MANILA - Spectators trickled into the stadium, some ending a long day from work, others long-time fans. Upbeat music boomed from one corner. Players in purple, green, white and red took their places on the open field for drills before game time.
There are no cameras rolling, no sports anchors in a banter on the matches up ahead, no queue for tickets. In this pioneering football league where everybody’s welcome, there is no need for the limelight. At least not yet.
On a patch of green in Bonifacio Global City, Mondays have been about heart in action and passion at play, all for a sport long struggling to attract consistent attention from a basketball-crazed nation.
Quietly going on at the McKinley Hill Stadium since January is the GoWell 7’s Football League, a one of a kind tournament in Manila put together by former professional football players and lovers of the beautiful game.
The goal: to give football players a place to pursue their passion, encourage others to come out and play, and show Filipinos that it is a kind of game that is not too hard to love.
“I wanted to bring something different, so I came up with the whole 7-a-side concept. [It’s] available for everyone. I just wanted something for the Filipino people,” said Anton del Rosario, former national team player at the Azkals and former Kaya Football Club captain.
Played at less than half the pitch using smaller goals, 7-a-side — seven players each, as opposed to the full 11 per team roster— makes for faster-paced, more exciting football action. Matches are in 15-minute halves.
Gates are open for anyone to watch, and it’s free. Spectators are not limited to the stands; they can approach the sidelines and see the action up close.
“Because the Filipino people, I think the reason why they like basketball so much is there’s a lot more action. If you don’t know football, then it’s kind of hard to get into it, because a lot of the game is tactics rather than back and forth action. They find it boring,” Del Rosario noted.
“But when it comes down to this, you know, [it’s] shorter games, shorter field, which means a lot more shooting, a lot more goals,” he told ABS-CBN News in an interview.
For Del Rosario, showing how much fun there is in football was the primary motivation in putting the league together.
“We want people to get more engaged with football rather than just sit and watch. It makes it more fun and more attractive,” he said.
CELEBRITY DRAW, NEW HOME FOR EX-PROS
Del Rosario and other football friends put together the league on short notice, gathering sponsors in less than a week to kickstart a new alternative for both players and fans.
The 7-a-side tournament came at a time of less than encouraging developments in the country’s 11-a-side professional football league, the Philippine Football League (PFL), where two teams had pulled out over sustainability challenges, leaving only six teams in the running.
It also came as foreign pro players in Manila looked for a new platform, orphaned by new PFL rules that limited membership of non-Filipinos to four (one from Asia) in the national league.
“That’s one of the main reasons I jumped on this right away. If you see how the PFL is going, from eight teams to six teams, and one of them had to be Meralco (FC Meralco Manila)… they topped the league last year, and for them to drop out, obviously there’s a problem going on,” said Del Rosario.
The other team that withdrew was Ilocos United.
“You know the teams aren’t making enough money, so how is it going to be sustainable in the future?” he said.
“And in order for these guys (players), say something happens, they need a fallback, and I wanna be able to be there and if something goes wrong, at least I’d be able to have this, you guys will be able to stay in here, keep playing their football, stay in shape and enjoy,” Del Rosario said.
Indeed, foreign players have found a new home in the 7-a-side league, where eight teams currently complete, many with international players. Unlike in the PFL, the league does not impose limits on team composition.
The league’s roster includes Green Archers United, currently on top of the standings after five match days, where former Azkals striker Emelio “Chieffy” Caligdong plays.
Also among the league’s strongest squads is the all-African Super Eagles, led by former Kaya player and Manila Nomads captain Danny Kross and counts as members other veterans of the United Football League, the former pro league.
Del Rosario’s team Laro FC is among the league’s biggest crowd draws, with celebrities and former pros on its list. Among them is his former Kaya FC teammates actor-model Daniel Matsunaga and Aly Borromeo, also formerly of the Azkals, and another former national team member Simon Greatwich, who last played for the defunct Meralco.
PFL squad Stallions Laguna FC also fielded a team for the league. Other teams include Soccer Allies, Matu, Tala and Juku, whose members include both local and foreign players.
As Del Rosario had envisioned, the league is open to any team. Professional football experience is not even required.
“Anybody could come out here and play. That’s one of the things that I'd like to push. You can come here and play. I want you to be able to come down from your office and play out here. If you’re a football player, put together a team, come and play,” he said.
The games are played in a single round-robin over eight weeks, with the four top teams battling it out in playoffs for the championship on the final week.
As the debut season moved to its final few weeks, Del Rosario, the league’s do-it-all guy who even takes it to himself to write down scores and cleanup after matches, is already planning the second round.
“We’re looking to do three seasons in a year,” he said.
“This could be a start to something that could turn very big. I eventually want this to turn into a lot of people coming out supporting their teams, and possibly making it semi-pro. I wanna take it from level to level,” he added.
Del Rosario is encouraged by the turnout of fans. The bleachers may not be full, but the interest is there, and the cheers could only go louder.
“What I really wanna focus on is just building a community… So I want people to come in here, eat some food, listen to some music, watch some fun football… That way, it’s building a community.
“I’m glad it’s turned out the way it’s turned out. In the beginning, we didn’t have any problems, we have people showing up every week so, hopefully, we can grow this into something big,” he said.
(For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.)