When it comes to spectacle and story, not many UAAP events can best the drama of the Men’s Football Tournament. Clashing dynasties, sleeping giants, and bonafide superstars make for a competition no less enthralling than the more heralded college sports. For the uninitiated, the rich context of the UAAP’s football landscape may pass them by. Thus, we present a rough map to the ins and outs of UAAP Season 77.
For the past seven years, the UAAP football pitch has quietly been host to one of the most exciting and hotly-contested rivalries in collegiate sports. The Far Eastern University Tamaraws and the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons have largely dominated the championship chase, with each side picking up three trophies in that span. The two sides are also probably sick and tired of seeing each other’s colours at this point, as the schools have squared off in the playoffs a remarkable five times. UP struck the first real blow in their duel, dramatically overcoming FEU’s daunting twice-to-beat advantage in the Season 71 finals. The FEU faithful have more recent reason to cheer though, as in Season 76, the Tams bucked a Game 1 win by the Maroons to prevail a decisive 4-1 in the winner-takes-all Game 2. No statistic better illustrates the ascendancy of FEU and UP than Season 76’s goal difference- no team other than the two scored more goals than they conceded. Each side will be raring to write the next chapter in its saga for supremacy, and Season 77 promises to be an excellent background for its story.
FEU and highly-regarded head coach Kim Chul-su will be desperate to match UP and repeat as champions, a feat they have yet to accomplish. The burden of back-to-back gold medals rests on the Tamaraw galacticos, bannered by Season 76 MVP (and presumptive Azkals mainstay) Paolo Bugas, Best Midfielder awardee Arnel Amita, and Best Striker awardee Jess Melliza. Melliza, who scored the trophy-clinching strike against UP in Season 76, will undoubtedly look to cap his final year of eligibility with another title. Coach Kim will also be confident in the security of his goal, as the excellent Michael Menzi, a Season 76 candidate for Best Goalkeeper, also returns for the Tamaraws. FEU’s coaching staff gets an interesting boost with the addition of the just-graduated Dexter Chio, famous for his own UP-slaying game-winner in the Season 72 finals.
Standing in FEU’s path is Azkals veteran and UP boss Anto Gonzales, who seeks to retake the UAAP throne and consequently add a record-tying 6th trophy to the Maroons’ glittering hoard. The Maroons will be top-billed by graduating star striker Jinggoy Valmayor, the Season 73 Rookie of the Year. Valmayor started his decorated UAAP career by firing in title-winning goals in two consecutive finals, but was suspended for a match apiece in his last two championship appearances. Valmayor will be looking to amend his recent disciplinary indiscretions by ending his UP service with a repeat of earlier heroics. At the other end of the pitch, UP boasts the UAAP’s safest pair of hands in Best Goalkeeper awardee Ace Villanueva. Livewire wingback Patxi Santos, last year’s Rookie of the Year, ties together UP’s attack and defence.
The FEU and UP rivalry also presents a tantalizing contrast in footballing philosophy. “Master” Kim Chul Su’s Barcelona-inspired “tiki-taka” football often leaves overwhelmed opponents clutching at shadows, as Bugas and company ping innumerable passes effortlessly across the field. UP’s coach and fitness wizard Anto Gonzales counters that with a very German “gegenpress”, which is 90 minutes of frenetic full-court pressure, in the vein of Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. The only thing certain in this stylistic sparring is the guarantee of entertainment for football fans across the archipelago.
FEU and UP’s formidable stranglehold was most recently loosened in Season 75, the year the Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles flew highest over the UAAP pitch. The victory gave them a record 6th UAAP Football title, reminding many of the pedigree of one of college football’s most storied programs. Then, MVP Nick O’Donnell moved on to the bright lights of the national team and UFL stardom, and the Eagles came crashing back down to earth. The Season 75 champions found themselves bottom of the heap in Season 76, dead last in the standings. This year, a resurgent Ateneo will be led by important contributors to their last triumph. Standout playmaker Mikko Mabanag, who nailed the final stake in UP’s coffin in Season 75’s championship shootout, will team up in midfield with then-ROY Carlo Liay to lead the Katipunan-based footballers back to the promised land (or at the very least, renewed respectability).
Meanwhile, ADMU’s nemesis De La Salle University needs no such refreshment of its footballing bonafides. The Green Archers have remained a title threat in every season since a disastrous last-place finish in Season 70, following their suspension from all UAAP competition in Season 69. Since then, the Archers have never failed to reach the playoff stage, but have consistently fallen short of the ultimate prize. If DLSU is to finally breakthrough in Season 77, it will be a triumph borne of their pro league-seasoned seniors Nathaniel Alquiros and Matthew Nierras, both of 2012-13 UFL “double” winners Stallion FC, as well as their enviable cadre of up-and-coming booters getting experience with the La Salle-affiliated Green Archers United.
When it comes to near-misses however, no team has had it worse than perennial bridesmaid University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers. The proud school, holder of three UAAP football trophies, suffered three consecutive Finals defeats, falling prey to the merciless Tamaraws and Maroons (twice) in Seasons 71-73. Hope springs eternal for the Golden Booters though, as Palarong Pambansa 2013 standout Steven Anotado appears to be both the present and future of UST’s forward line. Anotado’s striking buddy Jean Clariño will also want to build on his strong performance in Season 76, and continue tormenting those who would foil UST’s bid for a fourth championship.
The University of the East Red Warriors will be missing the services of their own talismanic striker, as the indomitable Fitch Arboleda walked off the pitch in UE colours for the final time in Season 76. The supremely talented but injury-plagued Arboleda was a constant thorn in the side of UAAP defences, bagging goals whenever his body permitted him to play. Despite a myriad of health setbacks, the UE forward managed to net six goals for the Warriors last season, finishing behind only fellow superstars Jinggoy Valmayor (12 goals for UP) and Jess Melliza (8 for FEU). The UE faithful will be fervently wishing one of their seven rookies steps up and becomes a new Warriors football icon. Failing that, UE can lean on their resolute, third-ranked defence, which is backstopped by steady keeper Lendon Clores.
With Arboleda already gone, and Valmayor and Melliza on their last years of eligibility, a new crop of superstar strikers is bound to rise up on the UAAP battlefield. Leading that charge is U21 Azkal Captain Paolo Salenga of the National University Bulldogs. The powerful forward already notched six goals in his debut season last year, and is sure to add to his tally for the blue and gold in Season 77. Along with fellow sophomore and burgeoning star Franz Abalunan, the unheralded Bulldogs will be a tricky matchup for any of the bigger names this upcoming tournament.
There will be no bigger surprise package than the Adamson Soaring Falcons however, who will finally join the UAAP football competition for the first time this year. The Falcons may not be ready to challenge for the championship from the get-go, but as a relatively unknown quantity, they are surely going to trip up one or more teams in Season 77. Adamson can only hope they match or surpass NU’s inaugural football outing in Season 75, where the debuting Bulldogs picked up a surprising pair of wins. In any event, the newcomers ultimately round off the UAAP’s roster of competitors and give Filipino football fanatics one more reason to tune in to the beautiful game.