Football: Rise of women's game in South-east Asia built on years of hard work

A football match between Vietnam and Japan in the AFC Women's Asian Cup on Jan 24, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - It has been almost a month since Tahnai Annis and her teammates created history by securing Philippines' first qualification for the Women's World Cup but the national captain is more than happy to keep reliving that moment.

She recently watched replays of that 4-3 penalty shoot-out Asian Cup quarter-final win over Chinese Taipei on Jan 31 and her sense of pride is evident, even through Google Meet.

"It was definitely a bit more emotional just to see it happen, I was just so proud of everyone and you just get all those feelings again that kind of just help you relive it again, which is pretty awesome," the 32-year-old told The Straits Times.

"We're not known to be a football country and our team hasn't been around for that long. For us to have accomplished so much in that small amount of time is a real testament to the hard work put in by the players and the people dedicated to the team."

Days later, Vietnam also secured a spot at next year's World Cup co-hosted in Australia and New Zealand. It is the first time South-east Asia will have two representatives at the quadrennial competition, which will feature a record 32 teams, with slots for Asian sides increased from five to six.

Thailand, the first Asean team to qualify after appearances in 2015 and 2019 which both had 24 countries, could join their neighbours. They are involved in the inter-confederation play-offs next year.

For Philippines Football Federation (PFF) women's football department head Belay Fernando, 35, World Cup qualification is a culmination of a decade's worth of efforts to improve the game in her country, now ranked 64th.

Before the PFF Women's League was launched in 2016, the main competition for women's football was the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP), a collegiate sports tournament involving student-athletes from eight Metro Manila universities.

While this produced some good footballers, there was a need to create more avenues beyond the UAAP seasons.

The Women's League, cancelled for the past two years due to the pandemic, returns this year and the PFF hopes to eventually turn it into a semi-professional competition. The national team's Asian Cup exploits have also seen corporate sponsors express interest in the league.

Fernando, who represented the Malditas between 2009 and 2013, said the federation is also working to support clubs in the league to rectify the issue of clubs dropping out of the competition after one season.

Annis hopes that the team's recent success will encourage more investment across all levels from the youth to senior teams.

She said: "It needs to be something that can be sustainable over time and keeps growing, even if it's just a gradual growth and investment, as long as that intention is there to continue to invest in women's football or women's sport."

The PFF also expanded its talent pool by holding training camps overseas since the early 2010s to talent scout Filipino players or those of Filipino heritage such as Annis, who was born in the United States.

Only six of the 23 players on their Asian Cup roster were based domestically. Twelve played in the US, three in Europe, while two ply their trade in Japan's Women Empowerment League.

Philippines's Quinley Quezada fights for the ball against South Korea during the AFC Women's Asian Cup, on Feb 3, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Luisa Morales, a sports writer at Philstar newspaper, said: "The PFF recognises that in order to raise the national team's level of play, we have to expose them to teammates and opponents who are accustomed to a higher level of play."

Results started to come in 2018 when they were one win away from qualifying for the 2019 World Cup in Paris. A year later, they came close to clinching their first medal at the SEA Games since 1985 but lost narrowly to Myanmar in the third-place play-off.

Camille B. Naredo, a sports writer at ABS-CBN News, said: "It was a turning point because the girls saw they could be competitive with a more established footballing programme."

Self-belief was further strengthened under the leadership of head coach Alen Stajcic, who was appointed last October. The experienced Australian had led his country to the Women's World Cup in 2015 and 2019, as well as the quarter-finals of the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Fernando praised Stajcic's attention to detail and human touch. For example, he ensured the players' preferred flavours for electrolyte drinks were available at the recent Asian Cup.

The PFF also organised a two-month training camp in Irvine, California just before the Asian Cup, to get his team ready.

If the Filipinas had the ideal preparations, things were much more chaotic for world No. 32 Vietnam, who were hit by a Covid-19 outbreak at the end of a training camp in Spain, days before the Asian Cup in India.

The six-time SEA Games champions showed their battling qualities however, and clinched a World Cup berth through the play-offs.

Sports journalist Truong Anh Ngoc said: "The problem is in Vietnam when people talk about the football national team, they mention just the male one.

"When the VFF (Vietnam Football Federation) knew in 2019 that the 2023 World Cup would expand, they set the target World Cup for the national team and began investing more and more structurally."

This included organising more Under-16 and U-19 women's tournaments, as well as calling for funds from private corporations.

Tran Duc Truong, a football journalist from Zing News in Vietnam, estimates that the average salary of a national team player is about US$600 (S$812), which requires them to take on other jobs to earn extra income.

He said: "They have to do another job to live and if you have to separate your concentration, how can you do well on the pitch? For the girls, they were lucky to qualify for the World Cup, but the VFF needs to invest more in the team and the league."

Among those who have invested heavily is Hung Thinh Land, a Vietnamese real estate company, that signed a five-year deal with the VFF in 2019 that would see them sponsor 100 billion dong (S$5.93 million) towards the national women's team and development of the youth team.

Businessman Tran Anh Tu, the chairman of Vietnam Professional Football Company (VPF), which organises Vietnam professional leagues for men's football, has also sponsored various women's competitions.

This has allowed the VFF to strengthen their coaching team, bringing in Japanese coaches and French fitness coach Cedric Roger.

Football consultant Dzung Le said: "The goal has always been to try and get the best people for the job. The idea is that if we get these people coming in from Japan, we can learn from them as well."

The AFC Women's Asian Cup match between Vietnam and Japan held in Shivchatrapati Sports Complex, India, on Jan 24, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

The presence of long-time head coach Mai Duc Chung, who has helmed the team over several spells from 1997, is also pivotal. Chung, 71, had won four SEA Games titles and the 2019 AFF Women's Championship with the team.

Truong said: "Helping the team to qualify for the World Cup was his dream for a long time and with experience in training women's football, coach Chung knew the talents and abilities of players."

Besides a bus parade in Ho Chi Minh City, the national team received bonuses from sponsors in cash and products amounting to nearly 28 billion dong to date. Earlier this month, the Philippines Sports Commission board approved the awarding of 1.25 million pesos (S$33,057) worth of special incentives for the team.

The achievements of Vietnam and the Philippines were celebrated elsewhere in the region.

Siti Rosnani Azman, the first player from Singapore to play professionally in Japan, drew inspiration from such milestones.

She said: "Even (for teams like) Indonesia to be able to qualify for the AFC (Asian Cup) round, it's wonderful to see that Asean is progressing quite well right now."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.