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The National Alis-Pain Team

I smirk every time without fail whenever Cortal’s Alis Sakit, Alis Pain ad is played on the telly. First of all, as good as Neil Etheridge is between the posts, he looked out of his depth delivering his line and could probably take a few tips from his more naturally cheesy team-mate Phil Younghusband.

Second, Cortal is the sort of ubiquitous over-the-counter painkiller that you find even in your dilapidated neighbourhood sari-sarî store. A toothless old woman in a worn-out duster may be the more expectable endorser, not a whole line of muscular good-looking young men.

Seriously, though, I do not believe that any of those fine gentlemen in blue in that Alis Pain line or even the ad executives who cooked up the commercial fully comprehend the appropriateness – in a metaphorical sense – of the tag line to those who have followed Philippine football over the decades.

To put things succinctly, prior to the run of recent successes, following the national football team used to be a right royal pain where it hurt most – in the heart.

I started following the team’s fortunes as a young boy in the early seventies, when it was strengthened by Spanish imports flown in by what used to be called the Philippine Football Association. Those were heady years!

We played annually in Malaysia’s Merdeka tournament and had respectable results against the traditionally powerful teams from around Asia. Burma – now Myanmar – was the regional power in those days. We stood up well to the Burmese, too; as we did the Malaysians!

While most of my peers were naturally into basketball – or baseball, another favoured sport where I grew up – I was cutting out clippings of our national team’s exploits from the national paper that my father bought without fail each day. These I lovingly stowed away in a folder which eventually became moth-eaten and wore away with age.

In this collection of clippings, my most treasured was a blurry black-and-white picture taken during a rain-soaked night at the Rizal Memorial when our national team hosted the South Koreans. We won that game 2-nil.

Have you ever heard the story of the two friends who parted ways and lived separate lives but who would, as destiny dictated, come upon each other decades later to find that one had become an exceedingly wealthy man whilst the other a pitiable pauper? Does it not sound a lot like the stories of our two nations after that rain-soaked night at the Rizal Memorial and after the two teams went their separate ways?

While the Koreans won honour after honour and metamorphosed from an Asian giant into a team that is respected the world over, our team descended into an abyss of nothingness. Not that anybody really cared except for silly schoolboys like me who kept age-yellowed clippings inside a dusty cabinet until they could be read no more.

The first signs that things were not well came in 1974, when we sent a team to the Asian Games in Teheran. There were double-figure scores against us that did not make for pleasurable reading – but I clipped those stories nonetheless; and continued to clip them even when the stories told of nothing but failure after failure with numbing and monotonous regularity down the avenue that we all call time.

There were flashes in the pan – such as when our Under-20 team defeated Indonesia in an Asian Youth Cup group tournament that we hosted at the University of Life in the eighties; or when the national team defeated Malaysia in the SEA Games of 1991 and went on to play in the semi-final.

But that was what all these were – flashes in the pan. Even in the nothingness that was Philippine football, hope was the one thing that nobody among those who followed the national team dared to surrender, if for no other reason than the sad fact that there was really nothing else to hang on to except one’s hope. But as soon as the candle of hope started to flicker tentatively in the dark, its fire was quickly extinguished and the years began to pass again without so much a glimmer of even the most modest of successes.

The arrival of cable television had been both a boon and a bane. On the one hand, one could now watch the national team live; on the other hand, it could also be an exercise of extreme masochism.

Those who watched the 1-13 slaughter by the Indonesians in the Tiger Cup at the Bung Karno in the previous decade would understand exactly what I mean. A casual fan would have hopped channels. However, those of us who watched the game were football fans; and more importantly, we were all Filipinos. We cannot choose to be Filipinos only when things are going well! We are Filipinos even if we are in the most distasteful and humiliating of circumstances!

I could have hopped channels if I was merely a football fan; but the Filipino in me dictated that I stayed glued to the television set even if it meant that goal after goal that hit the back of the net was like a stiletto being plunged deep into one’s gut. It was painful.

There was this other time when our team had the utter temerity to actually lead Thailand in another Tiger Cup match in Bangkok. Were we not all on the edge of our seats whilst all the time praying to the Almighty that just this one time, we be granted one moment of relief from the years of barrenness? Alas, Thailand awoke from its stupor and – in the end – we meekly accepted what we all had come to expect through all those years as a matter of course whenever a referee blew his whistle at the end of ninety minutes.

Those who know me personally would attest to how frequently I have said over the years that if this country learns to eventually embrace the beautiful game at all and have a national team that we can all be proud of, it would inevitably be something for me to enjoy only from the other side.

I have hoped all these years; but there comes a time in one’s life when pragmatism just appears to be saying it will not happen. But I, of little faith…

December 2010, on a chilly night in a city called Hanoi, at a time that He rather than any of us chose, God brought an end to the decades of pain. He twisted Chris Greatwich’s body so that he could reach the ball and blew a gust of wind to nudge the ball away from the diving Vietnamese ‘keeper’s hands. And the rest, as the worn-out cliché goes, has been history…

It has been such a euphoric last ten months that we all seem to have come to the point when not even a heartbreaking loss can deflate the feeling of goodwill that this nation suddenly has not only for the national team but – in a greater context – for the beautiful game. There are days when I still feel like I need to pinch myself just to make sure that everything has been for real. The pain is no longer there, replaced by heady days when hope is not merely something one held on to because there was nothing else but instead something that promises a new dawn that one now knows will eventually arrive.

Eh-lees seh-keet, eh-lees pain then? Bless you, Etheridge! Even if you did not know the more profound significance of that advertising tag line you were uttering…

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