Filipino football club Ceres-Negros has established itself as the undisputed kings of football in the country at present, and they’re making big strides internationally as well. A recent release in the AFC club rankings by footyrankings.com put them almost at the top of the ASEAN region as of May 22, 2019.
Looking at their significant achievements in the past few seasons, it awe-inspiring as to what made this Western Visayas club reach such heights in such a short period of time since its founding in 2012.
Let’s take a look into some of the many things that made Ceres-Negros such a machine in Philippine and Southeast Asian club football.
Since their existence as a competitive club, The Busmen – as they have been fondly known, have been relentless in their pursuit of winning the tournaments that they’ve participated in.
From their participation in the PFF National Men’s Club Championship in 2012, up to the 2018 Philippines Football League (PFL) campaign, Ceres-Negros were able to win every single year with 2016 as the only exception when they failed to successfully defend their United Football League Division 1 title ending as runners-up.
Right from its inception, tasting success for the first time seemed to have made them addicted to it that driving the club to mount an era of domination, which they did for the past few years.
Risto Vidakovic: Mastermind at the helm
The early glory years of the club in the domestic scene from 2012 to 2016, when they were then known as Ceres-LaSalle, can be attributed to Filipino head coaches Ali Go and Frank Muescan, and Korea’s Cha Seung-ryong. A potential for greatness was paved in these early years. But come 2016, a new head coach, Risto Vidakovic, took the reins with the rest of Philippine club football not knowing the current great era that is about to transpire from the island of Negros.
A Serbian who started his playing career in his home country with Sarajevo and Red Star Belgrade, Coach Risto eventually moved to Spain in the mid-90’s where he played for top flight clubs Real Betis and Osasuna. After his playing days have come to an end he then embarked on a head-coaching career in Spain with clubs such as Cadiz and Osasuna, then briefly managing in Honduras before that all-crucial move to the Philippines to be the mentor of a very promising Ceres-Negros team.
What followed in his tenure as head coach could be considered as the one that ushered the club’s highest point in its current history. The system and type of football that Coach Risto introduced proved to be ruthlessly effective in the domestic front. Add to those the astute acquisitions that the club as made with regards to the type of players who came into the club and his technical approach proved to be a perfect fit that propelled the squad to surprising, yet well-deserved results.
Also, the creation of a fully professional league in the country (the PFL) and the Filipino club teams’ eligibility to participate in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) tournaments that began the previous year provided the perfect storm towards an unprecedented golden age for the club as Coach Risto guided his wards to uncharted territories for each campaign with milestone upon milestone of results.
The journey of 2017
2017 season would prove to be the watershed for the Bacolod-based club as it achieved the distinction of becoming the first ever champions of the PFL. To top it all off, on the international club competition front, Ceres became the first Filipino club to conquer the ASEAN zone of the AFC Cup and reach the Interzone semifinals.
During that campaign, the Busmen were able to defeat Malaysian giants Johor Darul Ta’zim and Singapore’s Home United in the process, only for their progress to the Interzone finals be halted by Istiklol of Tajikistan.
That year most probably put Ceres on the map of Asian football as one of the fast-rising clubs in the continent. The players who led the way then, Stephan Schröck, Manny Ott, Iain Ramsay, and Bienvenido Marañon, to name a few, further endeared them to the club’s passionate fans.
The particular season instilled a certain belief to the squad that was able to spill into the early part of the 2018 campaign when The Busmen were able to reach the playoff stage of the AFC Champions League qualification only to be stopped in their tracks by Anthony Modeste and the rest of a then formidable Tianjin Quanjian of China which boasted internationally recongnizable players such as Alexandre Pato of Brazil and Axel Witsel of Belgium.
A legacy “in-progress”
With another PFL title and an appearance in the AFC Cup ASEAN Zone Final in 2018 Ceres-Negros no doubt are in the midst of building a lasting legacy for their young history as a club while in this period of domestic dominance and international repute. In spite of these amazing progress that the club is experiencing, Coach Risto himself is still in awe of what the club has achieved.
“It’s very hard to explain (this level of success) because nobody expected it. I think what we reached, especially in becoming on of the best Southeast Asian clubs in the AFC ranking is a long way, especially the three years that (passed) in the AFC competitions. It’s not easy to (achieve) that,” Vidakovic shared.
The coach also mentioned the ownership who helped make all things possible from a financial standpoint.
“Especially, it’s a big effort from the owner of the club (Leo Rey Yanson) to keep these players together, to invest so (much) money in football in a country where football is not so important. Where football is not the number one sport.
“It’s something that, maybe, nobody could recognize now. (But) maybe in the future, somebody will talk about it,” added the gaffer.
Indeed, Ceres-Negros will not reach its current status as a now internationally recognized club in Asia if not for the monumental efforts and resources provided by club owner and chairman Leo Rey Yanson who, with his passion, has given so much to put the club to its relatively lofty heights in the Philippine football setup.
This Ceres-Negros team, as an organization, has been doing wonders not just in the city that they represent, but the whole club football scene in the Philippines. Consider the people of Bacolod blessed in pro-football because of this.
In this modern and internet-dominated world, it’s hard to believe that a legend is brewing in Philippine football right at this moment. But that is what’s happening with Ceres-Negros and it is possible that they are creating a blueprint for other Filipino clubs to follow or even improve upon in the future.
Given the delayed growth of football in the Philippines as a spectator sport, Ceres-Negros’ current rise is hard to compare with the current giants of the game. Barcelona? Manchester United? Liverpool? Not quite.
The tradition and lore, is yet to be fully established for this club. But their reputation is on an exponential trajectory making this particular phase of their existence something that will define them later on.
These past few years are what is building Ceres-Negros’ legend, and the parallelism for this exciting new club in Southeast Asia is hard not to be compared to. That comparison goes to somewhere in time when it shares a bit of a resemblance with – back to an era when football was at its inflection point towards being the most popular in the world, back to almost 80 years ago in Argentina when River Plate forged its legend from that stellar 1940’s squad.
One of the biggest teams in Argentina and in the footballing world in terms of historic significance, River Plate of Buenos Aires became what it is because of a generation of players who played a style of football so pleasing to the eye. Along with the flair came a string of successful league campaigns that built its lore, earning the hefty moniker “La Maquina” (The Machine).
The mechanical element in this label does not denote monotony or boring repetition. On the contrary, it’s more of a general picture of artfulness in terms of the intricacy and complication in that particular squad’s game, a melding of elements working together for a bigger purpose, like a magnum opus of a Swiss master watchmaker that never fails to mesmerize with its complexities and features.
This is the similar ethos that Ceres-Negros seem to share and exhibit, creating a reputation of positive football with a certain level of excellence that is catching the attention of their peers not just locally, but even overseas.
But it wasn’t a philosophy borne out of a whim for The Busmen, but out of necessity according to Coach Risto Vidakovic.
“I think (our) style of play depends on the players. We have small players, but are technically very good, (and) fast. And I think we cannot practice another kind of football because it’s very hard to play long balls if you don’t have tall players (up front) so we try to build up (and) play a passing game – playmaking football… I just adapt on the conditions of the players.”
In the end, it’s an adaptation resulting to a playing style that became the club’s strength and signature, and it was demonstrated to the fore during the recently concluded group phase of the 2019 AFC Cup campaign where The Busmen amassed a 57% average possession with an 83% passing accuracy.
With back-to-back domestic titles in the professional era, and a consistency shown by reaching the knockout phase on the continental front in the AFC Cup, the results and milestones have been a testament to the effectivity of Ceres-Negros’ current playing philosophy as it pushes them to further establish themselves in club football.
Technical, intricate, dynamic, effective – these words describe the current system of play that Bacolod’s men in yellow manifest on the pitch as they continue to carve their path and set the bar in Philippine club football as a unit.
Philippines’ “La Maquina” – Ceres-Negros FC – powering the bus into high gear.
Photo credit: Ceres-Negros FC