While United City enjoyed the awarding ceremony of the 2020 season of the Philippines Football League sponsored by Qatar Airways at the PFF National Training Center in Carmona, Cavite last November 9, there were other individuals right there celebrating what was arguably the most ambitious project in the history of Philippine football.
Against all of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and with respect to the protocols and adjustments needed to mitigate its repercussions, the PFL bubble was alive and played its part in injecting life into the local sports scene.
Leading the charge was commissioner Coco Torre, who had the unenviable mandate of being in charge of the country’s top-flight division in such precarious times.
Someone needed to be the guy who will roll up his sleeves and give it a shot and thankfully for the Bacolod native, there were foreign competitions that have set the trend for the current situation.
“I felt that it was a big responsibility but something which we approached objectively.
“I took comfort in the fact that other countries have already restarted sports and so this gave us a sense of direction in knowing what factors to consider prior to kicking-off the PFL,” explained the De La Salle University alumnus.
One of the experts brought into the fold was Doctor Marc Castro, who is an orthopedic surgeon by practice. He helped shape the league’s bubble tournament by providing the necessary technical know-how for it to work out by leading its medical committee.
“Atty. Ed Gastanes invited me to chair the position. As an AFC medical officer, we activated the football COVID-19 match preparation protocols that were formulated by the AFC and FIFA and applied it to the PFL,” said the sports medicine physician.
For the bubble to be put up, the league needed to prove to different stakeholders that a contact sport like football can be played without the risk of contracting the coronavirus disease. For this to happen, officials had to meet with different stakeholders who scrutinized everything.
“The Games and Amusements Board under chairman Baham Mitra really helped us lobby for the resumption of the PFL. Football is a source of livelihood for the players, coaches, staff, etc. and this was the main reason why we were given the green light by the IATF with the help of DOH and PSC,” said Torre.
“The protocols were actually inspired by various football leagues across the globe like La Liga, Bundesliga, K League 1, and literature from FIFA, AFC, WHO, and even some tidbits from the PBA. The protocols are a collection of health and safety processes derived from different sources that aim to minimize the spread of Covid-19 infections. The PFF doctors were also there to guide us from start to finish.”
Once football training was officially allowed by the IATF, every club in the league needed to adjust to their ‘new normal’. With the new rules in place, every player and staff member accepted that they should be followed until the last letter if they wanted the actual tournament to be held in the first place.
“We have to appreciate also the work of the coaches because it was not simple to train five players on half of the pitch and that time we suffered a lot because all of us just wanted to play more games.
“We wanted to enjoy a bit more but the coaches in that time did a very good job and I think most of the part of this title is from the coaches because of how they handled the situation,” said United City’s Bienvenido Maranon.
With the Seda Hotel in Laguna selected as the bubble and the PFF National Training Center as its main playing venue, the PFL conducted RT-PCR testing for everyone who will have a role in the season before the campaign officially started. That is when things took a turn as individuals from two clubs tested positive.
“As in any situation we always prepare for the worst-case scenario. So when it did happen, we were prepared for it and we activated isolation and containment protocols. We just had a few niggles with the local government when it happened so we had to show them that we had it under control and all our protocols were in order hence the delay in the kickoff. But everything went well and proceeded as we had planned,” explained Castro.
It could have been easier to fold the season and quit before it began. But then doing so would have been detrimental to one of the basic teachings of football, which is to play until the final whistle and it is safe to say that the PFL did so until the last seconds.
“We simply remained calm and followed the protocols such as isolating the patients and their close contacts until the confirmatory test results arrive,” added Torre. “Meanwhile, the rest of the individuals in the bubble tightened their security by continuing to wear PPEs, washing of hands, no intermingling, etc.
“We had to postpone the kick-off date by three days to ensure the integrity of the bubble was intact. Surveillance tests for individuals every other day for 10 days, and every five days until after the end of the bubble was also implemented. It was very important for us to inform the LGUs of the situation. They were instrumental to the success of the League.”
After all the challenges that took place before it, the PFL finally started last October 28, 2020, as United City edged the Azkals Development Team for a 1-0 victory en route to a successful title defence. Just to see local football being played through a livestream was a sight to behold.
“For a moment, it felt unreal.
“To finally see that Philippine football had officially kicked-off was a proud moment for everyone involved in the industry. Excitement and anxiety summed up my emotion throughout the bubble duration,” said Torre.
The United City-ADT match was the first of what should have been 15 fixtures to be played. Unfortunately, the onset of Typhoon Ulysses prevented the Stallion Laguna-Mendiola 1991 game from being played at all.
“The players and coaches were very cooperative in upholding our safety protocols,” said Castro. “We had no resistance from everyone and everyone understood fully what needed to be done. Despite being a full-contact sport we wanted to limit the social interaction outside of the pitch because that is where you will most likely get hit if someone was infected.
“We limited movement to inter-team meetings and communal dining and food sharing was also not encouraged. If not on the pitch, everyone practiced adequate physical distancing and masks were a must.”
“We continuously tested each individual throughout the duration of the competition,” said Torre. “Health and Safety Protocols such as wearing of mask and face shield, continuous disinfection, maintaining distance, etc. were continuously enforced all throughout the bubble duration.”
It is not only COVID-19 that the league was wary about but also the threat of serious injuries that may occur once the games resumed. Thankfully, any issue on this end was avoided and a huge part was played by players maintaining active lifestyles during the lockdown.
“Long term and serious injuries were something that we were looking at equally with Covid-19, as a concern. Given the long lull and many restrictions in the training sessions, once they resumed, the PFL had to reduce the number of matches given the compressed period, hence the finals series was scrapped. Nonetheless, we have to commend the players and coaching staff for their determination in preparing for the season despite the limitations.
“Most of the players were keeping fit during the quarantine with their own training regimens. There are a lot of ways to skin a cat and in this era, you need to be creative to achieve fitness,” opined Castro.
All of these factors meant that United City’s trophy presentation was not only for the club winning its fourth straight PFL crown but also for the women and men that worked hard to see the league come to fruition. There is still no timetable as to when football can be played just like it was before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the league demonstrated that it can actually be done while it is happening.
“The bubble set-up is highly effective in preventing Covid-19 infections for contact sports. However, I feel that other sports may not find it feasible especially if the competition is played for a long duration. I hope that the situation in our country and the world changes in the upcoming year,” said Torre.
“We were part of the pilot bubble aside from 5-on-5 basketball and Chooks-to-Go Pilipinas 3×3. We learned a lot from it and we just proved that despite the odds it can be done,” said Castro.
Obviously, there is no definite date as to when this COVID-19 outbreak will end.
However, Philippine football showed that it was able to rise up and overcome the challenges it brings and inspire players to learn the game once it is safe to do so.