By Rodolfo Dacleson II

On the night of July 17, 2022, celebrations erupted at the Rizal Memorial Stadium as the Philippine women's national football team (PWNFT) lifted its first-ever ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Women's Championship trophy. The formerly called "Malditas" etched a 3-nil victory against Thailand, sending more than 8,000 spectators and over 47,000 live stream viewers in frenzy.

Cartoon by Maurice Isabelle Gimena

But, wait! Am I imagining it? Are fans flocking RMS to watch football? Filipinos watching football and it is not even a men's game but women's? Seriously, these sights are new to me. Knowing us, we are a basketball-crazy country. If not this hoop-based game, we are into Volleyball or Boxing.

The Filipinos' passion for these sports shouldn't come as a surprise, considering that American colonizers introduced them to our school system. These sporting events also gained massive popularity for bringing pride among natives, especially basketball in the 1900s. Our men's national basketball team won bronze in the 1954 FIBA World Cup and finished fifth in the 1936 Summer Olympics — achievements that no teams from Asia and Africa have matched until today — aside from bagging nine gold medals in 10 Far Eastern Games before its disbandment. The creation of Asia's first professional basketball league, the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), in 1975 also furthered and sustained the locals' interest in this sport throughout the 20th century until now.

As basketball rose to stardom, Philippine football underwent rise and fall in its long history since the 1900s when the British brought the game here. Apart from lack of funding, sponsorship, and media coverage, the national squads in all age groups and genders have failed to produce results in recent competitions. Not until the senior women's national squad proved that Filipinos can also be footballers aside from being basketball players.

To make things interesting, the story of how PWNFT made the dream come true is none but a sort of "from nothing to something" tale. I knew the team existed, even some of you who are reading this column for sure, but it ends there. Not until 2022 came. In a span of six months, the ladies took huge strides to propel themselves and football into the Philippine mainstream — a feat once attained by their men's counterparts, popularly known as Azkals, after beating defending champion Vietnam in the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup group stage.

The Filipinas began attracting attention by booking a ticket to the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup last January. It was the Philippines' maiden FIFA World Cup stint in any gender and age group. Next, they took home a bronze medal in the Southeast Asian Games (SEAG) 2021 by stunning Myanmar in the battle-for-third. Third place isn't bad after all, as the win halted the nation's medal drought in women's football — the Philippines last won in the said sporting event in the 1985 Bangkok Games, wearing the same color of medal won in SEAG 2021.

History kept on unfolding for the Filipinas but indeed, their showing in the AFF 2022 ascertained the assumption that they aren’t done yet rewriting the past. After finishing second in the group stage tormentor Thailand, the Philippines had to deal with reigning three-time titlist Vietnam in the semis, which they stunningly demolished, 4-0. In the finals, they exacted revenge against the Thais who edged them earlier in the competition and sent them crashing from the SEAG 2021 gold medal game. This ensured the country's reign in AFF for the first time since the tournament's establishment in 2004.

Filipinos, both the old and young, can see the historic feats achieved by the Filipinas as the long-awaited fulfillment of our potential in football. The performance the world's 54th-ranked team displayed shows that dreaming is not enough and by only winning the AFF tournament will prove the worth of their team. Indeed, they did it with class, especially against traditional SEA powerhouses Vietnam and Thailand. They came on the pitch prepared, and not settling for the best possible finish only. It is the title that matters for them.

Living to the potential isn't the only positive of the Filipinas' victory but also trusting the process. The Philippines' triumphs aren't miracles but products of sacrifices and hard work. To attain the achievements we have garnered is not an easy task but with the right guidance, anything is within possibility.

The arrival of former Australia women's national football team head coach Alen Stajcic has changed the county's fate in women's football. He wants the ladies to be ambitious, and that dreaming is only the beginning of things. His words as a veteran tactician taught us to be realistic with our goals. He might have set the bar high but this is to remind us that the only way to go higher is for everyone to become stronger together. In short, preparation is the key. Hats off to him for ingraining such culture into our women's national football team.

Undoubtedly, putting this basketball-minded country on the map of football is a high mountain to climb. Doing it overnight is nonetheless impossible as well. But, with good coaching philosophy, supportive management, and patience from the fans, there are no limits to what our national team can do. Just imagine what the PWNFT did for us. Credits to the Philippine Football Federation (PFF) for bringing Stajcic and the best talents together to win the AFF in our territory, qualify for the World Cup, end the SEAG medal dry spell, and, if provided, more triumphs along the way.

As a fan, seeing these results encourages me to support the team further. I want to see how long-term preparation and adequate support earn medals and trophies. I'm looking forward to how the Filipinas can become the country's new hope in the international sports scene. Moreover, continuously be amazed at how Stajcic and company can inspire younger Filipino generations to dedicate themselves to football.

I can't see these things in the future. But I know it is possible because, in PFF, Stajcic, and the Filipinas, we trust. But, for a while, let's enjoy the peace and celebrate our victory before the PWNFT goes to war on the football field once again.

Edited by Quian Galut