A look back at the 1988 PFF National Champions Cebu
It was a series of fortuitous events that led to the formation of the M. Lhuillier-Cebu football team in 1987.
Photo courtesy of Rick Olivares
A look back at the 1988 PFF National Champions Cebu
Rick Olivares (Philstar.com) - July 13, 2020 - 1:29pm

MANILA, Philippines – Franz Beckenbauer. Diego Maradona. Pele. Rinat Dasayev.

The names might be unfamiliar to today’s youngsters let alone footballers who worship Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as top class footballers.

However, to a past generation and a particular squad — the 1988 M. Lhuillier-Cebu squad — one with championship pedigree and a wonderful underdog of a story — are heroes. And the members of this Filipino team are local heroes as well; maybe forgotten ones, and we aim to rectify that if only for today’s generation.

During the Usapang Football webcast hosted by this author last Sunday, July 12 on Zoom, a few members of the teams recounted their story.

Furthermore, as the Philippines celebrates the 10th anniversary of the 2010 Suzuki Cup where the national team’s exploits propelled football in this country to higher strata, it would be fitting to look back at this other underdog story that has that a Cool Runnings feel where a foreign coach forms a team of local talent, faces adversity, then wins it all. It is a most congruous analogy since the events that transpired for the latter that was depicted in the film of that name also happened that very year of 1988.

It was a series of fortuitous events that led to the formation of the M. Lhuillier-Cebu football team in 1987. 

Australian footballer Graeme MacKinnon was in Cebu buying rattan furniture when he was invited to participate in a local football tournament. The affable MacKinnon played in Manila for a spell with the old San Miguel team under Juan Cutillas and had thought he was done playing. The lure of the game was too attractive to be ignored and he suited up. Aside from his technical approach to playing, he met with local businessman, Michel Lhuillier. 

“That’s how it started,” succinctly put MacKinnon of the squad that was mostly local talent with only Albert Regencia and Mike Ahmad coming from outside (Dipolog and Jordan — the country — respectively).

“Cebu was a basketball country and it was so far behind the other cities,” described goalkeeper Gemini Sitoy, who also played for San Miguel and some RP Youth elevens. “So when we played teams from Iloilo, Bacolod, and the Armed Forces teams, they did not take us seriously.”

Perhaps rightly so as they oft got shellacked by the other squads in 1987.

“We were considered ‘minnows,’” described team captain Mario Ceniza. 

After a year of experience playing together and learning from MacKinnon’s highly disciplined and technical approach to the game, the Cebuanos got better. 

“There were no stars on that team,” added defender Noli Alivio. “When he started with us, he worked on our fundamentals and even our conditioning.”

“When we all so that Graeme had Mario, our captain, picking up the footballs, we knew that not only were there not going to be stars, but everyone was going to be treated equally,” added Sitoy.

“Graeme was always early and on time,” threw in midfielder Randy Estremos. “If you were late, you were not going to play.”

Playing meant a lot because the team got scholarships from its team sponsor to the local college. 

“That was more than any allowance that we got,” added Ceniza. “Plus, we got our kits and shoes.”

When Cebu entered the 1988 PFF National Championships at Barotac Nuevo, Iloilo, they weren’t rated highly. 

“Other teams had their national players while we didn’t have anyone,” said MacKinnon. “We had an average age of 22 (hiked only by MacKinnon’s age that was 42 at that time and he was listed as playing coach) so you could see how young and inexperienced we were. And they were all playing for their college scholarships. But we went into the tournament with a mind to win it no matter what anyone thought.”

The first match was against Dumaguete, which ended in a scoreless draw. Cebu actually scored a goal but a linesman nullified the strike, saying that a Cebuano was out of bounds (it was hotly contested but the call stood) before the cross was made. 

“Being that first game of the tournament and having a good start, we built from there,” pointed out Sitoy.

Up next was the powerhouse Bacolod squad that featured Nonoy Fegidero and Melo Sabacan. Prior to the tournament, a typhoon hit the area and that made for muddy field conditions that hurt Bacolod’s fast play. 

There was a battle for the ball a few feet away from the Bacolod goal and Ceniza got to the ball first. 

“There was a scramble inside the penalty area and I got to the ball first,” described Ceniza of that incident. “I kicked it in.” 

It was the match-winning goal and after that, Cebu’s morale soared.

Next up was Navy with their cadre of national players as well. MacKinnon’s lads received some motivation when one of the Navy men, a native Cebuano, declared before the match that he was going to treat out his fellow soldiers should they beat M. Lhuillier. 

“That fired us up,” admitted Estremos.

During this game, it was Estremos who scored the lone goal while Sitoy saved a penalty after a Ceniza handball. 

“Ayun,” laughed Estremos after the match, “Hindi niya nagawa yung promise niya na magpapakain siya. They underestimated us and we beat them.”

Two wins and a draw. Despite the good results, they needed to accrue some points from their final group match against Iloilo. 

“We created mayhem,” said MacKinnon. The Cebu team wasn’t as good talent wise, but the rough play and the mud helped out the underdogs.

At one point, Sitoy was beaten by an Ilonggo. But the ball stopped right before it crossed the goal line because of the mud. “The mud was our friend,” tersely said Sitoy. 

On MacKinnon’s part, he charged the field late in the game and pushed an Iloilo player. Ceniza charged toward his coach asking what he was doing. 

“I am delaying the game,” whispered MacKinnon, who was given a yellow card for his trouble. 

The match ended in a scoreless draw, and it vaulted Cebu spectacularly to the finals against Victorias, another Bacolod-based squad, this time at the Santa Barbara pitch.

“We were confident entering the finals,” added midfielder Genard Aller. “We had good results and have Gemini as our goalkeeper.”

The match went through regulation and extra time, scoreless, thus, a penalty shootout ensured. Sitoy saved two shots and Mike Ahmad booted in the winning spot kick to give Cebu a historic 4-3 win in penalties. Sitoy, who did not concede a goal in five matches, and was unknown to opponents was playing with a broken thumb, was named the Don Andres Soriano Cup’s Most Valuable Player. The team was met at the airport by a crowd that included the mayor and city officials. There was a parade and the team had a nice dinner.

After that championship, opposing teams now treated them with respect. And they prepared for them. Cebu went to the PFF National Finals the next two years but they were unable to duplicate their feat of 1988.

“That win helped grow Cebu youth football,” proudly observed Cebu Sun Star writer Rico Navarro. “Many football players in the UAAP and NCAA also come from Cebu.”

On the other hand, MacKinnon bared his dismay that none of his players received call-ups to the senior national team.

Thirty-two years later, the members of the Cebu team to a man all agree that the championship changed their lives. A few are still involved in the game, with Ceniza working as a coach in his Cebu and Estremos being the head of referees for the Macau Football Association. He also had officiated and conducted referee training across Asia. MacKinnon himself was a visible figure and advisor in the post-2010 success of the Azkals. Other had successful careers while others migrated to North America. 

The members of the 1988 PFF National Champions M. Lhuillier Cebu: Graeme MacKinnon (coach, striker), Gemini Sitoy (goalkeeper, MVP), Albert Regencia (defender), Rene Inoc (defender), Bert Eco (defender), Felix Navarro (midfielder/defender), Wilfredo Juezan (defender), Edwin Arganza (defender), Rene Maambong (striker), Randy Estremos (midfielder), Eddie Catarinen (striker), Mike Ahmad (striker), Allan Arcabal (striker), James Janea (defender), Dante Orejudos (midfielder), Mario Ceniza (midfielder/team captain), James Paradillo (defender), Genard Aller (defender) and Peter Bordador (striker).

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