MANILA, Philippines - Philippine Football Federation (PFF) president Mariano (Nonong) Araneta never imagined the renaissance of the sport to come so soon when he took over the helm of the national sports association under tumultuous circumstances two years ago. Now, football is back in the media mainstream with the Azkals triggering a revival of mass interest that had not been as enthusiastic for decades.
Araneta, a former national footballer from Iloilo, stepped into the PFF picture, undaunted by the challenge of cleaning up the books that wreaked of anomalies. About P4 million was unaccounted for and Araneta led a purge that led to the filing of cases against suspected perpetrators. Araneta was swept into power as the PFF looked for a leader who could restore its credibility. He didn’t disappoint.
“Honestly, I wasn’t sure what I was getting into,” said Araneta. “My wife (Eileen) knew where my heart was and encouraged me to take on the job. She called it my calling. There were lots of problems. But I got lucky. Right after I became president, the Azkals beat Vietnam and we made it to the Suzuki Cup semifinals. That was the start of good things to come.”
As a priority, Araneta put the PFF finances and administration in order. Every year, FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) deliver $500,000 to the PFF coffers – Araneta wanted to make sure of transparency in the usage of the funds. With the PFF slowly rebuilding public confidence, Araneta went full blast in laying out a grassroots program that is the anchor of a long-term development plan. He brought in sponsors and signed a memorandum of agreement with the Department of Education to promote football at the elementary level. At the same time, football got a boost with the Azkals’ progress as a regional power and the United Football League (UFL) gaining more and more fan following.
Reviewing the PFF’s achievements this year, Araneta singled out three milestones. “First, we got our grassroots program going with support from Pagcor,” he said. “We created over 120 football festivals all over the country, reaching out to 48,000 kids in the 6-12 age bracket. With the DepEd, we’re introducing football, five-a-side and seven-a-side, in the elementary level and FIFA will be our partner in financing this project. Second, we were given a clean bill of health by FIFA’s auditor KPMG and our own auditor SGV. Our financial system is open to scrutiny, every centavo is accounted for. We wanted to strengthen the administration side and FIFA is assisting us in this respect, too. There are IT programs we are applying with FIFA’s support. Auditors went over our books for two months and gave us a clean bill. Third, we’re excited about the progress of the Azkals and the UFL. We won the Peace Cup, our first victory in an international tournament in nearly 100 years, took third in the Challenge Cup, losing 2-1 to Turkmenistan after giving up two goals in the last 10 minutes and made it back to the Suzuki Cup semifinals. And the UFL is clearly gaining ground. The grandstand was packed for the championship match between the Stallions and Global the other night. We are collaborating with the UFL which is under the NCR region. The referees are from the PFF pool. We are in close communication with the UFL particularly in synchronizing the schedules of our national players.”
Araneta said the FIFA and AFC support is earmarked for particular projects. “For FIFA, 15 percent of the funds must be used for women’s football and there is no allocation for the national team,” he explained. “Funds are allocated for coaching courses, referees courses, grassroots clinics and administration costs. For the AFC, the focus is youth. With support from other sponsors, we were able to generate about P100 million this year. We can’t thank our sponsors enough for their support – Pagcor, Kia, Suzuki, MVP Sports Foundation, Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process under Secretary (Teresita) Deles, DepEd Secretary Br. Armin Luistro, the PSC under chairman Richie Garcia, ABS-CBN, AKTV, Air 21 and BGC. Football also owes a lot to the PFF Board and the provincial associations for working so hard to promote the sport. The Cebu Football Association, for instance, did a fantastic job in hosting our friendly against Singapore.”
Nest year, Araneta said he’s looking forward to even more landmark accomplishments. Internationally, his goals are to qualify for the Challenge Cup finals and barge into the Southeast Asian Games semifinals where the age limit is 23. “We’re hosting one bracket in the Challenge Cup and we’ll play Brunei, Cambodia and Turkmenistan in March,” said Araneta. “If we top the bracket or rank one of two of the top second placers, we’ll qualify for the eight-team finals in Maldives next year. We’ll hold an Independence Day match in June since FIFA has set aside June 6-12 for friendlies. If we’re invited to play in the Nehru Cup in India sometime in August, we plan to accept. We’ll do another Peace Cup with stronger teams in September. In October, we could do a Middle East camp to prepare for the Challenge Cup finals if we make it like we did in Bahrain and Kuwait before.”
Araneta said more Fil-foreigners are applying to join the Azkals and the PFF welcomes their addition. “We’re building depth because we’re never sure who can play given international commitments,” he said. “One player we’re hoping to enlist is Fil-Spanish Javier Patino, a striker from FC Cordova. If he can get his Philippine passport before the Jan. 31 deadline, we could line him up for the Challenge Cup qualifiers in March.”
On the national level, Araneta said a goal is to stage more under-19 competitions. “We’re also planning to establish football elite centers in five areas which our technical committee is now identifying based on player potentials in our talent ID program,” he said. “We’re excited about the growth of the UFL where a lot of the Azkals now play. We realize basketball is our No. 1 sport but if football comes in a close second, we’ll be very happy. Winning a major tournament will kick off more interest in football. 2012 was a good year for Philippine football and if we keep working as a team, we expect 2013 to be even better.”