It was not too long ago when athletes from the Philippines were recruited to play as imports abroad were an uncommon occurrence.
There seemed to be a belief that our athletes could compete domestically, but were not good enough to merit serious consideration from international scouts.
All that changed in a big way in 2021.
The floodgates suddenly opened which enabled Filipino and Filipina athletes to a mass exodus to a foreign land. In the bigger stages of professional leagues abroad, they were able to display their skills and showcase what athletes from the Philippines were truly capable of.
The standard practice in basketball was that the Philippines brought in imports. The Philippines rarely exported athletes to play abroad, save for some smaller professional basketball leagues in the Southeast Asian region.
Back in 2018, there were only two Filipinos playing in Japan in Marck Espejo and Jaja Santiago.
Bagunas would replace Espejo a year later while Thirdy Ravena became the first-ever Filipino player in the B.League in 2020.
In 2021, Japan became a primary destination for Filipino athletes from a number of sports disciplines as the number of Filipinos playing in Japan increased to 14.
Bobby Ray Parks Jr. has been instrumental in the rise of the Nagoya Diamond Dolphins’ to the top five of the standings of the B.League.
Shiga Lakestars’ Kiefer Ravena stellar play has him among the top 10 leaders in assists and top five in steals in the entire B.League.
Dwight Ramos enjoys the longest playing time among all Filipinos in Japan, proof of how valuable he is to the Toyama Grouses.
The other Filipinos strutting their wares in Japan are Kobe Paras of the Niigata Albirex and Javi Gomez De Liaño of the Ibaraki Robots in Division I and Kenmark Carño of the Aomori Wat’s and Juan Gomez De Liaño of the Earthfriends Tokyo Z in Division II.
Matthew Aquino, by virtue of his Japanese lineage, was signed to a three-year contract by the Shinshu Brave Warriors as a local. Aquino also received an invitation to the Japan national pool and almost made the final cut of the Japan squad that faced China in the 2021 FIBA World Cup Asian qualifiers.
The Ravena brothers, Parks, and Ramos are all averaging in double figures and have proven themselves to be vital cogs in their respective team’s campaign this season.
In volleyball, Marck Espejo also made his return to the V.League after signing with FC Tokyo. This time around, Espejo once again made history become the first-ever Filipino to play in the V.League All-Star Game.
Santiago has been with her ballclub, the Ageo Medics based in Saitama, since 2018. Bagunas opted to stay for the third straight season with the Oita Miyoshi Weisse Adler despite him getting offers from two other Japanese teams.
Santiago also became the first local player to win an international league championship when she powered the Ageo Medics to the V. Cup title last March.
In football, Sarina Bolden and Quinley Quezada were also part of history, signing with Elfen Saitama and JEF United Chiba, respectively, in the inaugural season of the WE League.
Also in football, Jefferson Tabinas, who has been playing pro in Japan since 2017, also scored his first career goal in the J2 League for Mito HollyHock this year.
Definitely, the number of Filipinos turning pro in Japan will grow in 2022.