UP vs. FEU men's football

UP-Set! Postgame Thoughts on the Maroons’ Stunning 1-0 UAAP Final Victory Over FEU

The UP Men’s football team overcame a more talented Tamaraw squad on Thursday to earn the UAAP Men’s football crown. Here are some of our thoughts from a tense final match.

On the evening of May 16, 2024, the UP men’s football team won their first UAAP crown since Season 80, marking their 19th football championship overall. It’s been a long time coming, and it was quite the way to close out what has been a dramatic UAAP Season 86.

As the Maroons dethroned the defending champions, the FEU Tamaraws, they found their way back to the top of UAAP football. With this, here are three musings after a truly memorable final match. 

UP won this with grit and determination, but also thanks to superior fitness.

“Work rate” is a term in football defined as the amount of running and effort a player makes when he doesn’t have the ball. The willingness to harass an opposing ball carrier, or track back on defense. 

The Maroons were all-world in work rate on Thursday. In the very first minute, they forced an error by the Tams in their defensive third. It would set the tone for the rest of the game. UP asphyxiated FEU with a swarming, suffocating press that clearly knocked the Tamaraws out of their offensive rhythm. In the midfield too, UP seemed to be getting the better of FEU in the 50-50 duels. The result was a grand total of just nine shots for Far Eastern, many of them awkward and speculative.  

FEU seemed cowed into playing a low block in defense, looking rattled. 

When teams press an opponent, they usually do it in phases to conserve energy. Press, then sit back to rest, then press.  But UP seemed to pour on the pressure when FEU had possession for all ninety minutes. The gas tank never ran dry, even into the final moments of second-half stoppage time. 

UP’s defense gave FEU all sorts of trouble. (Photo by UAAP Media Bureau)

Was it an aesthetically pleasing victory? No. But winning ugly is still winning, and UP deserved the dub. 

Francis Tacardon was a bulldog in the flanks, forcing the ball down the pitch with his pace and guile, and in defense making life miserable for FEU’s widemen. Charles Lobitana did a sensational job of helping neutralize the speedy Sherwin Basindanan. 

But my MVP could go to Genaro Sabile, the UPMFT’s conditioning coach. The squad was at peak fitness, and that was a huge factor in this UAAP football championship. 

This bitter defeat does not diminish FEU’s remarkable contributions to Philippine football.

No doubt there will be soul-searching among the FEU brain trust after this stacked lineup were unable to retain the title.  The loss is even more painful since it prevented another double treble; the capture of all three UAAP football titles, juniors, seniors, and women, in back-to-back seasons. FEU last did that in 2014 and 2015, when Paolo Bugas, Nano Amita, and Eric Giganto wore green-and-gold. 

But spare a thought for how much FEU has done for the sport in the nation. 

The way I see it, there are two worlds in youth football in our country.

The first is in the provincial heartlands of the game, where there is constant, free recreational play from a very young age, and mentoring from an entrenched footballing culture. Kids pick up knowledge and skills from their dads and titos and other townsfolk, who all played, as well as the other players. Footballers from places like Barotac Nuevo, Masbate, and Romblon are focused on the game growing up. It’s their life.

The other world is the big city: Manila, and maybe Cebu or Davao, to a lesser extent. Here there are perfect artificial grass pitches, well-organized school and club teams, regular eleven-a-side competitions, and most crucially, experienced coaches with proper licenses. 

I think the Philippines can churn out more world-class players if we bring the two worlds together: the foundations and focus of the provincial setting, and the competitions, facilities, and coaching available in the big city. And melding the two is what FEU is very good at. 

FEU has one of the best football programs in the country. (UAAP Media Bureau)

FEU’s football program head Vince Santos scours the entire nation for young talent and offers the most promising kids athletic scholarships in high school. That’s why FEU’s high school team has won an absurd eleven UAAP juniors titles in a row.  It’s an approach that few other university programs can match. 

This doesn’t just benefit the FEU senior team; there was green-and-gold DNA in the UP squad as well. The Maroons started three players, Macky Tobias, Charles Lobitaña, and Orlan Togores, who were developed in the FEU high school team before making the short trip down Commonwealth Avenue to play collegiate ball in UP.  Another FEU high school graduate, Vince Parpan, came on for the Maroons as a second-half sub. 

There’s yet another FEU high school alumnus also starring for another UAAP team in the seniors division: UST striker TJ Garciano, who was the Finals MVP for the Baby Tams in 2020. Garciano scored eight times this season, including one in the Golden Booters’ semifinal loss to UP.

How I wish we could have five, seven, or even ten more programs like FEU’s that could really ratchet up the standard of play. 

Martini Rey can be the next great Barotac Nuevo striker.

FEU bristled with weapons, from Basindanan to the tricky Karl Absalon, to Nickos Mamon and Khent Valenzuela, tall and graceful players with a nose for goal. But FEU’s greatest offensive asset is Martini Rey, an internationally-sized withdrawn striker/attacking midfielder from that legendary hotbed of Barotac Nuevo, Iloilo. 

Rey scored six goals this season, including the dramatic stoppage-time equalizer against Ateneo. But more than his finishing, Rey plays the role of midfield control tower with great effect. All season long he unspooled slide-rule passes to the other Tams attackers. If the UAAP kept goal involvement stats, I think he would be at the top of the list. 

Rey is also good with the ball at his feet, and unlike many tall Filipino footballers, is not willowy at all, blessed with a sturdy upper body well-suited to the physicality of international play. 

FEU striker Martini Rey has the talent to play abroad. (Photo by UAAP Media Bureau)

His collegiate playing years are done, and I really hope Rey gets a shot at playing abroad. I think he deserves a chance at the Thai second tier, or maybe Cambodia, where another former FEU product, Pocholo Bugas, is making waves for Angkor Tiger. But no doubt, several PFL teams are chasing his signature. I predict he will make the senior men’s team in the Mitsubishi Electric Cup later this year. 

If Rey works hard, stays humble, gets lucky with injuries and makes good decisions, he can join the illustrious list of great Barotcanon strikers that includes Yanti Barsales, Ian Araneta, Chieffy Caligdong, Balot Doctora, and Jovin Bedic. This bunch have all scored for the Azkals, and by my count, a grand total of 22 goals.  

Martini was shackled on Thursday, but his future is bright. 

Images from UAAP Media Bureau

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