Local football fans have a lot to look forward to these days as the country’s first truly national football league – the Philippines Football League – finally reels off on May 6.
For years, the Metro Manila-based United Football League (UFL) was considered the premier football competition in the country. But the need to form a nationwide league became an urgent matter for the Philippine Football Federation after the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) ruled it a requirement for the continued participation of Philippine club football teams in AFC-sanctioned tournaments.
So eight months after it was first announced in a press conference, the PFL is finally here, with eight clubs participating in its maiden season in a home-and-away format.
One of these clubs is the Meralco Sparks, who will rep the city of Manila and play their home matches at the Rizal Stadium. The Sparks were longtime fixtures in the UFL, and are eager to make their mark in the new national league.
“I am so excited by the team’s prospects for the PFL,” said Sparks Vice Chairman Randy Roxas in a statement released to the media. “This is the strongest side we have ever assembled and I believe we can succeed in the first year of the national league.”
The Sparks underwent a bit of afacelift over the past few months, signing ten new players including Serbian centerback Milan Nikolic from rival club Global Cebu and Korean defender Jong Min Lee, who has played extensively in his home country and Japan.
There are also exciting young prospects in the Sparks fold such as Connor Tacagni and Neil Dorimon from NCAA champion San Beda, Fil-American tyler Matas, and Fil-British midfielder James Hall.
But despite the flurry of roster activity, two names remain constant with the Sparks and have become as synonymous with the team as they have been with Philippine football ever since they first came over 12 years ago. Brothers Phil and James Younghusband will still be donning their orange Meralco jerseys when the PFL season opens, and both can’t wait for the league to get going.
“Very excited, very excited,” James said when asked about the new league at a recent press event where the club’s kit partnership with Mizuno was announced. “Locally we haven’t played here in the Philippines for a local team since October last year so it’s been more than six months. We’re excited it’s finally happening and excited that it’s gonna go national. Let’s hope it’s gonna gain more interest.”
Phil, the leading scorer in Philippine national team history, is happy that the sport is finally decentralizing and spreading to the countryside.
“The club football that we’ve played has been based in Manila,” he said. “We got to experience playing one of the UFL games in Zamboanga last season and what a great experience. It’s an opportunity to promote football in the different provinces so it’s great that we’ll be able to have that chance during the season, to go to Cebu, Bacolod, Ilocos, Davao, Laguna. To go to different parts of the Philippines and promote football, raise the awareness of football amongst the whole of the Philippines.”
While the PFL is a step in the right direction, Phil is realistic and expects the league to undergo growing pains.
“Nothing happens overnight. You have to start small and gradually grow. The Japanese league wasn’t built overnight. It took a couple of decades. I think that will be the same with Philippine football. For it to grow it takes time.”
The brothers are looking forward to leading their club in this maiden season, and are excited about the new faces on their team.
“(We’re) very confident,” James said. “We’ve been together now since January and everyone’s been working hard and we have a great mix of talent and personalities on and off the field. We have lots more depth this year which I think is the key when it comes to a league with an especially long season. I think management has done a fantastic job of getting the squad together.”
“As you just saw earlier, we’ve got nine or ten new players,” Phil added. “It’s a different side to what you’ve seen in the previous years. But with good quality, a good attitude, and a good work ethic to be successful in this league. We look around and we see the new faces and gives us confidence going into the league. I think we have more balance this year than we’ve had previously. Hopefully with this team, this group of players wins the first PFL.”
Although the PFL will feature only eight teams initially, Phil feels this will make for more interesting matches since the talent level won’t be as diluted as it was in the UFL. The hope is that the scorelines won’t be as lopsided as those that littered the most recent seasons of the UFL, where a 10-0 score wasn’t that uncommon.
“To me I think this league will be a lot more competitive than last year,” Phil said. “We played Ilocos in a friendly and it was a close game. I think we won’t be seeing 8- 9- 10-nils that we’ve seen before. I think the most that we’ll see is 5-nil, if that even happens.
“There are a lot of young players that should be good for the league, new exciting young players that should burst onto the scene and hopefully burst into the national team as well.”
The Sparks kick off their season on May 6 with an away match against Stallion-Laguna in Binan.