Photo by Ina Isis Deocampo

Kaya FC Might be Iloilo’s Best Chance to be a Real “Football Capital”

By martin espino

If you ever wondered how Iloilo became the “Football Capital of the Philippines,” you can thank Paulino Alcantara for it. He’s a Spanish-Filipino player born and raised in Barotac Nuevo, and is the only Filipino to have ever played for La Liga’s top-tier club FC Barcelona, where he scored 369 goals in 357 of the official and friendly matches he played for the club. It was an impressive record that stood for 87 years and was only broken in 2014 by another Barça player, Leo Messi. Alcantara is arguably the province’s most distinguished athlete in history.

With all of that considered, it’s curious to see how football itself is still treated as a mostly niche spectator activity in Iloilo outside of towns like Barotac Nuevo. Some of the top football players in recent memory to come from here don’t get feted with the same honors as, say, a basketball player would have. And that is saying something, since it’s rare to hear any Philippine athlete receiving any sort of massive attention outside of Manny Pacquiao.

So, forgive me when I admit to become really excited when news broke that Kaya FC, one of the longest-tenured teams competing on the upstart Philippines Football League, would be officially playing for Iloilo.

Kaya FC players warming up
Photo by Martin Espino

Watching a live football match has always been a challenge for me. I either stay up late at night or wake up in the wee hours of the morning just to catch a live match on TV. Today’s technology thankfully allows me to stream or download the match highlights if I don’t happen to catch it live. The exemption, however, would be the occasional Philippine Azkals match, which I always watch on schedule.

So, as a football fan, I surely am not alone in thinking that Kaya FC’s move from Makati to Iloilo City as its new home ground is seen by commentators as a much-needed boost for the sport. In addition, it also gives them the opportunity to expand with a new fanbase while developing a more solid football community in Iloilo who, like me, are eager to watch high-quality matches in person. Besides, it’s about time we start living up to our moniker as the “Football Capital of the Philippines” already.

A few weeks ago, Project Iloilo dropped in on Kaya’s first set of practices in Iloilo to talk to the only two Ilonggo players in the team’s current line-up, captain and forward Joven Bedic and defender Shirmar Felongco. While our conversation with them happened on the weekend when what would have been their first scheduled game in Iloilo with Global Cebu got cancelled because the latter declined to make the trip here, the team seemed to radiate optimism. Bedic and Felongco, on the other hand, was just happy that they would finally have a reason to see their families again.

Kaya FC shirmar felongco and jovin bedic
Shirmar Felongco and Jovin Bedic. Photo by Martin Espino.

Family indeed played a huge part in Bedic’s development as a football player. He was trained by his father, a former player and enlisted personnel for the Philippine Army. As a Barotac Nuevo native, football came naturally to him, as it is the town’s most popular sport. Shirmar Felongco, on the other hand, started playing sepak takraw in Calinog before switching to football. Other than being both Ilonggos, they also have something in common: they never stopped playing football ever since they were kids.

Bedic’s reason, when asked why he loved football, seems to be also cut in the Ilonggo mold: “Tungod ina sa akon nga [It’s because of my] community, sa Barotac Nuevo.”

Kaya FC Iloilo players in practice
Photo by Ina Isis Deocampo

It was not easy for them to reach their goal to play football at a professional level. They were scouted by agents from big clubs, and both earned degrees because of their sports scholarships. And then they have to endure countless try-outs before qualifying to play in their current team. That also included their first stint on playing for the national team that would eventually morph into the Azkals. Even now, they still find it hard to imagine that playing pro football would constitute a main part of their, and their family’s, livelihood.

Indi (galing) amo na kataas ang kwarta or sahod sang una [The money or salary wasn’t that high back then],” Bedic admitted.

Both players, however, are still positive that Kaya’s move to Iloilo is the beginning of cultivating a new generation of football players and fans in Iloilo. Crowd support can only go a long way to developing a football community. They believe that a more lasting way to making football popular in Iloilo is if local talent gets to evolve without having to leave home like they did.

Kung sa suporta, ara man ang crowd. Pero dapat ang suporta man sang mga taas gid nga mga tawo, ara man. Kay may ara kung kaisa nga ang mga players, gusto nila magpa-Manila kay full tuition ang scholarship dira. Diri ya, mga 75% man lang,” Bedic said. “Siyempre, kung imol ka, wala ka gid choice kundi mahalin diri kag ma-eskwela sa iban kay wala man sang may ginahatag sa imo nga insakto nga suporta.

[There’s the crowd for the support. However, support should also come from the higher-ups. Because there are instances of players moving to Manila because they get full tuition on their scholarship. In here, it’s just 75%. If you happen to be poor, you have no choice but to go out and enroll in a school that would give you the right amount of support.]

Kaya FC iloilo players in CPU practice
Photo by Ina Isis Deocampo

This scenario is what Bedic and Felongco are trying to fix by running a club-sponsored football academy.

Iloilo has a strong and, if online sentiments are to be believed, growing crowd of football fans. With that said, will Ilonggo fandom be enough to justify Kaya moving to a new stadium, with most of the team having to adapt to another regional culture?

Will football matter in Iloilo again? Your guess on the hype is as good as mine.

Martin Espino is a caffeine-reliant, analogue-loving individual who writes in his spare time. You can follow him on Instagram at @frozen_armpits.