AFF Suzuki Cup 2016

Football: Uphill task to draw crowds for Suzuki Cup

Above: A section of the Filipino die-hard football fans enjoying themselves at the 2-2 draw against Indonesia on Tuesday night at the Philippine Sports Stadium in Bocaue. Left: The stadium (right) in the province of Bulacan, about 35km north of Metro
A section of the Filipino die-hard football fans enjoying themselves at the 2-2 draw against Indonesia on Tuesday night at the Philippine Sports Stadium in Bocaue.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
Above: A section of the Filipino die-hard football fans enjoying themselves at the 2-2 draw against Indonesia on Tuesday night at the Philippine Sports Stadium in Bocaue. Left: The stadium (right) in the province of Bulacan, about 35km north of Metro
The stadium (right) in the province of Bulacan, about 35km north of Metro Manila. The 20,000-capacity facility springs out of nowhere in a little-developed neighbourhood.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Only diehards make long trip to Bocaue to cheer Azkals but success should attract more

Protected by guards armed with shotguns and assault rifles, assisted by K9 sniffer dogs and ring-fenced by barbed wire, it is easy to mistake the 20,000-capacity Philippine Sports Stadium as a top-secret military base in the tranquil town of Bocaue near Manila.

Football fever was meant to descend on the country this past week, with country co-hosting the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup group stage, but few are aware that South-east Asia's biggest football tournament is in town.

The Philippines national team's opening 0-0 draw against Singapore attracted just 4,000 fans, and the thrilling 2-2 draw against Indonesia had only half that number on the stands.

When Singapore played Thailand on Tuesday afternoon, just 359 fans watched the two four-time winners of the competition in action.

Last night, when the Azkals lost 0-1 to Thailand, the stadium was once again sparse even though the weekend had arrived.

"We don't even have a home-field advantage," lamented Philippines coach Thomas Dooley.

EVERYONE LOVES A WINNER

The venue is too far, traffic is too heavy. But if the team keep winning, fans will move heaven and earth to get there to support.

EREL CABATBAT, Philippes TV5 sports journalist, on spurring interest in football.

"Those guys from Thailand, they've never played in front of such an empty stadium. That could our advantage because we are used to that (small crowds)."

In the basketball- and boxing-mad nation of 105 million people, there are only an estimated 100,000 football fans. Even with tickets as affordable as 100 pesos (S$2.90) for the AFF Cup matches, the terraces still remain largely empty.

To Azkals diehard Xanne Palileo, a 26-year-old administrative officer, the stadium's remote location played a part in the lack of interest. She said: "It is a two-hour drive from Manila to get here and, unless you are a true fan, not many would want to do that."

Philippines TV5 sports journalist Erel Cabatbat, 45, added that while his country is a basketball stronghold, football is popular in provinces like Iloilo, Palawan and Bacolod, where top local club Ceres La Salle are based and regularly play to crowds of 20,000.

Nevertheless, after two draws to exit the tournament, Dooley's men need to win to stir up more interest. Said Cabatbat: "The venue is too far, traffic is too heavy. But if the team keep winning, fans will move heaven and earth to get there to support. The Azkals need to win for the fans to come."

That passion was evident in 2012. Boosted by a generation of talented foreign-born players with roots in the Philippines, the Azkals reached the semi-finals and again in 2014.

For the 2012 semi-final home leg against Singapore, 20,000 fans crammed into the rickety Rizal Memorial Stadium in downtown Manila and cheered their hearts out.

It also helped that many of the stars are photogenic pan-Asians, like Misagh Bahadoran, Mark Hartmann and the Younghusband brothers, James and Phil.

In fact, Phil, now 29, became a headline act in his mother's homeland. His relationship with former girlfriend, model-actress Angel Locsin, made him a fixture in tabloids and showbiz magazines.

But these good-lookers still need to deliver on the pitch. And it does not help that the national team has been deprived of many key players for this tournament.

Inspirational captain Rob Gier had hung up his boots, star goalkeeper Neil Etheridge was not released for this AFF Cup by his English club Walsall, nor was left-back Daisuke Sato, who plays in Romania for Politehnica. Meanwhile, popular striker Angel Guirado has retired from international duty.

Even after encouraging results in the World Cup qualifiers, notching up wins over Bahrain, North Korea and Yemen, the fans continued to stay away.

It is a situation that frustrates Dooley, who captained the United States as a defender in the 1998 World Cup finals.

He said: "It's just sad to see but it is not my business to ask people to come to the stadium. Maybe it should be the organisers or the marketing people who should answer that. I don't think about that any more. I was hoping that we get a sold-out crowd, to give away free tickets but we don't have that."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 26, 2016, with the headline 'Uphill task to draw crowds'. Print Edition | Subscribe