Ceres' PFL title heralds a brave new world for Pinoy club football
MANILA, Philippines – There is so much to discuss following Ceres Negros' dominant performance on Saturday, December 16, when they dismissed Global Cebu 4-1 in the PFL Final in Bacolod's Panaad Stadium.
Ceres Negros' roster overkill paid dividends in the final. One look at the Ceres Negros roster and you can see talent overflowing. It almost seems unnecessary to have that many skilled, high-priced players on your squad.
But the past few weeks have shown that if Ceres really wanted to win a title, they had to pay for excess quality. Most teams would not have been able to cope with the season-ending injuries to Manny Ott, their slick-passing midfielder, and goalscoring machine Fernando Rodriguez. But the Negrenses kept trucking along, out-playing Kaya 3-1 over two legs then routing Cebu on Saturday.
Iain Ramsay and Bienve Marañon picked up the slack in the scoring department, while Stephan Schrock and Junior Muñoz assisted in the final. Global actually had plenty of chances in the first half and could have made a game of it, but their defense froze under the Panaad floodlights.
This team was built for silverware, and after an underwhelming regular season (they even lost to JPV Marikina) the squad delivered when it mattered.
One word about Schrock: we all know that he can make pinpoint, perfectly-weighted passes. But on Saturday we witnessed him do that with a huge puddle in the way. No doubt he has seen a lot in his long career, including his share of waterlogged pitches. See it on this clip.
Global Cebu showed plenty of character this season. The bridesmaids can take a bow. They succeeded off the field by drawing the biggest paying crowds among all the clubs. On the field they battled back as the fourth seed to beat top-seeded Meralco to make the final. They also came from a goal down twice against Albirex Niigata Singapore in the Singapore Cup final only to lose the shootout 3-1.
With a new ownership group that appears to include billboard businessman Alvin Carranza, Global are poised to maintain their standing. The billboard connection is a huge boost, because it will allow the team to get more awareness and exposure for almost nothing.
One of the best stories of the season is Jhan Jhan Melliza. The Stallion striker is the leading Filipino scorer of the PFL with 13 strikes, according to an unofficial tally by fan Dwight Manlangit. I see little reason to doubt his count. Phil Younghusband is behind him with 10 scores.
This is an accomplishment that deserves far more attention. In a league loaded with overseas-bred Filipino talent, the best Pinoy scorer in the whole competition is an FEU product from La Paz, Iloilo. That fact should inspire young players all over the country to dream of playing football professionally. The notion that our pro league and national team is for overseas born Filipinos is one he has loudly disabused with Melliza's powerful left foot.
Melliza has been unlucky to get injured late in the season, which forced him to miss the last Azkals game in Nepal. Let's hope he gets fit and continues his goalscoring exploits next year.
An interesting off-season looms. The transfer window is now open, and won't shut until the last day of January. We could see a lot of player movement.
Malaysia has followed the lead of Thailand and has instituted an ASEAN player rule. That means one of every team's foreign players must be a Southeast Asian. That has spurred a rash of rumors about Filipino players going abroad. Pika Minegishi and Misagh Bahadoran are said to be on their way out of the country. For sure there will be more Azkals getting their passports stamped soon.
This is a double-edged sword. Yes, the PFL could be losing some of its most bankable and marketable stars. But it could be a boon for the Azkals. Suddenly more of the national team will be playing in tougher ASEAN leagues just a few hours away. That will sharpen them for international play.
There might be another plus: the target of these Malaysian and Thai clubs will be the players in the top teams. That might bring the middle class of the PFL that bit closer to the upper echelon, meaning even more competitive and unpredictable football.
There is plenty of work cut out for the league going forward. The first season of the PFL is in the books. It has been a real rollercoaster ride, but somehow, some way, we got it done. Now it's time to plan the next chapter.
Mid-February is when Season two is set to kick off. If there is one thing I would wish for the PFL next year, it's a proper TV deal. Streaming is a good start, but good old TV coverage can really lure in the casual fans and channel surfers that would grow the tribe of football fans in the Philippines.
What I would also love to see is a tweaked format. I think a stepladder is best. The top 4 teams still qualify after the round-robin, but the no. 1 seed takes the express lane to the final and a guaranteed AFC Cup slot.
In the first round, #3 and #4 duke it out in a one-game knockout, with the bronze medalist hosting. The winner of that plays the second seed. #2 should have some advantage, either more preparation time, (3v4 can play on a Wednesday, with the next game on the weekend), home-field advantage, or even twice-to-beat. #2 should earn that advantage because they were better than #3 or #4 in the regular season.
The winner of this game or series then proceeds to a Suzuki Cup-style home-and-away two-legged series for all the marbles.
This will prevent sandbagging when the regular season comes to a close with a semis slot is wrapped up. There is huge incentive to finish first in the round-robin stage, and still a massive one to secure second. Gaining 3rd seed over 4th is also important for the home field advantage. Everyone has to keep on playing until the seedings are locked in because there is much at stake at every rung of the ladder.
Hopefully the second season builds on the successes, and learns from the mistakes, of the first. Then Pinoy club football could be on its way to making a big splash on the local sports scene.
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.