How The Filipinas Will Move Forward From Jeff Cheng’s Sudden Departure

Jeff Cheng is no longer the PWNFT team manager. Will everything really be okay?

“If you leave me now, oh the storms will roll
Easy come hard go, and life goes on”

Ed Sheeran, Life Goes On

Two Sundays ago the Philippine football universe was rocked with the news that Jeff Cheng, patron of the Philippine Women’s National Football Team, had resigned from his post as their team manager.

The shockwaves reverberated for a week on social media before last Monday, when the federation called a press conference to discuss it.

PFF President John Gutierrez and national teams head Freddy Gonzalez faced the media and fielded the questions from gathered sports media calmly, saying all the right words.

“My department doesn’t want to break up something that’s working,” asserted Gonzalez.

“All the great work that Jeff did is going to continue,” he added.

The former national team player also mentioned that he personally has a solid relationship with Cheng and that they had completed a smooth turnover meeting that very morning. Gonzalez will handle the PWNT on an interim basis along with overseeing the men’s national team.

Gutierrez, for his part, was all praises for the work Cheng put in to bring the Philippines to the Women’s World Cup, where they famously defeated hosts New Zealand last year.

Gonzalez said there would be a Zoom call with all the players in the following days to iron out any issues with the transition. There was plenty of talk about moving forward.

But no doubt this was a blow to Philippine football. Cheng poured resources into the women’s national team like no other before, and the efforts bore fruit spectacularly. The Filipinas gained millions of new fans and no doubt inspired many young girls to kick a ball for the first time.

It’s obvious that for whatever reason, Cheng and Gutierrez could not agree on some pretty important matters. That is sad, but it’s also a part of life. Not everyone is meant to get along and work well with everyone else.

Call me naive, but I can’t help but think that had the two played a round of golf together and shared some beers afterward, a bond could have been formed to smooth over their differences. Cheng is an avid golfer and I even ran into him at LIV Golf Singapore last May. John plays when his schedule allows.

But those 18 holes never happened, and so here we are. Two men I like and respect, not joining hands.

What next for the PWNFT?

The obvious question is, who will pony up the moolah for the women’s team? On Monday, Gonzalez said that a pool of entities would be funding national teams. Fans can only hope that the pool is large and contains some pretty high net-worth individuals and corporations.

I have no hard numbers on how much cash Cheng splashed on the PWNT but for sure it’s eye-wateringly large. To fly in all of those players from every corner of the world is one huge expense already. Then he brought in a proven coach in Alen Stajcic, who surely was on a hefty wage. Stajcic had a complete staff of assistant coaches too, and they were not exactly there working for peanuts. It is a similar situation with current coach Mark Torcaso. When you add in all the overseas camps the Filipinas played in preparing for the World Cup, the bill just gets more and more exorbitant.

Jeff Cheng celebrating the Filipinas' awards at the 2023 Philippine Sportswriters Association Awards Night.
Jeff Cheng celebrating the Filipinas’ awards at the 2023 Philippine Sportswriters Association Awards Night. (Photo credit: PWNFT on Facebook)

Will our women’s national team have the support to perform at the same level going forward in the future without Jeff Cheng? It remains to be seen, but I am hopeful. Potential sponsors have seen the team climb dizzying heights and would want to be associated with further success.

What is certain is that we will get to see them in action. Gonzalez revealed that around the time of the AFF Mitsubishi Electric Cup home games in December, the Filipinas will play two games at home. This is a massive development since fans have not had the chance to see their idols in the flesh on home turf since they won the AFF Women’s Championship two years ago.

Four home games for both men’s and women’s national teams at home, in a little less than two weeks. This is going to be an unprecedented bonanza for Pinoy football fans.

But what about Mr. Cheng? Will he abandon football completely? I say no. I think we will see him return in some capacity, for one simple reason: he already came back once.

Let’s go back in time for a bit. In 2017 the Davao Aguilas were born, with Cheng at the helm. They played in the 2017 Philippines Football Season, finishing seventh. The club’s ambitions were significant, as evidenced by the acquisition of Phil and James Younghusband in the transfer window of that season from Meralco.

In 2018 they reached the Cup final, falling to Kaya. But in December of that year, Cheng unceremoniously pulled the plug on the Aguilas experiment, disbanding the senior team.

I guess this is how Jeff Cheng works: when things are not going as planned, he cuts his losses and walks away. Can’t blame him for that.

The aviation sector businessman continued to support youth grassroots football, and then a few years later, took over the women’s national team. It’s apparent he wanted to be useful in another manner. And boy, was he ever useful, the pinnacle being Sarina Bolden’s historic game-winning header to beat New Zealand in the World Cup.

And the Davao Aguilas? They are back as well, in a partnership with the University of Makati. The squad, captained by Daisuke Sato and featuring a roster heavy on homegrown players, are fourth in the table, five points adrift of league-leading Kaya-Iloilo.

Jeff Cheng simply cannot leave Philippine football alone. He loves it too much. Which is why I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he makes a return somewhere down the road.

Meanwhile, the team he built is taking on the future without him, but we cannot count them out. The winning spirit is there and will be hard to shake off.

Hold tight, Filipino football fans. Everything is going to be okay.

Banner images from AFP.

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