To kick off Women’s Month, The GAME is putting the Filipinas front and center, tracking what it took to reach their first-ever World Cup qualification.
Historically, women in sports have often been newer to the scene. For instance, female professional football leagues around the world were, for the most part, founded more recently than male counterpart leagues.
The same rings true in Philippine sports. Filipinas have always made for strong athletes, but locally, there is still a lot of room to grow. Similar to Europe’s football history, for example, the Philippines does not yet have a fully professional league for women’s football.
The local sports scene for Filipinas has indeed been a challenge, and it is all the more so on the international stage. And yet, somehow, it is the Filipina athletes who have been taking center stage for the Philippines — athletes such as Hidilyn Diaz and Alex Eala to name a few.
But, as we celebrate Women’s Month this March, there is a certain group of Filipinas that we are celebrating: The Philippine Women’s National Football Team.
Or, better known as simply, the Filipinas.
Though Filipinos hardly need reminding, the team had a historic run of successes last year, as they qualified for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. It is the first time any Philippine football team has ever reached the biggest stage of football.
Since then, the headlines have all been singing in unison for this group of women. Filipinos everywhere have all been keeping close watch ever since their historic qualifying.
8,257 fans flocked together in Rizal Memorial Stadium to watch the Filipinas win their first-ever AFF Women’s Championship. Thousands tune into their international matches through the team’s Facebook and YouTube live streams. Major brands are now rushing in to support the team. And, most recently, Filipinos have even followed the team to Spain to show support for the women in the Pinatar Cup.
Ever since their qualification, the encouragement for the team has been incredible. It’s as if everyone has a microscope on the Filipinas, and this is understandable. As our country’s first World Cup qualification, no one really knows what to expect just yet, so we can only speculate from every match played.
However, the Filipinas’ success was borne out of all the moments when hardly anyone was paying attention; when the team’s structure endured change after change after change; or when wins were few and far in between.
All of it, in hindsight, turned out to be the a formula that worked well for the team, as they are now standing in the foothills of a dream, paving the way for a new generation of Filipina history.
Finding their Footing
In the early 2010s, the Filipinas (then known as the “Malditas“) were relatively inconsistent in competing, which was one factor that contributed to the slow development of the team.
For instance, in the past, the team was inactive for over 18 months leading to the 2011 AFF Women’s Championship. The team, ultimately, did not make it past the group stage of the tournament.
However, since then, the team started competing more consistently.
In 2013, they competed in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup qualifiers, the AFF Women’s Championship, and the Southeast Asian Games. Though they failed to advance to the latter stages of these tournaments, the ladies chalked every match up to their experience.
These were smaller moments for the team that the general public may not even recall — tournaments to get the ball rolling after periods of inactivity. But no matter how small, they definitely became an integral part of the team’s DNA.
To put things in perspective, the Filipinas jumped from 89th to 53rd from 2006 to 2022 in the FIFA World Rankings. However, the biggest leap pre-World cup Qualification happened between the years 2015 to 2019, when our rank saw thirteen spots up from 80th to 67th.
Within those four years, the team seemed to make big improvements, especially in terms of results.
After Buda Bautista came into the team as head coach — the first female coach of the national team —she led the team to new heights. One of the most notable milestones the team achieved under her leadership was qualifying for the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup in Jordan for the first time since the qualification phase was introduced to the tournament.
Ultimately, the Philippines failed to reach the knockouts of the tournament. The team lost to South Korea, 0-5 in the fifth-place match of the Cup, though it should be noted that the opponent was ranked 16th in the world at that time, while the Filipinas were still building their foundations at 72nd.
Still, this was a major opportunity for the Philippine National Team. It, perhaps, was the first one that really showed promise for a potential World Cup qualification somewhere in the near future.
However, the onset of the pandemic brought uncertainty to the team’s future yet again.
The Biggest Moment Followed the Biggest Challenge
Unfortunately in 2020, just like everything else, competitions and sports came to a screeching halt. After finally finding some consistency and reaching new heights, the Filipinas again fell to almost a year of inactivity.
Philippine team player, Hali Long, admitted that the pandemic was one of the team’s biggest obstacles.
But even so, the then-head coach Marlon Maro sprung into action with just a one-month training camp, already including key players such as Sarina Bolden, Chandler McDaniel, and Tahnai Annis, and the team managed to qualify for the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup anew.
A month after the qualification, current head coach Alen Stajcic was appointed, and his role in the team has proven to be instrumental.
In the 2022 Asian Cup group stage, the Filipinas defeated powerhouse Thailand, 1-0, to finally end their losing streak against Southeast Asian neighbors. With this as an important victory, the Philippines made it out of the knockout stage and right into the opportunity of a lifetime — to qualify for the Women’s World Cup.
The Filipinas then went into their quarterfinal match against Chinese Taipei with a lot on the line.
Not only was this just the team’s second time to reach the knockouts in their Asian Cup history, but a win would also mean sending the Philippine flag to the 2023 World Cup for the first time ever.
We don’t need to remind you what result came of it. We all know where the team is heading this July.
But, we will tell you that this was undoubtedly the country’s biggest leap for football. The Filipinas shot up the rankings almost instantly, bringing them 10 places higher to take 54th place — their best yet.
With their World Cup qualification, it almost felt like an overnight success for the ladies.
The history of women’s football in the country has not always been the brightest, and was hardly the most talked about. But then all of a sudden, the spotlight had completely shifted to the women standing on the pitch, crying out, “The Philippines is heading to the World Cup!”
The team broke headlines and rode the wave of their own momentum.
A few months later, the Filipinas were back in action at the Southeast Asian Games, where they won the bronze medal of the tournament — their best result in the SEA Games in 37 years. It was another historic moment, and the ladies are hoping to do even better in the upcoming tournament later this year.
“Even though we didn’t win, if that’s how bronze felt, how will gold feel?” Hali Long shared at a recent media conference.
But the Filipinas are no longer estranged from the feeling of capturing a gold medal.
Last year, the Filipinas reached another historic high when they competed in the 2022 AFF Women’s Championship. Not only did the team reach their first-ever finals appearance in a FIFA-sanctioned event, but they also secured a decisive 3-0 victory over Thailand to win their first major title.
And capturing the win and lifting the trophy in front of the home crowd made the moment just that much more memorable for all the players and fans.
Though just a few years ago, many might have never seen this run of successes from our Women’s National Team, others have seen the developments from behind the scenes throughout the past decade that have brought the team to this very moment.
Behind the Scenes of Success
Huge parts of the Filipinas’ success and qualification into the World Cup took place behind the scenes. And one of the major things that contributed to this was the new structure of the team.
In the past, the Philippine Women’s National Team ran almost like a one-man show.
With only a few people supporting the team, almost everyone in it had to play multiple roles. One such example is Belay Fernando, the Team Administrator. For a considerable period of time, she had many roles to fulfill, such as booking tickets for players to fly to competitions, securing accommodations, coordinating team schedules and training dates.
But, longtime Philippine team player Hali Long revealed that one individual was detrimental to the team’s success.
“I would say the biggest factor that led to our success was the support we received from Sir Jefferson Cheng,” Long shared. “He’s been our team manager since 2017, so he’s seen it all with us. Without his support, we wouldn’t have been equipped with our coaching staff, the technology, or the funds to travel the world competing against so many countries, broadening our mental and physical game.”
With Jefferson Cheng pushing the team forward, the Filipinas eventually found their footing.
Now, with added hands on deck to support the Filipinas, every individual on the team has their own role that they can focus on. And the devil — or in this case, the angel — evidently lies in the details.
“Coach Alen looks into everything,” Belay shared with The GAME.
This, apparently, is how every athlete was able to be monitored, allowing each of them to train and compete at their best every time they stepped onto the pitch. Moreover, the new structure allowed each player more attention. Details such as each player’s soreness, pain, injuries, and the like, were treated with more care and urgency.
Likewise, recovery times were lessened. Competitions came more frequently, with the team entering more friendlies and international tournaments to bolster their development. With this, the Filipinas finally functioned more like a pro team.
“We’ve overcome our long-term challenges of discipline, determination, striving to be our best — the everyday challenges that athletes across the globe face,” Hali shared. “Finding the resources, time, gym fields, and other things of the like can be challenging by yourself. But if we remember why we’re doing this, the hardships seem to melt away.”
However, even with all hands on deck, Belay also admits, “It still feels like we need more.”
But even so, in comparison to the previous state of things, and having reached a historic World Cup qualification, the development cannot be denied.
“Loud and Proud”
We may never grow tired of saying it: the Filipinas are heading to the World Cup.
It is a dream come true for the players, the staff, and the country — it’s no wonder hardly anyone can stop talking about this particular team. And after the years they’ve endured trying to find a string of successes, it seems they truly have hit gold with the momentum they’ve sustained.
But even though it might feel like a dream, the Filipinas, along with the staff with the team, do not have their head in the clouds. They know that competing in the World Cup will be a challenge, and for first-timers at the tournament, perhaps even more so.
But the Filipinas have been hard at work preparing their battlefronts with a tight 2023 calendar.
Most recently, they finished a three-match tournament campaign at the Pinatar Cup in Spain, where they faced highly ranked European teams, Scotland, Iceland, and Wales for the first time. Next month, the team will be headed to the Olympic Qualifying Tournament to vie for a slot in the Paris 2024 Olympics. And finally, before the awaited World Cup, the Filipinas will be making a stop at the SEA Games, where they hope to repeat a podium finish.
The Philippine team has a lot on its plate. But as all these opportunities have been years in the making, they are maximizing every step of the way.
Now inching closer and closer to the first whistle of their first match at their first Women’s World Cup, everyone wants to know one thing: what can we expect?
Hali Long tells us.
“You can expect us to sing the anthem loud and proud,” she affirms.
“After that, you can just expect us to compete. We don’t want to just participate in the World Cup, we want to compete and try and get out of our group. Nothing is impossible and we’ve seen the team rise to big occasions, so expect nothing less than us giving it our best.”
TEXT Annika Caniza
INTERVIEW Amanda Fernandez
COVER ART Nicole Po
IMAGES Philippine Football Federation, Philippine Women’s National Football Team