The Filipinas are going home with their heads held high
Welcome to the summer edition of the Impact newsletter, dedicated to feminism and football in celebration of the 2023 Women’s World Cup. We’ll be covering the highs and lows of the beautiful game on the pitch, and the fights for equality on the sidelines. Today, sports journalist Beatrice Go tells the inspiring story of the Philippines’ history-making World Cup campaign.
Parlez-vous français ? Impact is also available in French:
By Beatrice Go
On a cold night in Wellington last week, 27-year-old Sarina Bolden found space between three New Zealand defenders to head an incoming pass from her teammate through the goalkeeper’s fingers and into the back of the net. In doing so, she made history: Bolden is the first player from the Philippines ever to score a goal at the World Cup, her team the first from her country to qualify to play on football’s biggest stage.
This week, the Philippine National Women’s Football Team is going home after failing to clear the group stages, despite their upset win over New Zealand — they went on to lose 6-0 to Norway. But it has been a landmark competition for the Filipinas, causing nation-wide celebrations of the most successful football side the country has ever seen.
The team’s remarkable achievement was a long time coming. This is how they did it.
The power of preparation
The story goes back to 2018, when the team narrowly missed out on qualifying for the 2019 competition by losing to South Korea for the last of the five slots that would have sent them to the World Cup in France. The Filipinas were left with another four years to dream, but they didn’t have to build up from zero. The women’s team had a lot of veteran mainstays, like Hali Long and Anicka Castañeda, as well as a growing pool of foreign-based players goalkeeper Filipino-American Olivia McDaniel and Filipino-Norwegian Sara Eggesvik.
Preparations ramped up in 2021 when Alen Stajcic took over the head coach role to steer the team to the Asian Cup in January 2022. The Australian coach had helped his national team, the Matildas, to the quarter-finals of the 2015 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. By 2017, the Matildas secured a record FIFA ranking of No. 4 under his tenure.
Thanks for reading Impact. Subscribe for free to receive a weekly dispatch of feminist journalism.
In the Filipina’s appearance in the Asian Cup last January 2022, they made it to the quarter-finals, where they only needed a win against Chinese-Taipei to reach the World Cup. With an experienced mentor, a conditioned team and the hopes of their country on their backs, the Filipinas faced a make-or-break penalty shoot-out after drawing 1-1. The thriller escalated with back-and-forth action until Bolden scored the winning penalty and sealed the World Cup dream.
A month before the World Cup kicked off, the Philippines had reached its highest FIFA ranking of No. 46 in the world.
“I feel like it was just yesterday that we qualified for the World Cup,” reminisced veteran goalkeeper Inna Palacios in an interview before the competition.
Embracing the diaspora
Part of the Filipina’s strategy for success is to reach out to the global diaspora to find its talent. Anicka Castañeda is the only player in the squad who was born in the Philippines, with the rest born in the United States, Norway, Canada and Australia to at least one Filipino parent.
It hasn’t been a universally popular strategy, despite the results. Filipina players based abroad who participate in sports other than the nation’s favourite sport of basketball are often heavily criticised. One angry commenter was recently called out for saying: “The surnames of most of the rostered players are not Filipino. We need to make a team of pure Filipinos, so we can be prouder.”
Many loyal fans, though, have come to the team’s defence on TikTok. “Thanks to the foreign players representing the Philippines”, one commenter wrote on a recent post of mine. “They aren’t foreign. They are Filipinos who grew up in other countries,” another replied.
Venice Furio, host of sports website Futbol Brew, said there is a need to bridge the gap between the players and the community.
“Efforts should have been made to integrate the players into the local football community, such as organising clinics or arranging meet and greets with children. I believe it would foster a stronger sense of connection between the players and fans, enabling them to develop a genuine affinity for the team,” Furio said.
In pursuit of sporting excellence
In reaching the World Cup, the Filipinas have achieved a milestone their male counterparts have never reached. Yet brands back home have traditionally flocked to support the men’s team. The tables turned when the Filipinas struck long-term deals with brands such as their official outfitter, Adidas. It’s hoped that this is a harbinger of increased investment in women’s sport — some of the current players have to juggle study or other work on top of representing their country.
It’s certainly not a new phenomenon to see women at the forefront of the Philippines’ sporting success. At the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia, 70% of the country’s medal haul, including all four gold medals, were won by women.
At the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, weightlifting queen Hidilyn Diaz delivered the Philippines’ first ever Olympic gold medal, becoming an icon of strength and inspiration for women in the country. Other prominent names in Philippine sports today include three-time junior Grand Slam champion Alex Eala (tennis) and 2021 US Women’s Open winner Yuka Saso (golf).
But, as in many other countries, broadcasters have been slow to catch on to the popularity of women’s sport. Football fans were ecstatic to hear that their country’s World Cup games will be shown on free TV, but the announcement came just five days before the Filipinas opened their campaign with a 0-2 loss against Switzerland on July 21.
Fans have long cried foul on local broadcasters’ lack of support for women’s sport. During the Olympics, partner broadcaster TV5 failed to show Diaz’ Olympic gold-medal winning event, and the company chose to broadcast a regular men’s basketball game rather than the Filipinas’ golden World Cup qualification run.
What’s next for the Filipinas?
After the World Cup, the biggest question is “what’s next?” No one can truly be certain, but it will take another collective effort from the Philippine women’s sport ecosystem to push forward.
World Cup fever has undeniably reached the Philippines, where companies and football groups organised watch parties in malls and #LabanFilipinas (translation: Filipinas, Fight!) trended on social media and dominated news headlines.
The Filipinas may be going home early, but they are also inspiring a new generation of girls to play football. Historically, top-flight football leagues in the Philippines have folded up because of the lack of support from sponsors and investment from clubs. Now, the Philippine Football Federation continues to run both the men’s and women’s leagues in the hopes of bridging the gap between the country’s grassroots program and the elite level of world football.
“We have to prove to everyone in the world this was not just luck,” said Palacios. “Overall, we’re trying to develop a sport here in the country and we’ll take necessary steps to be able to do that.”
— Beatrice Go is a freelance sports journalist, researcher and anchor reporter based in the Philippines.
The World Cup this week…
Italy vs Argentina 1-0
Germany vs Morocco 6-0
Brazil vs Panama 4-0
Colombia vs Korea Republic 2-0
New Zealand vs Philippines 0-1
Switzerland vs Norway 0-0
Japan vs Costa Rica 2-0
Spain vs Zambia 5-0
Canada vs Ireland 2-1
USA vs Netherlands 1-1
Portugal vs Vietnam 2-0
Australia vs Nigeria 2-3
Argentina vs South Africa 2-2
England vs Denmark 1-0
China PR vs Haiti 1-0
Sweden vs Italy 5-0
France vs Brazil 2-1
Panama vs Jamaica 0-1
Korea Republic vs Morocco 0-1
Germany vs Colombia 1-2
Norway vs Philippines 6-0
Switzerland vs New Zealand 0-0