azkals will play in America. There's also the possibility of their local club, Loyola, playing deep in the Singapore Cup should they advance to the next round once more. Within minutes of the announcement of their unavailability for the trip, local social media was ablaze with criticism of their decision.
A month ago, the Fil-British brothers also missed the Azkals’ match against Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur that also drew the ire of fans and football officials alike. So there has been talk of being prima donnas and too big for their britches.
Let’s put this in perspective.
It’s more fun in the Philippines
The brothers moved to the Philippines in August 2009 to begin a new life and to work closer with the national team. Had they stayed in England, Phil would be coaching and working in his father’s accounting firm while James would pursue his graphic design career while also doing a bit of coaching on the side. And both would definitely still be playing club football.
Only they chose to move here.
Last year, the brothers were offered a gem of a contract to play for Jakarta 1928 FC in the Indonesian Premier League (IPL). It was a huge contract that would have really helped them financially. However, due to the possibility of not being allowed to play for the national team since the IPL was not sanctioned by FIFA, they chose to stay in the Philippines where they signed up with Loyola instead. In case you want to know, national team management was assisting them in the move since the contract was not only a juicy one but at that time, the UFL didn’t seem to be much of a viable choice to earn a living.
Even before the success of the national team during the 2010 Suzuki Cup, the brothers already put up the Younghusband Football Academy (in fact, in January of that year). Along with Phil’s short-lived noontime show hosting career, this was meant to keep their football dream alive while taking on the role as the family’s breadwinners. With their mother’s recent passing, the burden of providing for their family has never been more pressing. And yet the brothers have put their youngest sibling, Keri, in a private school.
They cannot wait for everyone to plan events, matches, or even camps because they need to earn a living. If they are the only ones doing football gigs, academies or what have you then that isn’t their problem. No one is stopping the others from doing their own. Nevertheless, there should be greater coordination whether as a courtesy to everyone involved; national team management included.
And that begs the question, is there a short- and long-term program for the national team? Is there a schedule that preps them for a tournament?
What’s the game plan?
With the exponential growth of local football and the sudden influx of investors, it seems that everyone is doing their own thing. The onus now is on the Philippine Football Federation to provide not only leadership but also a coherent program and some guidelines.
We have a technical director but really, do all our national teams (that includes the age groups) play a certain way? No, there is none. Every team plays a style that its current coach prefers. So when he is replaced continuity is a problem.
If you check with countries like Japan, Germany, or even Spain to name a few, from the youth level all the way to the senior national team, there’s a certain system of play that is taught and implemented. Even when a coach departs, the system remains in place.
Our football scene is like the medieval times – lots of fiefdoms under one throne but lacking in unity and direction. If you look at foreign clubs or national teams, their calendar meaning tournaments, friendlies and camps are all meticulously planned. Schedules are published ahead of time.
How difficult can scheduling a program be? The tournaments the team regularly participates in – the Long Teng Cup, the Suzuki Cup and the AFC Challenge Cup -- have been in place for a long time. It stands to reason that one plans around them and the UFL and not the other way around.
A double standard
Speaking of the UFL, I spoke to many of the Loyola players and they say that the brothers are among the first to arrive to practice and one of the last ones to leave. There was talk that their benching during the recent friendly match against Indonesia was because of their late arrival to practice. What happened was the practice was moved up to an earlier time from the pre-agreed one and when they arrived from a previous engagement, the team was in the middle of their paces.
I am not disputing who the coach puts on the field. That is his choice. Like the game itself, one has to live the consequences of those decisions.
Nevertheless, there seems to be a double standard at work here. When the European-based players (Neil Etheridge, Ray Jonsson, Stephan Schrock, Dennis Cagara, Jerry Lucena etc) are not released by their clubs there is nary a peep from the coaches, critics, and pundits. Let’s see these critics rail against Fulham, Grindavik or beginning this season, Hoffenheim. But when the UFL clubs do not release their players, it’s open season on them.
As per FIFA rules, clubs are only obliged to release players for official FIFA dates. Abroad, players are released for national team duty at least two days before a tournament unless it is the off-season. Since most of our players ply their trade in the UFL, it should be theoretically easier to coordinate for the release of the players vis-à-vis a schedule. If there is a tournament abroad that coincides with the UFL, I believe at the very most, players should be released a week earlier.
Now if the team does go to camp why can’t we bring players who can commit to the team and the tournament? We cannot keep coming up with excuses that we did not field our best team. That is a reality that we should all get used to. A team composed of dedicated players will perform much better than a team of players who come from all over the planet with a few days to learn the system (if we do have one at all). We have many excellent local players who are not given the time of day. And as such, they are invited to camps merely as practice players. That is why players like Ruben Doctora Jr. and others have left. Sometimes I get the feeling that if Chieffy Caligdong is only in the game as the token homegrown player.
If it is indeed a camp, then isn’t it more practical to hold it in the Philippines? Sure, camps abroad are fine. National teams and clubs do that. Liverpool held its 2003 camp in New Jersey. Barcelona periodically goes to Costa Dorada outside Barcelona. Before the 2010 Suzuki Cup, the Azkals held a camp in Davao before departing for a few days for a friendly match in Thailand before going to Vietnam.
And it is the clubs pay the salaries of the players. While on national team duty, they only receive an allowance. And that’s fine. Playing for the country is not about making money… unless someone is making money off it. As a corollary to that, didn’t the US Olympians also make the case that if all these organizations are making money off them then why can’t they have a piece of the pie?
Sometimes I get the feeling that the national team is a traveling roadshow more than a football team. We should protect the brand rather than repeatedly expose them to meaningless exhibition matches where losses stick can be harmful and detrimental rather than a learning experience. And aren’t we also concerned about their recovery time? Furthermore, am I the only one concerned that we cannot fill up even Rizal Memorial Football Stadium anymore?
These situations must be studied extensively with concrete and measured actions plans put in place.
I call on the Philippine Football Federation alongside national team management to safeguard the integrity of our team. For too long it was on the wayside. Let's not waste this magnificent opportunity we've been given to promote the growth of the beautiful game on our shores.
The myth of the 'dream team'
Did Portugal field their best team in the ongoing European championships? Certainly not. Jose Bosingwa and Ricardo Carvalho were left out of the lineup. However Paulo Bento, their coach, did not offer any excuses after their stunning ouster in the semifinals.
During the pre-match press conference for the Indonesia friendly, coach Nil Maizar sounded irritated when asked if the team he brought with him was the legitimate Indonesian team. “This is the Indonesian team,” he said emphatically. And imagine that, their supposedly weakest team in years and they nearly beat us. With their domestic federation woes at an end, Indonesia will now have all their best players at Maizar's disposal.
Nowhere is it written that dream teams win championships. If you point out the 1992 US Olympic Team then I’m going to counter with the Netherlands’ 1970s "dream team" as coached by Rinus Michael and starring the great Johan Cruyff. They lost in the World Cup after all.
It is good to field our strongest team but I’d rather take a team that is not only skilled but one that oozes desire, heart, and commitment.
I don’t think it’s fair to make this seem as an issue between club and country because for one, it doesn’t have to be. There is nothing that cannot be resolved by bringing things to the negotiating table rather than sniping across social media.
The brothers have committed to the national team at least a week before a tournament kicks off. They should be held to that.
Sure it sucks not to have them available for the US trip. But try looking at it from a different perspective – it’s not like they are lounging around in Boracay as they are out teaching the game of football.
As for the Clear Dream Match, it is about providing charity to Tuloy sa Don Bosco that cares for children who have been orphaned or abandoned or have run away from home. This will go a long, long way in helping these disadvantaged kids as opposed to another in an endless line of meet-and-greets.
On the Azkals’ side, this is an opportunity for other players to prove themselves, to try new finds, to experiment with systems and plays, and to work on chemistry.
And lastly, I’d beware of people who bring up the-for-the-country card. If one brings up the idea of service for the country then he or she might want to enlist because from what I am seeing is we need more servicemen in the disputed Scarborough Shoal than on the pitch.
Hopefully, this clears up some things. Pun intended.