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And Never Shall We Fail

This being a weekday, I knew I would not be able to travel with the high school football team for the NCAA-South Final against Letran-Calamba at the First Asia Institute of Arts and the Humanities (FAITH) football field. I did say the other day that it would take a major screw up for our boys not to win this one.

There was one minor concern heading into the game. Luis Canlas, who plays in the holding midfield role – this is the defensive midfielder whose role it is to protect the backline just behind him – was set to miss the game because of his senior class retreat. Canlas is a vital member of the team; but I call his absence a “minor” concern because right fullback Gillian Albano – who had played in the holding midfield role before – had been in terrific form for the duration of the NCAA-South.

What I was careful to point out to the boys early this morning before they left for the venue, thus, was that a football game is always about the team and never about the individual. There were fourteen of them left, I said, to ensure that the temporary loss of Canlas was appropriately covered.

Not really surprisingly, despite the boys being out to fulfill a date with destiny, I was able to go through the morning hardly thinking about what was possibly going on at the FAITH football field. Most of the boys in the team have been with me since they were still snotty freshmen; and I know for a fact that theirs is one of the most special groups of boys I have worked with in almost three decades of football.

After lunch, one of the boys sent in this text message: “Sir, tapos na pô ang game. 2-1 score. We’re the champions!”

The 2-1 scoreline – I must say – was not as emphatic as I rather hoped it would be. We had beaten Letran 3-nil in the group stage, even if we had been reduced to 10 men as early as the first half. Although we did not score as many goals in this game as we had against the other schools in the tournament, they were not making much of an impression on our goal, either.

Although I was elated by the news, being me I just could not help text-ing another of the boys who had also jubilantly sent me a text message: “Sigue congrats sa inyong lahat… May libre kayong singaling for winning…”

I have been in this business for a while now; so I knew the scoreline probably meant that it was not a pretty game. A winner-takes-all final is always different from a group game. Even fully professional teams rather tend to take the pragmatic approach towards cup finals; i.e. keeping things tight at the back and being timid about throwing bodies forward into the attack.

When I spoke to the boys towards the end of the day, everyone confirmed what I suspected. The ball was mostly in the air and passes could not be strung together. Both defenses were on top of their games and were conscious about denying opposing forwards the room to operate.

The approach makes sense. Getting into the finals is never an easy feat; teams, therefore, tend to be cagey about throwing all the previous good work away by actually losing the match. Final matches, therefore, tend to be ugly affairs with nervous players overly concerned about making mistakes – or not making them, depending on which way you wish to look at things.

Not that our boys are conditioned to take the defensive stance as a team philosophy. On the contrary, our previous results attest to our commitment to attack: 10-0 and 18-0 against FAITH; 11-0 against San Beda Alabang; and 3-0 in the group stage against Letran. The boys can close up shop when need be; but, by and large, the players we have know the exhilaration to be had from attacking as a unit. I rather suspect that FAITH’s cabbage patch of a field had more than just a little to do about it.

To be fair, the field probably has more grass than ours; and it does look good from afar. Walk through it, though, and you immediately know what I am talking about. It is totally uneven from one end to the other. The contractor must have laid the patches of grass in time for the tournament; but did not know that the field had to be rolled. The ball, therefore, bounces this way and that like a crazy rabbit; not good for passing football at all!

Football can be a cruel, cruel game; and although it is called the beautiful game, it is also one which can be capable of serving so many injustices. In the story Quality Shines Through, I described how our Filipino-Italian striker Enzo Gherardelli was shown the red card for retaliation. What was unjust was that he was the subject of physical abuse just moments before.

However, football can also be a game during which justice is served. That seemed to be the case this morning for Enzo, forced to sit out the 18-nil semi-final rout of FAITH but whose two goals won us the championship. I did warn the rest of the team before they left not to let the Italian lose his temper.

According to the lads, there were merely twenty minutes of the match left when we made the breakthrough. The first of Enzo’s two goals was a header from an Ezekiel Terrones’ cross from the right flank. When one considers that Enzo was the smallest player on the pitch, that header was totally remarkable. The second goal was off a one-on-one with the goalkeeper after Enzo had beaten Letran’s offside trap.

For Enzo, there was also the added honor of being named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. No more than the lad deserved; as in, really! But if I may, everyone in this team is an MVP for at the very least this tournament. Even Mark Bernardino, who kept a clean sheet between the sticks in the group game against Letran when he is really an outfielder and a Bryan Adams wannabe…

The lads came to my office to show off their medals and the championship trophy the moment they arrived this afternoon. A few were hinting that there would be nothing wrong if I treated them all to Shakey’s later in the afternoon. I retorted that what I promised was singaling.

There you go. Last year, this very same group of players scored goals for fun in the early stages before being held to a draw in the finals by a determined team from Philippine Christian University-Dasmariñas and then beaten in a cruel penalty shootout. Some of the boys – then – were close to tears; but I was having none of the soap opera. Instead, I told the boys, the quest for the NCAA-South title began there and then.

It has been almost a year to the day since. All I can say is “Well done boys! Mission accomplished!” Too often, we routinely and mechanically raise our fists when the alma mater song is sung during assemblies. Many of us do not even bother to contemplate the pledge we are making when we do so.

And never shall we fail… Well done boys! Well done!

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