Women’s football has been enjoying significant evolution across many parts of the globe during the past few years. One such nation undergoing a recent period of development is Philippines.
Late 2011 proved to be a watershed moment for the national team, known to locals as the Malditas. The team took the field for the first time in two and half years when they played at that year’s AFF Women’s Championship for south-east Asian nations. It was a newly regenerated side comprised mostly of debutants, the majority of whom were still teenagers. Since then the team has surged in popularity and enjoys a strong Social Media profile.
Most significant, however, are the team’s rapidly improving results and in May they went within a whisker of reaching their first AFC Women’s Asian Cup for a decade, with next year’s tournament doubling as Asia’s final stage of FIFA Women’s World Cup™ qualifying. Ultimately, perennial continental qualifiers Thailand secured a narrow 1-0 win in the pivotal match to quell the Malditas’ ambitions, but the contrast with a 5-1 defeat against the same opponent two years earlier was clear. That disappointment behind them, Philippines now has another task on which to focus with the 2013 edition of the AFF Women’s Championship commencing next week in Yangon, Myanmar.
Despite the relative youth of the team, they have an experienced and popular leader in Marielle Benitez. Aside from her significant on-field contributions as the team’s No10, Benitez enjoys a relatively high profile due to her work as a host and football analyst on a local TV network, as well as being a performing artist with the National Dance Company of the Philippines.
Despite their Canada 2015 hopes ending, Benitez says the team’s status was greatly enhanced in the qualifying campaign. “We were so close to qualifying in only losing 1-0 to Thailand,” Benitez told FIFA.com. “Even in that game, we had very good chances, but unfortunately we were not able to convert those into goals.
“On the brighter side, the Malditas were successful in making a mark in international competition and came out of the tournament as a team to watch out for. We also succeeded in opening doors for women's football in the Philippines because many realised that we had a very good chance of qualifying and doing well in international competitions.
“It was a learning experience for everyone because we had to adjust to each other on and off the pitch, in a short amount of time. It also gave us a lot of confidence because we played against teams that were ranked higher than us and yet we were able to score goals.”
In keeping with their strong historical connection to USA, only around eight of the national team squad are based in the capital Manila with the rest domiciled in the States. Despite this the Pinay, as the players are sometimes affectionately called – an informal phrase which refers to a female Filipino - boast a strong sense of team unity and spirit. “We go by the motto 'Battle and Bleed' and it shows in our matches,” says Benitez. “It means always giving everything we've got, and representing our country the best way we can.
"Whether or not we are winning in our matches, we never give up until the final whistle. When you see the Malditas, you can tell that everyone takes pride in being part of the national team. Our head coach Ernie Nierras is also very passionate about football and he motivates the team very well.”
Hindered by the lack of a national league or any strong historical pedigree in the game, the Philippines’ national team players are, nevertheless, hungry to make up for lost time. Though still some way off Asia’s elite, Benitez says the future is bright for the nation of some 100 million inhabitants, where passion for football is diluted among several sports.
“I believe that with the success of the Malditas in the recent tournaments and being the most improved in the FIFA rankings last June, we have been able to grab the interest of people to support the national team,” said the 31-year-old Benitez who has enjoyed a decade-long national team career. “It has definitely opened the doors for the younger girls to play football and aspire to be part of the national team.”