Describing the rise of the local football scene is exactly how the Philippine Azkals came into our collective mainstream consciousness—in the words of Drake, started from the bottom now we’re here.
History tells us that our country achieved its lowest FIFA World Ranking of 195th overall in September 2006. To put that into perspective, there are 209 countries ranked in total.
The breakthrough came in 2010 when the team qualified for the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup, and stayed undefeated in the group stage against powerhouse nations, including a phenomenal upset of defending champions Vietnam.
A few years and a couple of tournaments later, the Azkals now sit respectably at 129th overall, an ascent that coincides with the sport’s reputation. Indeed, football has never looked this good in this basketball-crazed nation.
In a country that is 100-million strong, there aren’t too many facilities that cater to futbolistas—something that Football Manila, an organization Filipino-British Oliver Lewis established in 2011, has been trying to address since its inception.
Growing up in the United Kingdom, Lewis found himself playing anywhere but it was rather difficult to play recreationally here if you weren’t donning the national team’s colors, playing for the United Football League (UFL), or enrolled in a school with greener pastures.
Despite the increasing popularity of football, it remained a sport for those who could afford gear and rent for the fields, among other expenditures. With this in mind, Football Manila continues to find ways to lower costs to make it accessible to the public.
Led by the core team of Lewis, Australian Brent Steenbergen, and Bernard Piguing, the group promoted football through weekly scrimmages, coaching sessions for both kids and adults, amateur leagues and corporate tournaments in the hopes of training and inspiring Filipino athletes on and off the pitch. Because of this, the World Football Fives (F5WC) committee awarded them the rights to manage the local qualifiers for the competition, meaning one of 32 slots to this five-a-side amateur football tournament in Dubai has been allocated for the overall winning team from the Philippines.
The F5WC is a global initiative that aims to bring together countries to celebrate the beautiful game through an amateur football event involving 48 participating countries from Europe, Middle East, Africa, Asia Pacific, and the Americas.
April 2014 marked the first time this country was represented in the Dubai invitational—a story footballer Joseph Cerdeña calls his own, an unlikely love affair with football.
The streets of Tondo are among the areas of Manila where Filipinos spend all day playing in make-shift courts around every corner, and where basketball reigns supreme. Heck, Paul Lee’s nickname is Angas ng Tondo.
But for this story, we are not going to talk about the Filipino’s first love. Cerdeña’s account has its humble beginnings on the grounds of Don Bosco, where his mother introduced the then 7-year-old to his uncle Arlan Rabino. At that time, Rabino was part of the school’s football coaching staff, and he eventually convinced Mrs. Cerdeña to let him train her son.
Back then, football gear was still a very foreign concept to the kid. All that mattered was that he had shoes and he was ready to go.
“Ang gamit ko pang shoes noon was yung black shoes, yung leather shoes na pamasok,” Cerdeña recalled. “Pagkatapos ng ilang buwan, nag-rubber shoes na rin ako pero di talaga ganun kaganda yung field sa Tondo.”
Apparently, his greatest hindrance was not the field but his grandmother who voiced displeasure over the possibility of him being injured similar to what his uncle experienced before. However, that did not stop the footballer from kicking the ball across the range.
“Pero dahil sa pagmamahal ko sa football, sinabi ko sa sarili ko na maglalaro’t maglalaro ako. Sinimulan ko na kaya tatapusin ko hanggang matapos ko ito,” shared Cerdeña.
Eventually he joined the varsity at Amado V. Hernandez Elementary School where he was chosen to represent Manila in the Palarong NCR.
You see, glory does not come in an instant. Neither does success and all the perks that come with it. This is why being exposed to a little reward is something he does not take for granted, and all the more does not keep to himself.
Being part of the team entitled the young Cerdeña to football gear—shoes, socks, shin guards, and jerseys—but that never swayed him from setting aside half of his allowance for Lola.
Moving on from elementary, he went to Dr. Juan G. Nolasco High School, continuing to hone his skills as an athlete.
As a striker, the first instinct you need is to score. As a student-athlete, you also need to carry the same mentality towards the opportunities in life.
“Kaya ako naglaro ng football kasi alam kong makakakuha ako ng isang magandang pagkakataon sa buhay. Sa iba’t ibang sports, may nagbibigay ng scholarship para sa college pagka-graduate namin,” confessed Cerdeña.
True enough, the stars aligned for the striker of Tondo and an athletic scholarship came his way from the University of the East during senior year. This was one of football’s gifts to Cerdeña.
But inasmuch as doors opened for him, they closed soon thereafter. His scholarship expired after two years with the Red Warriors, forcing the skipper to join the semi-pro ranks in the UFL.
He bounced around the league, joining three teams in a span of six years with stints at Union FC, Union Internacional Manila, and Bright Star FC. At the same time, he pursued his studies at Lyceum of the Philippines University while playing on the side.
Cerdeña stood tall in the face of adversity because he knows he is rooted to his family. That is what drives him on the pitch. He holds on to that thought whenever he’s working countless hours on his dribbling, passing, and scoring abilities.
What keeps him playing is to study, but what motivates his studies is God and his OFW parents Benjamin and Judith Cerdeña who are both based in Saudi Arabia. Though soft-spoken, what is clear is that his heart has always been at the right place, that family always comes first.
That is what Football Manila has come to be—an extended family on the pitch. Last year, Cerdeña became one of the members representing Team Philippines in the F5WC given that the winning team was fully composed of Nigerians while the tournament’s rules required at least three players of Filipino nationality.
There are goals that everyone sets for themselves in reaching greatness. For Philippine football, that would be to represent the country on the international stage—well, not yet the World Cup.
But for those who were late in the game and never had the same opportunity as those who trained early in their careers, the F5WC provides the perfect alternative for amateur footballers to make those aspirations a reality. That is why going to Dubai wearing the red, blue, white, and yellow is both an honor and a privilege for anyone.
With his bags packed and set to embark on this Middle Eastern journey, Cerdeña is a mix of nerves and excitement not knowing what to expect upon reaching his destination. Training at least twice a week in the two months that led to this trip, it was a total commitment to find chemistry with the newly-assembled team.
“Siyempre nung una kinakabahan pero pagkalapag ng eroplano sa Dubai, naexcite na kaming makita kung ano bang meron dito,” said the Philippine Team striker. “Pagkagising namin the next day, we trained agad kasi alam naming sobrang galing ng mga kalaban pag tumapak na kami sa stadium.”
Grouped among the best teams from across the world namely Egypt, Portugal, and eventual F5WC Champions Denmark, the team knew they had an overwhelming task to overcome but that did not stop them from competing their hearts out.
“As a team, goal namin sa Dubai is to represent our mother country. Kasi yung tingin nila sa atin doon ay katulong lang. Nandoon kami para makilala nila ang Pinoy na di basta-bastang pumupunta roon para lang magtrabaho at para na ring ma-inspire yung buong Pinoy community na maglaro ng football,” shared the Tondo-grown talent.
There is a tremendous responsibility that is assumed by individuals bearing the country’s flag on their chests—that is to personify Filipino dignity and to personify it well.
“Goal ko is ma-inspire yung mga tao sa Dubai na kahit maliit lang ako, maliit na Pinoy, kaya ko mag-compete sa matatatangkad, sa mga international players tulad ng mga nakalaban namin doon,” Cerdeña affirmed.
Imagine if a pair of rubber shoes stopped him from playing the game he loves. Imagine if an unfortunate injury derailed a blossoming career in football. Imagine if he had given up chasing for that college scholarship. Then, the 23-year-old may not have came across his most memorable experience to date.
“Pinaka-best na nangyari yung napanuod ng Tita ko yung game ko sa Dubai at kahit yung Mom ko, she called me to say that she’s watching the game of Denmark and Philippines. Feeling ko naglaro na rin ako sa World Cup at masayang masaya ako na nakapag-represent ako sa bansa,” said Cerdeña.
Despite falling short of any victory, they came out with a valiant effort each game against more talented opponents, a three-game tilt that was well appreciated by their fellow kababayans.
“Kahit di nila kami kilala, sumuporta pa rin sila sa Pilipinas,” revealed the current Bright Star FC striker. “Kahit natalo tayo o tumabla, naging proud sila na hindi tayo nagpatalo sa kalaban. Iyon yung naging strength namin sa team, na di kami basta-bastang susuko.”
Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist wrote: “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
Nearly 9,000 miles of air space covered to and from Dubai, Cerdeña knows that falling in love with football was the best decision he made in his life.
“Habang nilalaro ko yung football, nag-eenjoy ka dapat. Kailangan mahal at masaya ka sa nilalaro mo,” shared the World Football Five alumni. “Football is a physical game kaya kailangan yung mindset mo patient sa bawat game at training. Nandiyan yung time na masisipa ka, pero kailangan mong tanggapin lang nang tanggapin. May magiging magandang kapalit naman.”
But even if there wasn’t anything waiting for him at the end, Cerdeña would still be playing football because that is how love is—patient, kind, endures all things, and football never fails.