In the first episode of “It’s My Game”, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) features Isabella Fernando-Dela Cruz as the Philippines Football Federation (PFF) Head of Women’s Football shines the spotlight on the Filipinas’ historic qualification for the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023.
For Isabella, who donned the national team jersey from 2009 to 2013 and featured in prestigious competitions such as the AFF Women’s Championship before moving on to managerial roles, the prospect of watching the Filipinas perform on the biggest stage in the world is almost surreal.
“The World Cup is a dream that I didn’t even allow myself to imagine. It is something you whisper to yourself when you’re alone, but it was beyond our expectations.
“It is something that inspires me (to believe) that we can really grow the game in the country and that we can tell young girls, the young Filipinas that they can make it too and can one day be preparing for their very own FIFA World Cup,” said Isabella.
However, it was not this dream that propelled her to take an interest in the sport. In fact, the story behind Isabella’s early initiation into football is one that is as old as time – to spend more time with friends, which blossomed into undying love for the game.
“What really got me into football was wanting to play with my friends and it turned out that I really enjoyed it,” explained Isabella, who is often referred to as Belay by her friends.
“I started playing when I was in elementary school with the varsity team and ever since it captured my attention and I really fell in love with the game,” she continued.
Using the example of her own playing days, the former goalkeeper went on to draw attention to the need for increasing competitive opportunities to ensure that the rapidly evolving landscape of women’s football in Asia continues its strong momentum.
“Football in Asia, especially when it comes to women, has seen amazing growth in the 10 years since I have stopped playing. There are more competitive professional leagues and the intensity and understanding of the game have grown so much, especially with the success of the US and the European teams,” she said.
But now, with the success of the Filipinas, there is a promise of a new dawn for women’s football in the Philippines and it is Isabella’s belief that the achievement has the potential to be a watershed moment for the future of the sport in the country.
“I think in the Philippines, they love a winner, especially in sports. We look at Manny Pacquiao and Hidilyn Diaz. Their success in their own sports brought about growth in not only people watching and supporting them but also in people who want to play the sport, who want to learn the craft and I hope that this win develops not only women’s football but football as a whole – in terms of the fanbase, in terms of both girls and boys wanting to play the sport.” she said.
Having achieved significant milestones as the head of women’s football at the PFF despite serious challenges such as surviving breast cancer, Isabella is now keen to take on the challenge of expanding her horizon to make an even more meaningful impact on women’s football.
“Going through a rough patch like cancer really helped me prioritize what is important to me. Being involved in football definitely helped me cope with sickness and the tough times that I had,” she recalled.
“I see myself in a more senior role than what I am doing now, trying to impact football both locally and internationally.
“I think the road I have been on is a story that I want to share –that it’s not the easiest path to choose. There weren’t that many women in the field when I started out and I want to tell my story and share my experience so that more young girls are inspired to do what I do,” she added.
Shifting roles to the goalkeeper from a defender during her playing days to suit the needs of her team, to lending her expertise in shaping the future of women’s football at the PFF, Isabella’s journey is one of resilience, inspiration, determination, and her, it all comes down to her role model – her mother.
“My mom worked in a field that I would call male-dominated and difficult to navigate. She showed me strength and grace, and she showed toughness when she needed to be tough and showed empathy when she needed to be empathetic.”
Now an inspiration to young women herself, Isabella is hopeful that with the right support and increased involvement of women behind the scenes, a new chapter awaits the Filipinas.
“I am not going to sit here and tell young girls that being involved in a male-dominated sport is easy, but I want to tell them that the fruits of their labor will not go unnoticed.
“They will take pride in it and if it is something that they truly want to do, I want to encourage them to be more involved in women’s football because being women ourselves, we add a little extra something.
“We need the empathy of women in the sport. I think it’s important for them to realize that at first, it is not going to be easy, but the journey will definitely be worth it.”
Launched on the AFC Women’s Football Day in 2018, the AFC’s ‘It’s My Game’ campaign continues to honor inspiring women in football from throughout the world’s largest Continent, reaching millions of people via the AFC’s digital channels.
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