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Why Filipino Players Are Flocking to the ASEAN Leagues?

With the addition of a single slot for an ASEAN player for each team, the Liga 1 Indonesia became the third league in the region after the Thai League 1 and the Liga Super Malaysia to implement such a policy. This saw an influx of Filipino players flooding into Indonesia, with similar occurrences happening in Thailand and Malaysia in previous years. So why do Filipino players are such hot commodities in the ASEAN market?

Reigning Liga 1 champions PSM Makassar announced on Saturday the signing of Filipino defender Kike Linares from Thai League 1 side Lamphun Warriors, the 23-year old becoming the latest Filipino player to join the Indonesian top-flight. He joins the likes of Anthony Pinthus, Simen Lyngbo, Christian Rontini and Dylan De Bruycker as newcomers to the Liga 1, while both Daisuke Sato and Mike Ott remained in the league after an impressive campaign last season. The likes of Omid Nazari and Marwin Angeles had also represented Indonesian clubs in recent years.

And this trend isn’t isolated to Indonesia alone. The Thai League 1 has a sizable Filipino contingent with the likes of Michael Falkesgaard, Joshua Grommen, Jesper Nyholm, Jesse Curan and Marco Casambre playing for clubs in the Thai top-flight, while the Liga Super Malaysia has the likes of Kevin Ray Mendoza, Manny Ott, Patrick Reichelt, Kevin Ingreso and OJ Porteria playing for their clubs.

So what drives Filipino footballers to play for ASEAN clubs?

According to former Philippines national team head coach Scott Cooper, despite the recent growth of the country’s national team, the Filipino top-flight – the Philippines Football League – is still lagging behind their ASEAN contemporaries, despite landing a lucrative sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways back in 2020. This season alone, despite finally implementing a home-and-away format after the COVID-19 pandemic, the 8-team PFL was rocked by the abrupt withdrawal of two of their contestants.

Perennial giants United City FC shocked the nation on February by withdrawing from the league, the 4-time champions having suffered from financial and legal issues brought on by their Singaporean investors, Riau Capital Live, who defaulted on their financial agreement on October 2022 and had not yet to fulfill a sizable final settlement with the club. Then on May, it was the Azkals Development Team’s turn to drop out of the league, this time due to undisclosed reasons. The ADT, formed in 2020 as a way to allow the Philippines U-22 national team to compete against senior players, formed the core of the Philippines team that competed in the recently-concluded 2023 SEA Games in Cambodia.

The withdrawals of both United City and the ADT adds more to an ever-growing list of clubs who disappeared from the Filipino top-flight in recent years, a list that included former powerhouses Global Makati and Loyola FC as well as sides such as Green Archers United, JPV Marikina, Ilocos United, and Davao Aguilas.

“The truth is we are still behind,” said Cooper in a 2020 interview with regarding the Filipino exodus to the Thai League, “As much as I want the league to improve, the Thai league has the bigger budgets, the biggest stadiums, more fans, and therefore, it comes with more responsibilities and pressure to the players to learn.”

“They can obviously earn a little bit more money for themselves too. They are playing a longer season against more opposition in two or three trophies. They are playing against, fair to say, much stronger foreign players in the Thai league,” Cooper continued.

Despite being behind their ASEAN counterparts, the PFL does show some sign of promising development. New club Dynamic Herb Cebu has stepped up in United City’s absence and became the competitive rival for Kaya FC-Iloilo, arguably the strongest team in the PFL right now. Rapids FC, a new team from Cagayan de Oro, is also being touted as the PFL’s newest addition in the coming years, with Leyte-based Laos FC is also set for a return after stepping down from the league in 2016. The likes of Loyola and Davao were also included in this year’s Copa Paulino Alcantara, which could hint at a potential return for the two.

“Hopefully, in the long-term future, our PFL league can be just as strong. You have to be honest, it’s not, at the moment. It’s for the players to step in to that league and perform. It will do them the world of good. At the same time, we are not underestimating this league. We will still develop players and bring them through as well,” said Cooper.

Another factor that contributed towards the exodus of Filipino players to ASEAN leagues is the better pay provided by such leagues. While it is unknown about the amount of money that Indonesian and Malaysian teams are paying for their Filipino players, Thai League clubs pay P140,000 to P240,000 on average, a much better pay than those offered by PFL teams.

There’s also the fact that most of the Filipino players who went to ASEAN leagues had European ties to them, either by heritage. by spending their youth in academies in the continent, or simply by spending a good part of their career in Europe. Linares, for example, was born in Spain, while Persita Tangerang’s new boy Rontini has Italian heritage. Goalkeepers Falkesgaard and Mendoza were born and raised in Denmark, Reichelt and the Ott brothers were of German descent, while De Bruycker was born in Belgium and Pinthus has Swiss heritage. And then there’s Omid and Sato, who has Iranian and Japanese heritage respectively, but has experience playing in Europe with Swedish giants Malmo FF and Romanian side Sepsi OSK respectively.

This, and the relatively affordable price tag that Filipino players have, meant that ASEAN teams will be getting European-calibre players for a fraction of the price.

As more and more Filipino players inserted themselves into the Thai, Malaysian, and Indonesian markets, Cooper hopes that the PFL would be as competitive and enticing to play in as their ASEAN brethren in the near future.

“We want to keep supporting the PFL. Some players will go over there and push themselves at a higher level. It’s their choice too. It’s one of those things that we want to see in the PFL growing in numbers, growing in budget, growing in teams, and there will hopefully be, at some point, that we don’t lose as much players to the Thai (and other Southeast Asian) leagues,” said Cooper.