MANILA, Philippines -- While Bienvenido Marañón's participation for the Philippine Azkals in the upcoming FIFA World Cup qualifiers is not yet certain, the prolific striker is already fully committed to the national team.
Azkals coach Scott Cooper said in a press briefing on Wednesday that Marañón will be a massive addition to the national team both on and off the court, given his undeniable quality and goal-scoring prowess, as well as his love for his adopted country.
Marañón, 34, is on the brink of being naturalized. The Senate in March approved his citizenship bid as well as that of Ivorian center Ange Kouame, who is being tipped to play for the men's national basketball team.
"I wasn't sure about actually naturalized players that don't have biological ties, in other words, Filipino blood," Cooper admitted. "I was unsure about that."
"(But) when I spoke to him, he changed my perception on that, only for him. I mean, I think that has to be a case to case thing, about that sort of thing," he added.
Though Marañón, who was born in Spain, has no Filipino blood, Cooper believes his commitment to the Philippines and Philippine football cannot be questioned. Marañón has played in the Philippines since 2015 for Ceres Negros, and stuck with the club when it changed ownership last year and was rebranded as United City FC.
"He's put the time into the league," Cooper said of Marañón. "He's committed to the country, he travels around the country, spends a lot of time doing different things."
"The other day, I was watching him sing the national anthem. In the private messages he and I share about football, and football fans here need to know that this guy is totally committed to the country and doing well for the Azkals and the national team," he added.
Cooper points out that Marañón has long wanted to become a Filipino and play for the Azkals. In several interviews, Marañón has also expressed his wish to help in the further development of Philippine football.
While playing for the Azkals is his foremost priority, Marañón also wants to create a football academy for young children.
"Everything he says and does behind the scenes that people don't know about -- it's not broadcasted. The way he talks and the way he's committed to the country, and the small details, he talks about the country outside football. It showed me a lot," said Cooper.
"I welcome him, I welcome him into the group," he added.
From a footballing perspective, having Marañón will be tremendous for the Azkals. Marañón is a proven goal-scorer, and currently holds the scoring record in the AFC Cup.
Cooper believes that if he suits up for the Philippines, Marañón "would probably be the strongest goal-scorer this country would ever have."
"He's a natural goal-scorer, everybody knows that," Cooper said. "You can't ignore a player that's scored that amount of goals at that level, and is regarded really highly across Asia."
The issue now is whether Marañón's papers will be finalized in time for the upcoming World Cup/Asia Cup qualifiers that will take place in China this June.
As it stands, the Philippine Football Federation (PFF) is still waiting for his naturalization bill to become law. After that, Marañón has to acquire a Philippine passport, and the PFF will register him with AFC and FIFA as a Filipino player.
"It's a tall order, but still doable," said PFF secretary-general Atty. Ed Gastanes.
"Let's just hope we can get his paperwork across the line," said Cooper.
The Azkals will head to Doha, Qatar for a training camp from May 18 to 31, with Cooper and his staff set to call up 26 players to the pool. They will play three matches in this phase of the qualifiers: Guam on June 3, China on June 9, and Maldives on June 15.