SOCCER FEVER

Talk about serendipity! The weather was horrendous a few days before I was due to arrive in the Philippines. The rain, which had developed into a typhoon after it exited the country, didn’t let up and floods were reported almost everywhere in the archipelago, uprooting multitude of families from their homes. But pleasant weather greeted my touch down at the Centennial Airport that Saturday afternoon.

A week later I finally caught a match of the Philippine Azkals against the Sri Lankan Brave Reds on Channel 23 in the home-away game. Burning with soccer fever, I made sure to catch the home game several days later. I’ve heard of the Azkals footballers earlier on with all the publicity drummed up especially around the young Filipino-British brothers, the taciturn James Younghusband and the forthcoming Phil Younghusband, but I never got to see them in action.

However, alongside the positive energy were mixed feelings about the newfound popularity of soccer (football as the European players call it). Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy – deliriously happy, in fact, with the soccer fever dogging Filipinos. Finally, after being scoffed at, ignored and having played second fiddle to basketball for ages, soccer is now in the forefront of Philippine sports.  Basketball was the uncontested sport of the Filipinos with every boy aspiring to make it to the pros. I had little love for basketball although I hit the court every now and then with my father and cheered for the Lakers (think Karen Abdul Jabbar days). I have always preferred soccer over any sport except perhaps for badminton.

My university days found me playing with the UP women’s varsity team under coach Mike Villadolid. It was great fun running up and down the pitch (as how the Azkals say it), and kicking and dribbling the ball across the pitch as skillfully as I could. It was exhilarating trying to wrestle the ball from the opponent while trying hard not to touch the ball with your hands. Sliding down the pitch to get hold of the ball or to derail a player making her way up the pitch was thrilling especially when it was raining. But it wasn’t fun having a scrimmage at the UP Sunken Garden or the field behind the Mass Communications building during rainy days because, unlike the pitch at the Rizal Memorial Stadium that drained well, the two turned boggy.

In high school, soccer was overshadowed by volleyball and basketball, but I somehow managed to coerce the entire class to play the sport for one quarter. Watching World Cup games was almost always a solo affair, but I was lucky to have caught one World Cup with an ex-best friend inside a movie theatre in Singapore in the wee hours of the morning, and another World Cup game (the final match between Argentina and Germany, if I remember correctly) at Paulaner Brauhaus in Singapore with a gal-pal who was, fortunately, also into soccer. A huge screen was set up in the German brewery-restaurant for soccer fanatics to watch, amidst munching pork knuckles and quaffing beer, the new champion emerge.

Now I’m not alone in my passion for soccer as the fever is gripping the entire nation especially after the stoked up Azkals made up for their less-than-spectacular play in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in the first leg of the qualifying round for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil earlier in the month. I was completely flummoxed – and pleased at the same time – when I saw the crowd (reported to have totaled to 13,000) at Rizal Memorial Stadium on TV. They were there cheering the Azkals from start to finish, rain and shine.

Then the qualm started to settle in. It started during the second half of the match when the brilliance exhibited in the first half dissolved and the connection that bound them snapped. It’s always, without a doubt, easy to critique players particularly for their perceived lackluster performance in a game because critics don’t get tired running up and down the pitch or endure tremendous pressure weighing heavily on their shoulders to shoot goals and live up to the hype as fantastic players. But my comments are not so much about their skills although, on hindsight, they need to be a little fitter than they are now. I’m seeing the South Korean players in my mind and how they looked like they were “jogging” alongside their German opponents in one World Cup game. They traversed the pitch as if they were merely strolling in the park!

Skills aside, my disquiet lies on two points. One is about the sticky issue of home-grown talent against. half breeds. Phil Younghusband, in an issue of Yes magazine, said that barriers didn’t exist at all. I suppose they’ve become great friends all the while they’ve been practicing together, which is well and good. But it’s not so much the breaking of such barriers as the mindset that we have to get “foreign” players to boost the national squad. Why can’t the non-half breeds have the training that these half-Filipinos are receiving overseas? With all the hype and attention soccer is getting, I hope that, by now, plans are underway for the setting up of training centers for future soccer players and give the sport steady support.

Another is the business of the Filipino nationality. These mestizos are representing the country in competitions, flying the Philippine flag high, and gamely identifying themselves as Filipinos. It’s been argued that they’re Filipinos by virtue of the nationality of one of their parents, which is really stretching the argument. I see them as Filipinos for now because they’re still part of the team. What happens when they’re no longer part of the team? Did they ever consider themselves as Filipinos to begin with? It would be good to know their thoughts on Filipino-hood since they spent their de facto lives away from the archipelago.

The effort of the players in assimilating to the Filipino culture have not gone unnoticed particularly in speaking the language as exhibited by the team’s spokesperson, Phil Younghusband, who readily answers questions in Filipino with his British accent, endearing him to his ilk and supporters.

On a lighter tone, I wouldn’t mind, over mugs of Starbucks, talking about mundane things such as their first impression of the Philippine, reading list (I hope they have one), education, music, movies, citizenship, and life after soccer.

In the meantime, my thoughts rest on when the other Filipino players will be seen on the pitch and the upcoming game with Kuwait. It’s quite a challenge for them to win against the Kuwaitis who are touted to be good players, but I hope that they’re up to proving that the Azkals are not all hype and bark.

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