The Philippines, more widely known for its basketball obsession, is quietly developing into a professional football powerhouse in Southeast Asia. Bienvenido Maranon has been a catalyst for Ceres-Negros FC's unlikely rise.
Maranon, an experienced campaigner from Spain, didn't know much about football in the Philippines when he landed with Ceres-Negros in 2015.
The Philippines at the time only had a semi-professional United Football League (UFL) as its highest level of competition.
In the five years since Maranon joined, Ceres-Negros has captured three consecutive Philippines Football League titles (which replaced the UFL as a fully-professional competition), and an AFC Cup ASEAN Zone crown in 2017.
"I initially didn't know anything about football in Philippines," Maranon said on The John Dykes Show. "At the beginning, football in Philippines was not really good, especially when we're talking about four or five years ago when it wasn't even a professional league.
"But I've enjoyed it a lot because, little by little, the level has improved and Ceres-Negros have also grown a lot. Now, we play in the qualifiers for the AFC Champions League, in the AFC Cup, and we win lots of titles."
The 33-year-old Maranon is clearly thriving in Philippines, who themselves are a rising force on the international stage having made their first AFC Asian Cup appearance last January.
Maranon's second goal in a 4-0 win over Bali United on March 11 was his 35th in the AFC Cup, making him the competition's all-time highest scorer in just over four campaigns.
"I feel so happy [but] in that moment, when I scored that goal, I didn't know anything about this achievement," Maranon said. "I'm lucky to be playing with very good players like Manny Ott, Stephan Schrock and 'Super' [Manuel Herrera], so it sometimes looks easy to score the goals."
All of it might never have happened if Maranon had not taken the advice of a former teammate at second-tier Spanish club Cadiz in Carli de Murga, who was born in Spain but is of Philippine heritage. de Murga has represented the Philippines national team for almost a decade.
Having decided to play in the Philippines in 2012, it was De Murga who alerted Maranon to possibility of playing there and the two eventually crossed paths again at Ceres from 2015 to 2019.
"I always say I'm so lucky to have come to Philippines five years ago because I've lived through everything," Maranon said. "From the time when the league wasn't even professional till now when we're living the best moments in the history of Philippine football."
It will be a while before Maranon and Ceres-Negros can continue their ascent in the AFC Cup as the Asian Football Confederation has postponed competitions until July because of the coronavirus pandemic.
When it does resume, Ceres-Negros will again have AFC Cup glory in their sights and Maranon will continue to be key to their ambition.