In a fairer world, we would all be crazy for the Malditas
The Philippine Women's National Football Team will make its debut in the FIFA Women's World Cup with barely any fanfare. We should all do better.
Midjourney: “A beautiful witch playing soccer in the style of Andy Warhol with red and blue as the main colors”
In the television show “Community,” Greendale Community College’s hapless Dean Craig Pelton needed a bit of help with the school’s new mascot.1 The school’s athletic teams had previously been known as the Greendale Grizzlies, but because, Dean Pelton says in a hushed tone, “a lot of these students have been called animals their whole lives,” they’ve decided on a new team nickname that no one could possibly find offensive.
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“The team’s name is the Human Beings?!”2
That scene flashed before my eyes when I first heard news last year that the Philippine Women’s National Football Team would be replacing their nickname, from the Malditas to the… Filipinas.
The team’s braintrust had long signaled that a change was in order. In October 2021, then-coach Marlon Maro3 had expressed his desire to change the team’s nickname because his players are “beautiful, they are good, they are intelligent, and they are very disciplined,” adding that he didn’t like the Malditas nickname because “that doesn’t represent the beauty of being a Filipina.”
He said it was his own opinion, but added: “Now that I am back in the women's team, I told the team that we have to stop using this Maldita word.”
Maro would not be at the helm for long, as the national team would welcome former Australia women’s coach Alen Stajcic into the fold. It was certainly a coup, as Stajcic is credited as the architect behind the rise of Australia (nicknamed the Matildas, interestingly) into the No. 5 women’s football nation in the world.
Under Stajcic, the team went on its dream run in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in India, where they reached the semifinals to punch a ticket to this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup. During that run, one Spanish-speaking fan called Las Malditas “el mejor apodo del mundo” — the best nickname in the world.
But the train had apparently left the station because a couple of months after that historic achievement, the team’s management released a statement officially changing the team’s nickname.
In the press release, team manager Jeff Cheng4 said the new nickname was chosen for being “simple and nationalistic.” The Philippine Football Federation, for its part, said “all relevant parties” agreed that it was “not appropriate” for the team to play in the FIFA Women’s World Cup while using the Malditas nickname that supposedly has “negative connotations in large parts of the world.”5
In his World Cup preview for the Philippine team, Tom Ley of the sports website Defector rued the name change. “The Filipinas sound like a team that's eager to meet their opponents in a fair and honorable athletic competition designed to enrich the spirits of all those who take part. But the Malditas? That sounds like a squad of 11 freaks who are going to drag you onto a lake of fire and leave you there to burn. I know which one I'd rather root for.”
At this point in the essay so far, all of the voices we’ve heard about the issue (including mine) belong to men, which (spoiler alert) gets to the point I’m trying to make. I asked a couple of women who follow football closely about what they thought about the name change issue.
“Malditas had the bite, befitting of a team that have defied the odds to stand on world football’s biggest stage,” Mika said. “I have no idea what happened behind the scenes, but from an outside observer’s perspective, it feels like a case of losing certain contexts of what ‘Malditas’ could mean. As a ‘Maldita,’ it’s a word that can mean a girl who will make it a point to get what she wants — and I would have loved for the team to have retained that power word.”
Meanwhile, Camille Naredo, the longtime sports journalist from ABS-CBN, said she is “mostly ambivalent” about the name change, understanding the reason for it while hoping the team had picked a more unique moniker.
“Honestly I really liked the ‘Malditas’ moniker in the first place. I like that it was something you need to explain to non-Filipinos and I like the implication of the name itself. It also felt somewhat unique and in a way, kind of reclaiming the negative sentiment of the term and turning it into something positive,” Camille said.
She was charitable about the motivations of team management about why it was not quite working for the squad. “I also understood why Coach Maro felt the need to push for the change, precisely because of that negative connotation. Maybe they were getting tired of explaining what it means and they figured that they wanted to use a term that's more easily recognizable,” Camille added.
I would have loved to ask the current players about their thought on the issue, but they probably have better things to do than answer silly questions on the eve of the biggest tournament of their lives.
But the previous generation of national women footballers certainly loved the name. In 2011, I ran this essay on InterAksyon.com written by Belay Fernando,7 who at the time played defense for the Malditas, defending why the name had been chosen in the first place:
For the longest time, our country has worshipped basketball, a game played from barangay half-courts to the Big Dome. Lately, football has stolen some of the attention of our hoops-loving masses.
The Philippine national football team has gained popularity beyond the dreams of the local football community. With their success, the Azkals have made the sport seemingly attainable to all — even to the female populace.
But in every country, in every sport, female athletes have always experienced a double standard. They are either deemed just another pretty face before even stepping on to the playing field, or they are considered too manly to be a woman.
This same double standard also exists in football, a sport that involves too much contact, roughness, and stamina. And the same double standard exists for members of the Philippine national women’s football team — the Malditas.
The nickname has been controversial, with many criticisms thrown its way. But for us, the nickname represents the evolution of the beautiful, modern Filipina — an evolution not necessarily understood by everyone.
The “mal” in maldita means “bad” in Spanish. The term refers to someone mean, perverse or wicked; loose of tongue; or one who speaks her mind freely.
The last definition fits the national women’s football team well — we are women who came together to redefine norms.
Everyday, we go against everyone thinking that we can’t enjoy the same success on the pitch. We fight our battles in training, push ourselves beyond what we can do, and when training ends and the clock hits 8 a.m., we head to the locker rooms and face the world as beautiful, confident women ready to go about our day.
Some head to school for a full day of classes, before another training session with respective varsity teams. Some go to work or attend to other commitments.
We work hard in preparation for the day we represent our country in Laos for the ASEAN Football Federation Women’s Championships this September. But we also work hard to achieve something beyond our football careers.
Despite the lack of support and the lack of cheers, we keep going. In some ways, we were brave enough to answer the call to represent our country. We, the so-called Malditas, make do with what we have to try to create a team everyone can believe in.
And despite all the criticism, we go about our days with smiles. Smiles that say: Say what you must, I am a Maldita who fights till she gets what she wants. And if I were you, I would definitely be on my side because we are out to defy odds and conquer the world.
Midjourney: “A portrait of football coach Alen Stajcic in the style of palette knife art with red and blue as the main colors”
UNLESS YOU WERE A HARDCORE FAN, you probably didn’t care or even know about the name change, which speaks to how little public attention is directed at Philippine women’s football. It’s par for the course for a country obsessed with basketball.
The original run of the FireQuinito.com blog coincided with the rise of the Azkals in the Miracle of Hanoi in 2010, when the Philippine men’s national football team reached the semifinals of the AFF Suzuki Cup for the first time. The success of the Azkals led to so many casual fans calling for Filipinos to support the game instead of basketball.
In my essay “Why Football Needs Our Love,” I pushed back on the idea that football would lead to more sporting glory for the Philippines, noting the poor record of Southeast Asian teams even at the Asian level.
The fact is it’s very hard to build an internationally successful program in football. Assuming that the Philippines would shoot up the rankings “if only we tried,” as some fans and announcers keep harping, isn’t just inaccurate; at best, it’s ignorant and naïve, and at worst, it’s jingoistic, and it’s disrespectful of our neighbors who give their heart and soul for the sport, for whom football is part of the fabric of their culture.
Later in the essay, I made the case that there needs to be stronger support for football in the country anyway.
Faced with these facts, then, we need to flip conventional wisdom on its head: If we want to keep winning medals in international team competition, we must continue to concentrate of basketball.
The key here, of course, is that winning medals shouldn’t be the only reason for us to fall in love with a sport, and winning shouldn’t be a prerequisite for us to embrace football. After all, football is a sport worthy of affection in and of itself; it’s called the beautiful game for very good reason, and in precious moments, it lives up to its lofty moniker, with its unique rhythm and its opera of goals and near-misses. Furthermore, it’s a sport that allows us to commune with the rest of the world, to speak their language on the pitch, and to learn more about our neighbors. Whether we win or we lose, football deserves our love.
Since I wrote that essay nearly 13 years ago, in fact, the Philippines has competed twice in two World Cup tournaments for basketball. Meanwhile, journalists are writing pieces titled “Is Southeast Asian Football Finally On The Cusp Of Success?” because teams from Vietnam and Thailand “advanced deeper into the qualifying rounds than most Southeast Asian nations had previously gone.” Vietnam8 became the first ASEAN team to win a match in the last round qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. They finished the round with a win — a 3-1 banger over China — a draw, and eight defeats.
The funny thing is, all those things I wrote about the men’s side? That doesn’t apply to the Philippine women’s national football team. There’s no loveable loser bullshit about these women. We could go a lifetime without seeing the Azkals compete in the World Cup, while Las Malditas Filipinas could be mainstays in that tournament for years to come.
This is a golden opportunity. The Philippine Football Federation scored a coup in signing Stajcic, one of the best minds in the sport, to take over the program. You know how Pinoy basketball fans always fantasize about Erik Spoelstra, the Filipino-American coach of the Miami Heat, taking over as coach of Gilas Pilipinas? This is sort of like that, except if it happened after Pat Riley fired Spo in disgrace under mysterious circumstances that still aren’t quite clear, even four years later. Stajcic was dismissed by the Australian federation over “a culture of fear and unacceptable levels of stress” within the Matildas program. He would later win an apology from the federation over his dismissal, but his departure caused shockwaves within the program.9
In any case, Australia’s loss became the Philippines’ gain, and Stajcic soon found that he had plenty of talent at his disposal. For more than a decade now, the people working with the women’s team have been building bridges to allow women footballers from around the world to suit up. From Keep Up:
It was an eclectic mix that Stajcic was working with. He had some pro squad members flying in from Sweden, Japan, Spain and Cyprus. Others were aligned to schools and college teams. And some of the players who trialled, during an “eye opening” quest to find gems from outside the squad, ended up becoming part of his XI.
Stajcic compared the process to a youth program, “see who would turn up and if you can find anyone.”
Stajcic devised a strategy to ensure that would allow them to be at their fittest form through their fourth and fifth games of the tournament — the ones that would determine whether they qualified for the World Cup.
The coach and his staff then went to work, conducting “interviews with every player,” to get to know them better and to get them to buy in, while establishing their goals in the context of the players’ “words, feelings and thoughts.”
They would, of course, pull it off, in a run that Stajcic describes as the best experience of his career. They’ve also built on that victory, as the team claimed the 2022 AFF Women’s Championship — the first regional football trophy the Philippines has ever won, men or women.
Under Stajcic, the team’s quality as well as its expectations have risen so quickly, that narrowly missing the medal rounds in this year’s Southeast Asian Games already counts as a disappointment for the women.
Midjourney: “A female filipino soccer player in profile in the style of Shepard Fairey with blue and red as the main colors”
THE CRAZY THING is that this only feels like the beginning of something special.
Following their magical run in India last year, goalkeeper Olivia McDaniel talked about building for the next generation.
“I think it's important that we want to give this team and women's football longevity,” McDaniel said. “We want to create more spaces for women in football and in sports in general.”
For her part, star striker Sarina Bolden talked about raising the bar for women’s soccer in general. “Maybe not everyone thought we would be here, but that’s the role that we’re playing: For the other teams like, ‘Oh, look at the Philippines. Look at what they’re doing,’” she said.
It certainly feels sustainable. The Philippines is in a sweet spot when it comes to talent, both in the country and abroad. Youth soccer is one of the most popular sports among girls in the United States, and the most popular in California, where there is the highest concentration of Filipino migrants. That is a pipeline to a renewable resource for the national team.10 And of course, you could find Filipino talent from every corner of the world.
There is even more untapped potential in the Philippines. “The women are probably the most undervalued talents in Philippine football,” Roy Moore, a football writer and founder of the Payatas FC, wrote in a 2015 analysis on GMA News Online. Roy noted that countries that have more gender equality tend to do better in women’s football, because there are fewer barriers to girls taking up sports.
Since Roy wrote that article, the Philippines’ ranking has dipped a bit to 19th in the World Economic Forum (WEF) Gender Gap Index, but we remain second in East Asia and the Pacific, below New Zealand and just ahead of Australia. Still, his point remains: equality is a strength,11 and all that’s needed is to pour in resources at the grassroots level to build a bigger base for women’s football in the country.
A bigger base of players, but a bigger base of fans too — fans who will live and die with every shot on goal, so much so that it would be unacceptable that we would have to wait until the last minute to confirm whether our team, playing in the World Cup for the first time, would even have their matches broadcast on local television.12
The Philippines ranks well in equality, but two things can be true at the same time, and in just about the most heartbreaking example of “two things can be true,” a recent United Nations Development Program study found that 99.5% of all Filipinos have biases against women, leading to constrained choices and limited opportunities: in education, in politics, in the economy, and in physical integrity.
Think about what Olivia McDaniel said, about “creating more spaces for women in football and in sports in general.”
In a fairer world, the notion that those spaces would still need to be created would just be silly.
In a fairer world, there’d perhaps be more women at the helm of big corporations, who would pour in resources for women’s sports so that female athletes could get the support they deserve, the way men who head big corporations pour irrational amounts of money into the sports they care about the most.
In a fairer world, the voices of women would dominate the conversations involving their sport, their team, and their future.
In a fairer world, we’d all be going crazy for the Malditas, or whatever the hell they would like to be called.
But we don’t live in a fair world, and I suspect this is not lost on anyone who’s been a member of the Philippine Women’s National Football Team, from Belay Fernando to Olivia McDaniel to Sarina Bolden. All of them had to display grit and overcome adversity to achieve what they’ve done in their careers. We should all be thanking our lucky stars we get to root for this team. They’re fighting for flag and pride, yes, but also so much more. As Sarina Bolden put it:
Oh, look at the Philippines. Look at what they’re doing.
The sixth episode of the first Season of Community is titled “Football, Feminism and You,” which is an amazing coincidence for reasons that will soon become apparent as you read this article.
They aimed to develop the perfect mascot. “No stereotypical identifiers from any race or gender.” Far from being innocuous, the Human Beings mascot inevitably ends up being the creepiest nightmare fuel:
If you were to rank Philippine-related matters that have “negative connotations in large parts of the world,” how far down would “sassy female football team nickname” be on that list? Especially compared to, say, “extrajudicial killings” or “plunder and corruption” or even just “use of footage from other countries for your tourism promotion video”? I’d imagine it’d be pretty far down.
My favorite piece Mika wrote for the site was an essay called “What is sexual harassment? On Sofia, Cristina and the Woman Question,” breaking down the controversy involving former Philippine Olympic Committee President Cristy Ramos’ sexual harassment suit against two members of the Azkals. In some ways since she wrote that essay more than 11 years ago, we’ve come a long way as a society with the way we discuss sexual harassment, safe spaces, and even rape culture. And yet in so many other ways, we’ve got so much more to go.
Even after her retirement from the national team, Belay Fernando remains a football hero. A cancer survivor, she is now a leading advocate against the disease. She works as the Women's Administrator for the Philippine Football Federation, where she is hard at work finding the next generation of women footballers that would carry the country’s colors.
Over the past several years, the Vietnamese have been the class of the region under the guidance of Park Hang-seo, a previously unheralded South Korean coach who led the squad to its current FIFA No. 95 ranking. His success led other Southeast Asian teams to hire Korean coaches, leading to a mini “K-Soccer” boom. Ironically, Vietnam parted ways with Park earlier this year to bring in Philippe Troussier, a veteran French coach who previously led sides from South Africa (1998) and Japan (2002) to the World Cup, which speaks to Vietnam’s footballing ambitions.
From the Sydney Morning Herald:
Stajcic's sacking split Australian soccer, with a whispering campaign and plenty of high-profile figures briefing against him during a period of seismic upheaval for the women's national team.
Several players came out in his defence and there was a month of ugly claim and counter-claim about the culture around the team, exacerbated by the unprecedented involvement of Our Watch, an organisation which campaigns against violence against women.
Stajcic supporters claimed he had been the victim of a witch hunt, with FFA claiming at the time it had been forced to take action.
The breakout star of the Women’s Under-17 team, which is also under Stajcic’s supervision, is an eighth grader named Nina Mathelus, and she already looks amazing. (The EZ Mil soundtrack on her highlights is a nice touch.)
Even top Spanish clubs are discovering that having girls play with boys does wonders for their development.
Just days before the Philippines’ World Cup debut against Switzerland, Cignal TV announced that the matches would be broadcast over One Sports and on the Pilipinas Live app.