Philippine Football: Missing the Pitch

football

By MALAKAI F. FELICIANO

Photos by: Carmen Dulguime

An aspiring 16-year-old football player looks back at 2020, sharing his passion and heartbreak for the sport he loves, as well as his positive outlook on what Philippine football does – and can still do – for the Filipino youth.

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For a long period in 2020, the world decided to give people a break. Employees did not have to go to work, students did not have to go to school, and football players were forced to take what could be their longest halftime break from the pitch, so to speak. Suddenly, student athletes like me found ourselves asking: “Now, what?”

In the middle of March, events, plans, and dreams were canceled; yet the desire to keep moving remained. For football, passion kept burning within the community. This “less popular” sport in the Philippines was brimming with excitement at the start of 2020 until the lockdown happened, and clubs and fans alike simply considered it a necessary break.

“This ‘less popular’ sport in the Philippines was brimming with excitement at the start of 2020 until the lockdown happened, and clubs and fans alike simply considered it a necessary break.”

Pre-COVID, Football Manila was hosting pick-up games at pitches within Makati and Taguig four times a week. Players welcomed this as an end-of-day treat since it was scheduled around midnight, usually coming to play with their friends and looking forward to play against strangers. Great memories were made on  Turf BGC and Circuit Makati (Chelsea) Blue Pitch where amateur and pro athletes alike play football, whether to improve their game or to just have fun. Football there was played on a small-sided pitch with seven players aside. One player (the goalkeeper) would be set apart to make sure the ball does not go in the net while the other six would either defend or attack.

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Players are likely to get hurt during a game, but one does not think about getting hurt once the ball gets kicked around.

One specific memory I had playing in the pitch was of this boy who did not look like the best player on the pitch. His body type did not suggest he was athletic: potbellied, scrawny legs. There were actually some mean people who laughed at him. Unfazed, the boy kept to his game. At one point he received the ball and banged it from his own half all the way into the corner of the goal. He continued his hot streak by not letting any balls past him. People were surprised, and the boy just kept his head up with excitement to play. He was obviously just happy to be there and enjoy the sport he loves.

But what I missed most in 2020 was the spirit of competition. At certain times during the year – in one day, in fact – I would find myself driving from one venue to another to compete in varsity and amateur club leagues one after the other. Exhausting, but youth and adrenaline kept me going.

“What I missed most in 2020 was the spirit of competition.”

Youth football teams usually prepare as early as January for the Youth Football League (YFL) scheduled in April. People as young as seven years old dedicate countless hours to practice for this highly anticipated yearlong series of competitions. Players train with their respective clubs at least twice a week to work on aspects of football that range from passing and technique to physicality, and knowing where to be on the field given different situations. Some players fail, some players fly.

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Form follows with hours, days, months and years of practice.

The performance of a player in training does not stay constant, so they continue to work hard to maintain their levels and be the best player they can be come first game in April. Players and their teams turn up to the pitch (usually played in Alabang Country Club) with a host of their supporters – mostly parents – in tow to cheer them on.

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Dusty, muddy, hot, or any pitch condition is nothing compared with the physical and mental conditioning players get themselves into.

It is not just one pair of teams that face off every weekend – it is a whole festival of clubs that span different age groups: U7, U9, U11, U13, U15, U17 and U19. More than 100 people every weekend to play, with the pitch divided into several fields. Two teams meet on each field simultaneously. The perimeters are surrounded by eager parents, loud siblings, and anyone who comes along to enjoy football. Some of the matches can get tense while others ooze football joy. For 90 minutes, we forget our school assignments to focus on something we love while being supported by people who are there for the same reason. Football really brings people together.

“For 90 minutes, we forget our school assignments to focus on something we love while being supported by people who are there for the same reason.”

On the professional front, the Philippines Football League (PFL) was postponed in March. Players, coaches, and everybody in the Philippine football community were left disappointed, though there was still a small chance that the league would push through sometime in the year. But the participating football players continued to work hard through every which way they can.

rain or shine
Rain or shine, football games continue for as long as the pitch remains playable.

United City Football Club (UCFC) playmaker OJ Porteria posted videos of his training on Tiktok, which have surely inspired many others to continue their training despite there being no competition. Co-players in the PFL started to document their own quarantine journeys by posting videos of their workouts and meals, which only fortified their eagerness to get back on the pitch.

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Club teams begin with a huddle in the middle of the pitch before a game.

Finally in mid-October, the PFL  2020 season kicked off in a bubble setup due to the pandemic, and shortened to just over two weeks to cope with financial constraints. In the end, UCFC took the Cup with a one-goal win over the promising Azkals Development Team. The people in management and those involved worked with what they had and were rewarded with a presentation oozing with passion. Broadcasts over the internet were smooth, commentators narrated everything that happened while adding their own little nuggets of knowledge, and thousands of fans watched the league matches on livestreaming via Facebook and YouTube. Despite contact sports being temporarily halted in the country, the support for football continued to persist and showed up when it was time for the sport to kick off.

2020 was a difficult year, but it was also a year that set things in perspective and helped us to appreciate things more. It is a year that has helped many understand the value of events, people, and occasions in their life. Football was missed last year, but it still came into our lives one way or another. The memories it gave kept us going, and its ability to unite stirs up great possibilities for change that kept us football hopefuls alive.


author feliciano

About the Writer
Malakai Rei F. Feliciano

Malakai Rei F. Feliciano is a 16-year old varsity football player from Colegio San Agustin playing the position of defender – switching between center back, center midfield, defensive midfield and full back. He was training under former Azkal Simon Greatwich’s G8 Academy before the pandemic struck. He also once trained under the Younghusbands’ Chelsea FC Soccer School, and played in YFL with Agila MSA FC where his team played one unbeaten season. He started playing football at the age of 6, and has since played in many local competitions. Though constrained due to quarantine protocols, Kai continues to train regularly on his own, keeping a mindset that he is ready because football will come back any day.