pfl2019-ceres-vs-kaya-aboitiz-pitch

OPINION: Lipa facility brings much needed dignity for Pinoy pro football

Just as the season in Philippine professional football has reached its midseason with the league seemingly just going through the motions a much welcome development happened with the inclusion of a facility in Lipa, Batangas that could save the league from a viewership perspective.

More known as the Aboitiz Pitch located within the Lima Estate in Batangas right on the edge of Lipa, the venue (which serves as the home ground of Green Archers United), with its current features as a playing surface and potential as a major hub for top-level tournaments, may just have shown what it takes to invigorate the remaining fixtures of the 2019 Philippines Football League [PFL] season.

It’s time to delve a bit more as to why this artificial pitch facility located at a considerable distance south of Metro Manila is such a saving grace for a league that could have headed towards an even greater disappointment in terms of fan experience.

BEFORE: A SAD SITUATION

PFL’s 2019 season hastily got its green-light after the demise of what could have been a season under a new league management (with a different branding). With several factors at stake, most especially when it comes to the Philippine clubs’ eligibility to participate in the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) international club tournaments (namely, AFC Cup and AFC Champions League) for the country’s top two performing teams (held by Kaya FC Iloilo and Ceres-Negros for the 2019 season), the league pushed through with the status quo when it comes to the top-tier professional club league affairs.

However, for 2019 it wasn’t really the same compared to 2018. The league opted to scrap the traditional “home and away” format particularly the inter-island travels in consideration of the the participating clubs which shouldered exorbitant costs for transportation and lodging for away  matches the past season. But this decision, in effect, removed Ceres-Negros’ Panaad Stadium and Kaya FC’s Iloilo Sports Complex out of the equation when it comes to the venues, leaving the league with two stadiums that can host matches: Rizal Stadium and Stallion Laguna’s Binan Football Stadium.

The problem is Rizal Stadium eventually was closed for renovation as it has been tapped as a venue for the upcoming 2019 Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) football.

As a mitigating approach, the PFF artificial training pitch in Carmona, Cavite was tapped as another venue. Now lies the problem, that particular facility is not suitable to regularly host top-tier football matches as it is what it is: a training facility. It maybe a decent playing surface but it is far from appealing as a match venue for fans.

It maybe understandable if two to three matches were held there due to extreme reasons such as that suitable venues were unavailable. But no, the PFF Training Center has been for quite a considerable space in time been the ‘de facto’ main venue of the league. The effect via livestream was disheartening. 

In one particular match between Ceres and Kaya last July 10, in what should be the biggest high-quality match of the season between the only two of the nation’s AFC Cup participants for 2019 – both boasting national team players and players with European football experience – and one can see in every corner, missed attempt or throw-in scenario, cows grazing a few feet away. This writer can categorically say that that was one of the lowest points of the league’s current season.

SAVING GRACE

On July 23, the PFL had an inspection in the Aboitiz Pitch in Lipa as a possible additional venue to be primarily used as the home grounds of league debutants Green Archers United.

Eventually the nod by the league’s management has been secured and soon enough, Aboitiz Pitch hosted for the first time on August 3 as a neutral turf for a double-header that featured Mendiola against Global and a redemption headliner for the second meeting between defending league champion Ceres and cup ace Kaya.

For the first time, in quite a while, an evening kick-off was witnessed. Although, the proceedings have been dampened by the excessive downpour brought about by the monsoon exacerbated by a typhoon system north of the country. The new ground proved its worth, showing its features as a capable “all-weather” playing surface with an impromptu stress test. Despite the rains and howling winds, that affected the livestream coverage and even the technical overall quality of the match, the game was able to push through due to its surprisingly adequate drainage system that despite some puddle buildup, was still playable enough not to suffer major match delays. 

The following weekend, on August 10 and 11, with much more favorable conditions,  fans both in the stands and watching via livestream were able to enjoy the matches more.

LIPA PITCH: NOT PERFECT, BUT [MUCH] BETTER

The new venue option in Lipa may have provided a much needed revitalisation for the league in terms of the viewership experience for fans both in-person and on-line but it still has quite some improvements to undergo.

First is the spectator area, the bleachers aren’t covered forcing the fans to retreat to the roofed area during the August 3 and 4 matchdays, which does not have seats (facility management provided monobloc chairs as a stopgap but they were limited in numbers) and is far from the pitch drastically lessening match experience.

Second, the toilet facilities for spectators were not easily accessible (one has to go around the venue or pass over or under the tape barriers) and had drainage issues for the men’s room (the monsoon could have contributed) using instead the staff’s toilet or go further to the retail/mall restrooms.

Third, it’s just damn far (for Metro Manila fans). But this fact has a major upside: It opens up the sport to possible new fans within the vicinity. The playing ground is situated within an industrial zone. Beside the pitch is an outlets mall with shopping and dining facilities. Also nearby is a residential area. The setup is almost perfect in applying the principle of bringing the sport to the places outside the distractions of Metro Manila.

Despite these shortcomings, it is to note that the Aboitiz Pitch is not yet 100 percent complete especially when it comes to what it can offer to in-venue viewers. At least two food shops are planned to be setup behind the spectators’ area which once completed, would drastically improve the overall experience for fans. 

This football facility in Lipa is a very welcome addition to the current Binan Football Stadium – which is not yet capable of hosting evening matches, and surely much better than the spartan and “not media friendly” PFF Training Pitch.

HOW ABOUT PFF CARMONA?

This doesn’t mean to fully eliminate the training center in Carmona being featured in the PFL, but it should be used for extreme cases only – as a last resort for last-minute, unforeseen venue constraints. The considerable number of matchdays in the past weeks should be enough already.

PFF Center doesn’t have the appeal, all the more, the atmosphere to host a football match that is considered as “professional” and “top-flight”.

To paraphrase one player who shared his resoundingly positive impression after playing in Lipa last August 3:

“This [Aboitiz Pitch] is very good! It has lights, fans are here [despite lower turnout due to the weather]. It encourages us to feel better and play better. 

“It looks more professional – the way it should be.

“How can we be encouraged in [Carmona] if there are no fans watching, even worse, there are cows?!”

The Carmona facility should stay as it is meant to be: a training pitch. It should be a haven for clubs and squads to improve themselves and play outside the prying eyes of media and the possible accompanying distractions from fans. Case in point: The Azkals’ closed-door match against Mongolia last year as part of the preparation for the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup.

A SMALL POSITIVE

In closing, the coming of Aboitiz Pitch in Lipa to the PFL is just a small positive, but an urgently needed one.

There are still challenges in Philippine pro football that need to be addressed such as spreading the league to the provinces in a cost-effective manner, and using other traditional media channels to reach more people (particularly in Bacolod and Iloilo which are represented in the league) to name a few.

It is good that a new facility came into the Philippine professional football landscape. Here’s to hoping it won’t end there. Last June 6, the PFL management also did an inspection of a stadium in Imus, Cavite, which may or may not have passed the requirements as it has yet to host a match. Whatever, the case maybe, the need to increase match-worthy venues is imperative as it is a reflection of the league itself.

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