x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

UAE football's quest to tap into the Filipino audience

Rising interest in the sport in the Philippines has UAE clubs hoping they can get expatriates in the region to come to games.

Filipino fans cheer on their country in Dubai last night.
Filipino fans cheer on their country in Dubai last night.

Before Johan Cruyff's twisting turns, before Rivaldo's ripsnorting volleys and long before Lionel Messi's devastating dribbles, Barcelona's favourite adopted son hailed from the Philippines. His name was Paulino Alcantara and he scored 357 goals in 357 games - a record that stands almost a century later.

If you already knew of Alcantara you would have been in the minority at last night's exhibition match between the Philippines national football team and the Uzbekistan Under 23 side at Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai.

Only one of the 10 or so spectators who were asked on the way into the stadium had heard of Alcantara's exploits.

The ignorance was not surprising: football in the southeast Asian country is at an embryonic stage of its development.

Boxing and basketball remain the big draws, so much so that in 2005 the team were rebranded the Azkals - which translates from Tagalog as "stray dogs" - after players lamented the fact they were constantly fighting for the spectatorial leftovers of the nation's two most popular sports.

Since then, the team has grown in popularity in their home country. Michael Weiss, the Azkals coach, told me earlier this week that every home game is a sell-out, while Philip and James Younghusband, two England-born Filipinos who play for the national team, have become familiar faces, featuring in television adverts and on promotional billboards in their mother's native country.

Such is the 500,000-strong Filipino expatriate community in the Emirates that promoters had hoped last night's match would attract a larger attendance than the average UAE Pro League game.

It did not quite achieve its goal, but the passionate Filipinos proved there is a market there to be tapped. And with 1,202 fans each paying at least Dh50 for their tickets, it is a lucrative - and very vocal - one at that.

Rommel Manalo, a Filipino consultant, has been following the Azkals' progress from afar since moving to the Emirates six years ago.

He attended last night's match because, as he put it, he is "soccer mad" and "usually they play in Malaysia or Singapore so it is not often we get to see them like this".

And yet he has never been to a Pro League game. "I would go if one of the teams had a Filipino player," he said.

So, could a Filipino footballer achieve what George Weah, Fabio Cannavaro and Diego Maradona have failed to do, namely, fill stadiums for local league matches?

The Pro League obviously was aware of the potential.

The league's committee had a stall outside the ground last night that, according to the public realtions and protocol officer Mahmoud Ashmar, was the first such kiosk erected at a non-Pro League match.

A mass of bodies swarmed around it 20 minutes before kick off as Ashmar, together with a colleague, offered free baseball caps in exchange for email addresses.

"We have had maybe 100 people sign up tonight," Ashmar said, explaining that each person must also declare their favourite UAE team.

A quick look through the register showed Al Wasl and Al Ahli popular choices, although there was a small group of people who announced their love for "Deira".

Ace Marquez, from Manila, said he did not know much about UAE football, but would "definitely" show his support if he had a compatriot to cheer on, while Alan Alleb said patriotism would ensure Filipinos would turn out. "I would be excited to watch," he said.

Even as the Azkals slipped to a 3-0 defeat, the crowd remained buoyant, cheering throughout, even when the opposition came close to scoring.

And always in a pitch far higher than any Al Nasr game has ever witnessed.

At one point, as Phil Younghusband lined up a first-half free-kick, one of the many females in the crowd screamed: "Bend it like Beckham".

Agnes Pascqual said even though football is a male-dominated sport and she does not usually watch, even on TV, the idea of showing support to her country brought her and her friends out.

"I don't know any of the players," she said. "But I am a proud Filipino, so I wanted to come and see the team play."