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How football saved my life

by Ron Poblete

Recently updated on February 8, 2023 02:50 pm

I WAS watching the Qatar World Cup opening last Sunday when I remembered that time I had a health scare in 2010. 

I was overweight, chain-smoked, and lived a very sedentary lifestyle. Working for a radio station can do that for you. You practically sit all day playing music and are all alone talking to a microphone like a crazy person. It didn’t help that there was a 711 by the road at our building where the station was. So imagine the daily dose of junk in the form of Slurpees, ice cream, and chips.

By the time I felt a tingling sensation in my nape due to high blood pressure, I was already 60 pounds overweight and badly needed a change of lifestyle.

The Premonition

So one afternoon, while having a sugar crash-induced siesta, I dreamt about football. I was running on a beautiful green field with a ball at my feet. I could feel the cool breeze and the smile on my face. I felt happy and satisfied. Then I woke up wondering what this vivid dream was all about. 

Then I saw a few batchmates from Ateneo De Davao. Only then did I realize that the dream was a premonition. Almost out of the blue, my friend and former varsity teammate Jake called my attention and asked, “Bai naglalaro kami ng football sa San Augustin. Laro ka?”. His office had a football club, and they’ve been playing pick-up games on weekends. Smart Telecommunications, the company he works for, is into sports and supports its employees with their sports-related activities, hence the opportunity for them to learn, relearn and enjoy the sport.

No place to play and no one to play with

I gave up on football after college for the simple reason that no one ever plays beyond the years in university, where you can play the sport for PE and the varsity team.

Unlike basketball, where there is a court in every barangay in our country, football is often played at expansive grassy lots, which limits the number of venues where people can enjoy it recreationally. 

Unlike in the Philippines, in Latin countries and Brazil, football is played on the streets. They call it futsal (futbol sala or indoor football), which would be an actual offshoot of the sport. There are futsal tournaments worldwide, and now it is also becoming a thing in the Philippines. 

This is the reason why playing the sport regularly is hard. It was difficult to gather players and find venues back in the late 90s to continue playing it unless you were a member of the Blue Guards of Ateneo, like Bert Honasan, brother of former Sen. Gringo Honasan. He and his contemporaries always made sure they got to play the game all these years. I had the privilege of playing against him in the Ateneo Alumni Football League. He was such a joy to watch. In his senior years, he could still control the ball with his chest and shoot it like a 20-year-old.

The recreational tournaments came after I started playing football regularly. This coincided with the rise of the Azkals, the new iteration of the men’s Philippine football team. Businessman Dan Palami started recruiting foreign-based players with Filipino heritage to play for the national team. This, for a few years, put the sport back into prominence. Players like James and Phil Younghusband became instant celebrities. Their televised performance against football powerhouse Vietnam had some of our countrymen glued to their TV sets and back on the pitch playing football again the next day.

Building on the gains

The developers followed suit. The first ever artificial pitch was built in the middle of Bonifacio Global City. Emperador at Mckinley Hills and the Chelsea Blue Pitch at Circuit City came next. There is one being built in the new Bridgetown in Libis. UP Diliman has a new one and UP Mindanao in Davao City. Southridge in Alabang has a great artificial pitch, and the one in Carmona and the Aboitiz turf in Lipa, Batangas are great too. 

https://www.instagram.com/p/BrHCduPnmBs/

If the millions of investment in football is a quick indicator of the sport going mainstream, we are, at the very least, on the cusp of football to finally breaking it.

The community has grown

It has been 12 years since I started playing football again. I’ve been playing longer than I ever did in my teen years, now that I am in my late 40s. Thanks to people like my friend Jake Robillo who invited me back. Former Smart Executive James Bernas and members of their Football Club for allowing me to play for them as a serial guest player. Weekend Futbol League organizer Joey Pratts for igniting the competitive spirit of former players who came back to the sport. Never United FC player/manager Manu Cuevas who got all these old and young former players of Ateneo and LaSalle to play together in this tournament. 

I also thank former Ateneo De Manila stalwart, Rely San Augustin for the annual Ateneo Alumni Football League as well as the Ateneo Vs La Salle Duel and the Battle of Katipunan (Ateneo Vs UP Alumni) tournaments; sports writer and commentator Bob Guerero for those weekend games we had in this dainty little pitch at the Esteban/Australian School in Taguig; Bixie Reyes, Angel Guerero and the Adobo cup organizers for filling our years with fun moments playing with the creme dela creme of advertising who were just beginning to enjoy the game; former high school teammates Dr. Kix Latayan, Matthew Descallar and Buboy Arrieta for the weekend games at Crocodile Park in Davao City as well; JP Demontano for setting up the Ateneo Alumni Football League; JB Buenviaje and the Oscariz Football Club of Ateneo for the Sunday games; John Molina and Panky Abijay of Iligan FC for adopting me to play for them as well; JC Recto, owner of Bagwings for organizing games at Merville, Sundays to make sure we keep in shape during the pandemic; former LaSalle player Peps Avecilla, Ateneo player JohnD Borra and the great players of our University Alumni Football League (Ateneo, LaSalle, UST, CSA, UP) for keeping the games going at the Tuesday night scrimmages in Emperador Stadium.

I can’t imagine life without football. We sometimes take for granted the value we get from playing a kid’s game, but so much of life mirrors the lessons we learn and gain from engaging in this sport. Even more valuable is the community this sport built. Old and young, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, friends, schoolmates, and colleagues have shared memories that revolve around this sport in these last years. 

I hope this is the beginning of something more transformative. We don’t need to say goodbye to basketball. We can always be a two or three-sport nation. The moment is here to give football the time in the sun it deserves.

This sport, after all, saved my life. 

Borrowing a line from one of my favorite streaming shows, Ted Lasso “Futbol Is Life.”

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