Australian coaches make mark as Philippines football goes professional
Philippines boasts Southeast Asia's highest FIFA ranking, and has two of its clubs on the verge of an Asian final. But, perhaps more significantly, the country's first professional league began earlier this month, with the bold plan of taking the sport to entertainment-starved regional centres.
The 2017 Philippines Football League (PFL) kicked off on May 6, with Australians Gary Phillips and Ian Gillan in charge of the two newest and most remote teams.
Phillips, a former Australia youth international who coached Negeri Sembilan and Sabah in Malaysia, is guiding the hopes of Davao Aguilas, who play near the southern city where Rodrigo Duterte was Mayor before becoming Philippines President.
Gillan, a former Perth Glory and Kedah assistant boss, is based 400 kilometres north of Manila at Ilocos United, who were set up by Filipino-Australian businessman Jarred Kelly and Sydney-based Englishman Tony Lazaro.
Both Phillips and Gillan saw Asia's fledgling league -- the eight-team competition is the same size as the original A-League of 2005 -- go from zero to full operation within a matter of weeks.
"I responded to a Facebook message about a coaching job, and 24 hours later we had agreed on terms and I was on a plane -- sign of the times, I guess," 53-year-old Phillips, who coached Sydney Olympic to the 2002 Australian title, told ESPN FC.
"The owner [Jeff Cheng] holds a major share in Western Sydney Wanderers in the A-League, and has a very good reputation. This is an opportunity to leave my fingerprint on a new franchise, and hopefully create a legacy of opportunity for young players in the state of Mindanao."
Scottish-born Gillan, 52, worked under ex-Socceroo David Mitchell at reigning Malaysia Cup champions Kedah and Perth Glory, but this is his first experience as the head coach of a fully professional club.
"We were the eighth and final team to be accepted into the league, and had the least time to prepare... just five weeks to recruit players, staff and put administration processes and procedures in place on a very low budget," Gillan said.
"But what attracted me to Ilocos United was the opportunity to work off a clean canvas. It's an exciting challenge."
Despite sharing hosting rights with Myanmar, Philippines surprisingly missed out on the knockout stages of last December's AFF Suzuki Cup. Even so, they remain ASEAN's top nation on the FIFA list at 127th, two spots above regional heavyweights, Thailand.
And going into next week's second-leg semifinals of the AFC Cup ASEAN zone, Ceres-Negros and Global-Cebu FC would fancy their chances of prevailing over Malaysia's Johor Darul Ta'zim and Home United, of Singapore.
Both clubs are based outside of basketball-obsessed Manila where the greatest opportunities for football could lie, according to R. Sasikumar, executive chairman of Red Card Global, which holds the PFL's commercial and broadcast rights.
"The old United Football League was based mostly around Manila, but we want to take the game to the provinces with the PFL," ex-Singapore international defender Sasikumar told ESPN FC. "We believe there's massive potential in those areas where they've been starved of professional sports and general entertainment."
For Phillips, playing games in Davao has seen enthusiastic crowds of more than 5,000 cheering his team. But without adequate training facilities in the area, Davao Aguilas are still based in Manila, more than 1,500 kilometres away.
"Davao is full of passion and pride, but facilities are being upgraded, so we need to fly in and out for games, followed by a two-hour bus ride to the north of Davao where the stadium is," Phillips said. "When you play Sunday, Wednesday, Sunday, there's no real time to work on football problems because it's mostly recovery focused. But the best fans in the country do help to ease the fatigue of the players."
At the top of the PFL standings are Meralco Manila, powered by brothers Phil and James Younghusband, the English-born former Chelsea juniors who remain the best-known footballers in the country. The nucleus of the Philippines national team, coached by ex-United States captain Thomas Dooley, comes from foreign-raised players, schooled in European academies, with Filipino heritage.
While the likes of Meralco, Ceres and Global attract the big names from the national squad, expansion teams like Davao Aguilas and Ilocas United have to make do with less.
"Our players are possibly discarded from clubs, unhappy or wanting a change," Gillan said. "We have signed many young players and have a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old in the squad. It amazes me how this all works here, compared to the massive budgets experienced elsewhere."
Not surprisingly, it has been a bumpy start to the season for the new boys, who are still looking for their first wins after a couple of matches. The two teams at opposite ends of the country, separated by a journey of up to 15 hours, drew 1-1 in opening week on May 7.
"We are new to each other so it will take time, but we have seen a lot of improvement and are already competitive," said Phillips, who has also coached in Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga. "My target here is like anywhere else -- just to win the next game."
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.