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Football Paradise

<font size="1">Could the next Ronaldhino come from the Philippines?</font>
| Jun 1, 2006
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WORDS: Heidi Pascual, Jasmine Payo, and Cedelf Tupas

Could the next Ronaldhino come from the Philippines? Somewhere in Barotac, Nuevo, Iloilo, the country’s football capital, he’s already showing signs of greatness as we speak

Football fever first hit Barotac Nuevo, an undersized municipality some 30km north from Iloilo City, when Pascual and Roque Sustiguer Monfort, both students at private school Colegio de San Agustin in Iloilo, got hooked to the game Spanish friars had introduced through the learning system. So adept at football they had become that they were picked to backstop the Philippine National Football Team that competed in the East Olympics held in Tokyo, Japan in 1921, where they surprisingly copped top honors.

Every summer, the Monforts would be regularly seen booting ball at the plaza. “Kapag vacation na, they would go back to Barotac and invite kids to play football in the field,” says Duffie Botavara, general secretary of the Barotac Nuevo Football Club. “Maliit pa yung field dati. May monumento pa nga yan sa gitna. It was only in the late 1970s nang ipagawa at pinalaki ni Mayor Mariano Araneta yung field.”

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Soon, the passion caught on among young boys, regardless of their status in life. On the field, rich and poor became equals. Before the outbreak of World War II, public school students in Iloilo were increasingly becoming just as crazy over football as their more monied counterparts. A few years later, in 1939, the football team that represented the whole of Iloilo in the National Interscholastic Meet was mostly made up of Barotacnons.

After WWII, graduating high school football stars of Barotac Nuevo enlisted in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which has always been known for its strong football program. At one point, the Philippine Army team had an all-Barotacnon lineup. “The AFP was actively recruiting players then,” recalls Major Antonio Buensuceso, ex-National Team player and former Barotac Nuevo Football Club president. “They knew that we had a great supply of players here in Barotac. Kilala talaga kaming mahusay maglaro.”

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Football frenzy in Barotac Nuevo was at its most glorious in 1979 when a team mostly comprised of greenhorns competed in a grueling four-month National Cup meet that showcased the best 172 teams in the country.
They won the regional meet and earned the right to represent Visayas in the Finals against the vaunted San Miguel team, which bannered Luzon. “The game was held in Manila—and most of our players hadn’t been to Manila yet,” says Mariano Araneta Jr., former National Team player and former executive vice president of the Philippine Football Federation. “It was also their first time to play in a first-class league.”

But rookie jitters were the least of the team’s concerns. At the Sebastian Ugarte Field in Makati, 3,000 spectators gathered, cheering mostly for the highly favored San Miguel booters. Trailing by a point and with a few minutes left in the tensely fought match, Barotac’s 17-year-old center-forward Emer Bedia knocked a powerful shot from the outside of the penalty area. The ball hit the goal post at first before finally settling on the right side of the goal’s mouth. With a higher goal average, the young Barotacnons, gamely playing David, dashed the hopes of Goliath-like San Miguel and won the cup.

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“That championship win was the springboard and the highest point in Barotac football history,” Araneta declares. “That’s when we all believed that we can beat even the big teams. At that point, we knew all we needed was training para mas maganda ang results.”

Barotac Nuevo soon became very well-known as a wealthy mine of football talents: the Aranetas, Bedias, Cajelos, Causings, Zullas, Doctoras, Braganzas. These are the names that still pop up in conversations over bachoy and tuba. Barotac’s next-gen football greats, mind you, aren’t even in their twenties yet. In 1999, five of them were chosen to don the country’s colors in the 5th Puma Street Soccer Cup in London. They were barely 13 years old then.

“All we ever wanted was to participate in the qualifying meets,” recalls Leo Betita, Barotac Nuevo Elementary School coach. “Ang purpose lang ng mga bata ay makita ang Manila kasi kahit papunta rito wala silang pamasahe. Tapos nag-champion kami at napiling representatives.”

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Although the young booters fell short of bagging the crown, they accomplished the impossible: Never before did a Pinoy team win against countries that have football programs 20 years far more advanced than ours. “Nanalo kami against Ireland and Malaysia,” Betita beams. “Proud ako sa mga bata kasi ito lang ang batch na nanalo ng dalawang games sa Puma World Street Soccer.”

Such accomplishments are difficult to dismiss. Even the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), world football’s governing body, acknowledged Barotac Nuevo as the capital and future of football in the country. In 2002, they picked this town to be the home of their donation—the National Training Center for the advancement of the country’s young football players.

Basking in football glory is just one side of this municipality’s passion for the game. Every Barotacnon knows that football is their way to better education, job and housing opportunities.

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“Through the skills and talent of the children, nakakakuha sila ng scholarship sa mga big universities and colleges,” says Betita. “Lalo na sa Maynila. From there, makakakuha sila ng maayos na trabaho once they graduate.”
Graduating high school star Mark Ferrer, for example, is one of the most sought after booters in the country. Various coaches from universities and colleges have flocked to Barotac to recruit him. “Maraming nag-o-offer sa akin na pumunta sa Maynila,” he confirms.

“Pero sa Bacolod ako mag-aaral kasi mas malaki yung binibigay na allowance sa akin doon. Mga P2,000 kasi yung offer every month. Sa ibang schools kasi P1,000 lang.”

College graduates, on the other hand, usually opt to enlist in the AFP, a move that has been practiced since the 1960s, says National Team mainstay and Philippine Air Force stalwart Ian Araneta. “Nag-scout sila ng players noon. Pumunta yung mga taga-Air Force at Philippine Army pero pinili ko yung Air Force,” he shares. “Tuwing June kasi, may National Finals dito na talagang dinadayo ng mga taga-Air Force, Army at Navy. Tinitingnan nila yung potential ng mga bata tapos aalukin nila kung saan gustong sumali. Pero hindi nila sinasabi na papasok sila roon para maglaro lang ng football. Magte-training sila tapos magse-serve rin sila. Magdu-duty din sila. Hindi lang puro laro.”

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Why aren’t we in the World Cup when there’s a good number of players roaming around town? And why are we just ranked 191st in the world?

The cheerless part of it all is that despite football being the number one sport in Asia and in the world, and despite the undeniable talent of Filipino players, there are only a handful of people who can be counted on for support.
Football mill Barotac Nuevo, for example, only relies on the local government unit for aid. “We only have an annual budget of P75,000 from the LGU,” explains Botavara. “Kaya tulungan na lang kami rito sa Barotac. Nung National Men’s Finals last February 22, 2006, wala kaming pera. We just asked the vendors to give us free rice para sa bawat ulam na bibilhin namin. Even the coaches here teach the game pro bono.”

The club tried soliciting funding from corporations but was routinely snubbed. “Siyempre nga naman, who will invest in a small town?” Botavara laments. “Corporations would rather support events in the city na okay lang kahit walang manood. At least visible ang promotions nila. Our biggest problem now is how to market football in Barotac. Sayang yung galing ng mga players namin kung ganito kakaunti lang ang mga sumusuporta sa kanila.”

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For the full story, read the June 2006 issue of FHM

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