Sometime last week during the Peace Cup, I was having a chat with the Philippine Football Federation's General Secretary Edwin Gastanes just off the Panaad Pitch.
As usual, our topic of conversation drifted to the SEA Games, and the refusal of the POC to include U23 Men's Football in the Philippine delegation. Gastanes was not happy.
“Their criteria for selection is not valid,” he affirmed, and for emphasis swept his hand horizontally as he said those words.
“I will give you my nine-page letter to the POC,” he said.
Fast-forward to last Wednesday, where Gastanes and I are together again, this time in his office in the PFF headquarters in Pasig. Gastanes hands me a photocopy of the letter to POC Sec Gen Steve Hontiveros and Antonio Tamayo, the chair of the POC-PSC SEA Games Task Force. Over cups of hazelnut-flavored coffee, we discuss.
Gastanes, from Puerto Princesa, Palawan, was roped into the PFF by one of his clients, Nonong Araneta, the PFF president. He now spends 80% of his working time on football matters, the rest with his private law firm. Spend just a few minutes with him and you'll know he's whip-smart and not one to be taken lightly.
Outlined in the letter is the crux of Gastanes' argument for U23 Azkals inclusion, which is Section 2.1 of the By-laws to Rule 27 of the Olympic Charter which states:
“They (the National Olympic Committee) decide upon the entry of athletes proposed by their respective national federations. Such selection shall be based not only on the sports performance of the athlete but also on his ability to serve as an example to the youth of his country.”
“The two go hand in hand,” he says. “The capability to inspire is equal to sporting performance.”
The SEA Games Federation, in case you're wondering, is supervised by the International Olympic Committee and and the Olympic Council of Asia.
“Sports officials should go beyond technical matters,” expounds Gastanes. “They should consider what the (Olympic) torch stands for. To foster friendship between nations and to highlight the role of sports in nation-building.”
The Gen Sec says that if everyone followed the POC's guidelines, then only fifteen to twenty nations would bother sending athletes to the Olympics, since that is the number of countries who realistically can win Gold.
Gastanes has had a rough time dealing with the POC of late. He bemoans the fact that he sends them official correspondence time and time and again, only for the POC and PSC to reply only through the media.
“It's like writing to a wall.”
The exclusion of the U23 Azkals means the squad will lose out on plenty.
The team was offered a camp by the Japan Football Association that included matches with three strong teams and the opportunity to watch a J-League clash up close. There was also a Bahrain camp. But even more frustratingly, the PFF had to decline an invitation by the Vietnam federation to field the team in a pocket tournament that included a Brazilian team.
All that is down the drain. All the knowledge, experience, and training that could have molded the players into better Footballers has vanished into thin air.
Incredibly, the POC first told the PFF that they would decide with finality on November 15, which was just weeks before the SEA Games. Had that schedule been followed and the team's participation been nixed, the PFF might have been spending money on the preparations for nothing.
“We (the PFF) are not awash with cash,” moaned Gastanes.
The decision to block the U23 Azkals is also a shame since the PFF has been very active in youth football of late. Gastanes gives me a laundry list of all the age group competitions they have been participating in of late. AFC U14 girls, AFC U14 Boys, AFF U16 Boys, AFC U16 Boys, AFF U19 Men, and AFC U19 Men.
Oh, plus the U11 Boy's trip to the UK, the FAM-Frenz U15 tournament, and the Clear Aspirants Camp.
We aren't even including the UFL Youth League.
And yet at the very top of the Filipino youth pyramid, the POC chooses to be obstructionist.
The U23 program can be equated to a the graduation in a school, with the U19 and U21 levels are like second and third year, U23 is like senior year. If you remove the U23 level it's like skipping fourth year, or your entire college life before entering adulthood.
How can the POC defend this? I called the PSC and spoke to Paul Ycasas a member of the POC-PSC Task Force. He informed me that Nonong Araneta actually agreed to the POC's criteria, a claim which Araneta vigorously denies.
Ycasas got me the cell phone number of POC Chairman Tom Carrasco's and thus I gave him a ring.
I asked Mr. Carrasco to react to Gastanes' assertion that POC, in only allowing potential gold medalists to play for the Philippines, is in violation of the Olympic Charter.
“We are not in violation, and it is within our prerogative to have this as our criteria.”
I also asked him how preventing the U23 Azkals could develop the sport in the country. He replied, “We are not preventing anyone. All we are saying is, please qualify.”
And therein lies the tragic flaw in the POC's processes.
According to Carrasco the SEAG Task Force looks at previous competitions for the athletes and teams that hope to represent the country in the SEA Games. Those who do well get the nod. Carrasco cited the nation's triathletes as an example. The chairman apparently found no recent competitions or tournaments that the U23 team had participated in except for 2011's train-wreck SEA Games campaign and the one friendly loss to Singapore.
"It was a tough decision" he admits.
Mr. Carrasco was polite and gracious in speaking to me. I truly appreciate him for that. By all accounts he is a good man who is very active in the Serviam Catholic Charismatic Community.
But as a POC Chairman he is astonishingly misguided and misinformed about the workings of Football, a major sport in the region and the world.
Truth is, there really are no regular U23 tournaments in ASEAN apart from the SEA Games. Most of the SEA federations are not bankrolled like Gulf states, so the PFF has to prioritize the senior team when it comes to competitions. Besides, as I have written earlier, there are lots of youth levels, not just U23 (or U22 if it comes a year before the SEA games.) Having regular U23 tournaments would be a logistical and financial burden, especially since the players have clubs and also go to school.
Joining, much less hosting a U23 tournament, even a small one, is a huge expense, far more costly on an entrant than, say a Triathlon. This is why SEA nations only really start preparing during SEA Games years.
The POC could have looked to the U22 Philippine team that participated in the 2012 AFC U22 qualifiers in Myanmar. We lost every game there, but the composition of that squad is very different from the current one, which has more senior national team players and a totally different coaching staff.
He could have looked at Olympic qualifying, since the Olympic Games Men's Football competition is U23. But the last Asian Olympic qualifying was in early 2011, before the last SEA Games, and the next one is in 2015.
I texted Carrasco about this lack of competitions, and in a bit of a facepalm moment, he texted back, “I heard about the Merdeka Tournament.”
Well, some research will reveal that the Merdeka Tournament is a four-team event that Malaysia hosts involving their U23 team. Last September the home team topped a field including Myanmar's U23 side, the Singapore U23 team, and a Thailand Selection to win the trophy.
Oh, and the Merdeka is an INVITATIONAL TOURNAMENT. You can't play in it unless you get an invite. (Mr. Araneta says the PFF were never invited to this year's Merdeka Tournament, the first time it was held since 2008.)
I texted Mr. Carrasco this fact and got no reply.
So let me get this straight: the POC could be telling us we should have joined the Merdeka Tournament if we wanted to qualify for the SEA Games. Is it our fault that we didn't barge in uninvited?
In summation not only is the POC's criteria flawed, but they have displayed a poor understanding of how football is run. They can't see how through their criteria, it's virtually impossible for the team to make the cut. And an adjustment for football was not entertained. Thus they have decided to throw our U23 Azkals under the bus and deny a once-in-a-lifetime them a chance to develop as footballers in the SEA Games. All for what? Nothing, really.
My advice to the POC: be humble enough admit your mistakes, apologize to the Football community for this travesty, do your homework next time, and truly, sincerely work for the good of Philippine sport.
Gastanes says the POC is sending 206 athletes to the Myanmar SEA Games. He says it's the third-fewest among all the nations.
He asks with some exasperation, “is this something to be proud of?”
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.
Editor's Note: The blogger's views do not represent the Yahoo! Southeast Asia's position on the topic or issue being discussed in the post.