While the limelight falls on clubs such as United City and newcomer Maharlika, Kaya-Iloilo FC is quietly whipping itself into shape in anticipation of the opening of the 2020 Philippines Football League season, hopefully in the latter part of the year.
What began as a team seeing action in 7-a-side tournaments in the 90s, Kaya-Iloilo, owned by sportsman-businessman Santi Araneta, chief executive officer of logistics company LBC Express, has emerged as one of the most stable clubs in the domestic football scene
It is the home of former Azkals stalwarts such ex-national skipper and premier defender Aly Borromeo and midfielder Anton del Rosario, whose accurate throw-in passes emerged as one of the national team’s assets.
They also have among the most loyal and active fans -- the “Ultra Kayas.”
The club has gained a measure of success, ruling the defunct United Football League, the predecessor of the PFL, in 2015 while bagging the Copa Alcantara Cup in 2018 with a thrilling 1-0 win over the Davao Aguilas in the final at Rizal Memorial Football Stadium.
With Cebuano coach Oliver Colina calling the shots, the team was running second in Group H of the ASEAN Zone of the 2020 AFC Cup when the tournament was scrapped by the Asian Football Confederation, the continent’s soccer body, last September 10 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kaya-Iloilo general manager Paul Tolentino said the squad has taken the frustrating development in stride.
“It was a big carrot dangling there, especially motivation-wise. With that said the focus is still there more than anything else,” Tolentino said. “The team just wants to go out there and play. Whether it’s the AFC Cup or the PFL, our players just want to play.”
He said his team has enjoyed returning to actual workouts, starting at the PFF national training center in Carmona town, Cavite, before moving over to the Blue Pitch in Makati, the second workout venue recently approved by the Games and Amusements Board for PFL clubs.
“The players are enjoying the first two weeks of going back on the field again,” Tolentino said, “and feel a little bit more in returning to the (normal) routine of being a professional footballer.”
Due to inactivity caused by the virus crisis, he said “some of the players have left from the original AFC Cup roster. We’re looking at a few players but not too many because budgets are very, very tight and we have to reduce everything.”
Given the long layoff, however, he was aware that “that the season will be condensed so we need a few more live bodies.”
“Guys are not going to recover that quickly from the niggling injuries that happened in the years past. So there is a delicate balance of adding one or maybe two players,” he added.
Tolentino said he and the coaching staff were ultimately looking at a roster of 23 to 24 players but declined to name them until the list was finalized.
He credited Araneta for keeping the club afloat despite the hard times.
“Santi Araneta is still very active, if not for his passion and love of the game, this club might have been in the same boat as Ceres-Negros. It’s thanks to him that we are still around,” Tolentino said.
Looking forward to the league kickoff, the Kaya GM said that while there were clubs that looked strong on paper “this does not necessarily translate on the field.”
“This year has been a full stop for all the clubs,” he added.
He sees the Azkals Developmental Team as a darkhorse and “very competitive because they have guys playing outside of the Philippines who want to prove themselves here,” while Maharlika “is a mixture of youth and experienced players,” including ex-Kaya-Iloilo mainstay Del Rosario.
“This competition is very unique, and it seems very obvious that I even said that,” Tolentino said. “The challenges are going to be in the organization and management I believe. That’s my opinion.”
“Maybe a competitive edge can be gained on how you manage your players and how to manage your recovery. How you manage your rotation. All these little details that matter every single year and they are going to matter even more this year,” he added.
“With the understanding that because of a shortened season, competition levels will be very fierce and very difficult. But our goals are not going to change,” he said. “Sticking to the values and culture that Kaya has built on, we want to go out there and compete at the highest level we possibly can.
“We want to end the year winning trophies.”