If there is one topic that can provoke members of the Philippine football community into spirited debates on different social media platforms, it is the presence of collegiate leagues – specifically the UAAP – within the country’s youth system.
In the latest #WeArePFL2021 webinar, representatives from the Philippines Football League discussed the situation, as well as possible solutions in line with their own ambitious plans of producing their own developmental programs.
“We have a youth academy all the way from three-years-old all the way to 19-years-old, and we pride ourselves in this. But there are two challenges I see in particular. One is the structure of football in the country,” said Kaya-Iloilo’s general manager Paul Tolentino.
“These kids need to make a decision whether they go to university or they go play professionally, because the education factor and all of these things weigh heavily on these kids if our league doesn’t seem stable enough as a career option for these kids.”
Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the discontinuation of collegiate, youth, and non-professional commercial leagues, there has been an influx of players from different sports who have signed up with teams and competitions that are registered under the Games and Amusement Board.
Under the current rules of the UAAP, players who compete with GAB-affiliated entities such as the PBA, PFL, Chooks 3×3, and PVL automatically lose their eligibility unless they play for their school teams. This development has ensured that the likes of United City’s Pocholo Bugas, the UAAP Season 82 Juniors MVP out of FEU-Diliman, will never compete in the said college division.
“I think that’s the one major decision point that kids need to make, and clubs need to weigh up very carefully. [It] Is not to force these kids to go professional because once they play in the professional league, it automatically excludes them – as of right now based on the current rules from playing in the collegiate level,” admitted Tolentino.
“And if they don’t make that cut… If you cut them after six months, or one year, even two years and they’re only 19 or 18 or 20-years-old at that time, those would still be years they would have to develop their game in the collegiate level. And you don’t want to rob them of these opportunities. However, if they’re dead set on it and really do have the talent, have the career trajectory to make the cut, then by all means we would take them in.”
Another concern of Tolentino is whether or not these young players can even keep up with seasoned professionals because there is a scarcity of grassroots tournaments in the country in the sport. For comparison’s sake, a homegrown PBA player competes in tourneys such as Palarong Pambansa, PRADA, PAYA, Passerelle, and the juniors competitions of the UAAP and NCAA before even making the jump to different college programs. There, they will also get the chance to compete in different tournaments such as the PBA D-League.
When it comes to football in the country – specifically in Metro Manila – the likes of RIFA, the Weekend Football League, the Youth Football League, and the NCAA and UAAP come into mind. Still, more matches are needed at the grassroots levels to produce top players.
“The second challenging point for Kaya, despite us having a youth academy… There’s still a big jump in the competition level for these kids to get to. And based on the structure of my club and how we’re competing against previously Ceres, which is now UCFC, where they have 13, 14 national team players, 11 of them starters of… Whatever that may be is, to ask an 18-year-old or 19-year-old to compete at that level, knowing full well Kaya’s intention is to beat this top club,” said Tolentino.
“It’s not just to compete and develop, but it’s to try and win trophies. Now giving an 18-year-old or 19-year-old the responsibility of getting on the field, ‘Do your job and make sure we win the game’ is quite a daunting task for some of these young players, especially because we don’t have an entire structure below the PFL, which is extremely competitive under-18’s, under-19’s, under-20’s competitions preparing them for that next step.”
The debate over whether young football players should skip the college game to compete in the PFL is not going to stop anytime soon.
To build one’s own farm system is a very ambitious endeavor, since it will take an extraordinary expenditure to pull off. It will also take a long while before a return on investment occurs.
“That’s where the challenge lies especially for the clubs. Like in Paul’s situation, (in) Stallions, we do have our own academy. We even used to have a Stallions B that competed in Anton’s seven-a-side competitions. And before the pandemic started, we had an elite academy,” said Stallion Laguna owner and coach Ernie Nierras.
“It’s a challenge for the clubs to follow the same format as other professional clubs around the world. And at one point, there’s going to be an inflection point between clubs and universities and colleges. Because now you have options for these kids to start to make a living at an earlier age, especially the ones who have the talent and the ones who can make it on to the national team youth level, and ultimately to the under-22 and the senior national team.”
The game’s various stakeholders, meanwhile, have yet to create dialogues and solutions for Philippine football’s predicament in youth development.
At the end of the day, amidst the constant changing and chopping of top-flight football leagues in the country, the NCAA and UAAP have consistently held men’s and women’s divisions for decades. However, Stallion Laguna is showing the way to go around it for now.
“We’re at that stage right now where it’s becoming a challenge for the parents and the children to make a choice. Like on our side, I have two players who are going to college right now and we’re paying for that. They opted to play professionally instead of going to college,” said Nierras.
“So now it’s a commitment on my side to make sure that I pick the player that I know will stay in my club and will be able to be successful not just for the first two years. But [I also] make sure that I will make him graduate in college because 90 percent of my local players, they came from the UAAP and the college ranks and they all graduated. They all have their degrees.”
Ultimately, everyone who is passionate about the sport wants to see it grow from this point forward. And everything starts with a simple conversation of how everyone can work together to get the ball rolling.
“It’s very, very important for my club, if looking for sources of players on the university and the college level,” said Nierras.
“Like Paul is saying, we have to sit down between the universities, the PFF, and the PFL and come up with a pretty good way to offer the PFL as a stepping stone for these youth players who really would like football as a professional sport as part of their career.”