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When Football Becomes a Humbling Experience

I worked for almost three decades coaching high school boys; but these were mostly middle-class kids who could afford to buy their own pairs of football boots. In the first place, I required it. Training the boys from scratch was challenging enough in itself without the added burden of having to deal with injuries brought on by kids slipping on the grassy surface.

So, alright! Maybe there were those who wore football boots straight from the operating room. That is, boots plastered all around because the leather or the stitches had become torn from sheer frequency of use.

But at least they had boots.

Today, I and some clubmates went on what was hopefully only the first of many sorties around the province of Batangas to stir up interest in the beautiful game. The name of our club is Asociación Club de Fútbol Real Molinillo de Café or Real Molinillo for short.

All my clubmates are themselves former players of mine. Which is why the experience was also edifying. Many of the boys who I trained continue to be involved in the game; but to satisfy the selfish need to play. Few have grown beyond this need to actually want to give something back to the game.
Years ago, I used to bring my high school teams to national tournaments such as the Palarong Pambansâ and the Coca-Cola Go-for-Goal. While we did not really win either tournament, we were never pushovers either and could compete against the best high school teams in the land.

We were from the city of Lipa, however; where because the school where I worked had a field, I and those who played under me managed to sustain modest interest in the game through the decades. While pockets of interest recently started to grow at a steady if unspectacular rate here and there, the game has never really caught on in the province.

For one, there has been an abject lack of playing fields; and this is something that continues to be a problem till the present. For another, while the Azkals phenomenon has started to bear fruit even in the most obscure of localities, in this province there is also a shortage of people knowledgeable in the game who can reach out to the youngsters and teach them the rudiments of the game.

So, we decided to do our part not only to have variety in our club activities but also to help increase the level of interest in the game and, hopefully, the player base.

Our first stop was the Municipality of Cuenca twenty or so minutes from Lipa. A former player of mine who continues to live in the town made arrangements with a local elementary school so we could use its field; and assembled a group of youngsters who expressed willingness to join a football clinic over which we would preside.

The clinic ultimately turned out to be both a humbling and edifying experience.

“I have no spikes,” is a common enough excuse that many of us football players will use to be able to skip training. We often forget that a certain Edson Arantes do Nascimento, who would later in life win acclaim as the best player in the world and went by the nickname Pelé, started playing barefoot and used old socks rolled into a ball to play with.

Most of the twenty-odd boys who came today were prepubertal. One or two wore football boots. Some had sneakers on. The rest wore slippers.

Give boys a ball and they will play. In my experience in this province, however, even if that ball is a football, chances are that the boys will pick it up and bounce it up and down as is the way to dribble in the game of basketball.

But no. Today, that ragtag collection of boys put the ball down on the field, kicked it away and chased after it.

There was interest in football. The boys had probably seen the game on television before. And wanted to play. They just did not know how. And that was where we came in.

All my clubmates are themselves former players of mine. Which is why the experience was also edifying. Many of the boys who I trained continue to be involved in the game; but to satisfy the selfish need to play. Few have grown beyond this need to actually want to give something back to the game.

Which is why I was so proud of the young men who helped me conduct the clinic today. I gave the basic instructions then let them supervise the local boys. Each of them worked with the youngsters like experienced coaches. They were thorough, patient and methodical.

In fact, I was amused to hear them coach the youngsters the way I must have done once when they were the same age. It was like listening to myself; and I found that edifying. I now know that I taught them well.

As to the boys of Cuenca, what can I say? Once we started scrimmage, they chased after the ball with delight and gusto! If they tripped and fell, they just got up and got on with it. If they lost the ball, they chased to get it back. If they were small, they were not intimidated. They fought just as hard.

Whether they wore football boots; or sneakers; or slippers; or played barefeet.

When one team lost a penalty shootout, the boys looked glum. When they won, they cheered like they won the World Cup. It was just about the most fun morning I have had in months!

When it was time to call them in, they were reluctant. They wanted to keep on playing even if it was almost time for lunch. How many of the middle class boys I trained down the years ever showed reluctance to come in from under the midday sun?

After I dismissed the group, one small boy – must have been nine or ten – came up to me and asked if there would be training again next Sunday.

“No,” I told the kid. But I suddenly understood how Douglas MacArthur must have felt before boarding the submarine for the ride to Australia.

“We will be back,” I consoled the boy. His eyes lit up.

And that’s a promise.

A middle- or upper-class boy playing football will probably be working in an airconditioned office soon after graduation from college. Some barefoot boy like the ones we worked with today may one day be the best player, if not really the entire world, then at the very least this country.

You just never know.

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