this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on April 26, 2011.
When I was in Grade 5, I discovered that in the small provincial town of Barotac Nuevo, Iloilo, the genuine love for football was alive and kicking. All kids, rich or poor, play football on streets, rice fields, town plaza and anywhere with a flat surface. If other towns in our country were to share in Barotac Nuevo’s passion for football, we would have already established ourselves earlier as a genuine football nation.
While most towns in the Philippines are devoted to basketball, Barotac Nuevo is devoted to football. Call it the Brazil of the Philippines. Like Brazil, the town locals have made playing football part of their daily activity.
Before my Barotac Nuevo experience, I joined our school’s football summer training camp in which our coach invited us to participate in a local football tournament to be held in Barotac Nuevo. Leaving home frightened me but I was very excited to join the training camp because our coach said that Barotac Nuevo players are the most passionate when it comes to football. They eat, sleep and play football daily.
The tournament in Barotac Nuevo was held at Monfort Plaza, a field named after the Monfort brothers who brought football to Iloilo in the 1920s. The field’s location reminded me of a traditional Spanish barangay set-up; a church on one side of the plaza surrounded by different villages. Monfort Plaza was at the center of the town where everyone gathered to watch people play football.
During our first game against Barotac players, I managed to compare how both teams looked like from the side lines. The players in our team wore brand-new football shoes, a fresh pair of long socks and our signature dark blue school jersey, making our team beautifully visible in the field. On the other side of the field were Barotac boys with no game jerseys, no game shorts, no shin guards, and no long socks. Not even color-coded shirts. “How sad…,” I thought to myself. But the thing that caught my attention most was that the other team’s players didn’t have any shoes on. At first, I couldn’t believe that they were going to play against our team barefoot until our coach told us that it was usual to see young Barotac boys play without any shoes. I continued observing the other team because I was amused with their informal get-up. A team without any jersey is a no-no in football tournaments in Manila.
Once the referee blew the whistle, our team had difficulty getting possession of the ball. Even though our team looked more professional with our jerseys, we couldn’t keep up with the speed and passing of the barefoot Barotac boys. When my coach substituted me in to play, I immediately chased one Barotac boy and attempted to get the ball from him. Afterwards, I fell to the ground. That was the first time I felt the incredible strength of a Barotac player. I had never felt a push as strong as his before.
As the game progressed, our team got more and more tired while the Barotac players remained active and strong. I observed them closely so that I could learn their technique. Their team’s strategy was simple. It was non-stop passing and running to an open space until they scored a goal. During our first game, the Barotac team scored three goals in the first half. We had difficulty gaining ball possession because we had never played against a team that ran and passed the ball as quickly as they did. Later on, the Barotac team scored two more goals, eventually winning the game 5-0.
After experiencing an unexpected defeat, we went back to our hotel in low spirits. When my dad asked me how the game went, I felt very embarrassed to tell him that kids without shoes played better than we did. Back in the hotel, our coach told us something that pacified us. He said that the reason behind the winning mentality of Barotac players was that for Barotac players, football is more than just a sport. It was something to look forward to during the day. Most Barotac kids used their mornings to help their families in household chores and used their afternoons to play football. Football kept them in high spirits even if their families couldn’t afford to send them to school, at least for most of them. In short, Barotac kids always cherish each moment every time they play football. When you look at it from that perspective, I guess our team’s loss wasn’t so bad.
While we didn’t have any scheduled games, I strolled around the town plaza watching other football games. During those moments, I observed what the Barotac audience was like.
They all came from different backgrounds, lined up along the sides of the field wherever a game was being played. And the moment a goal was scored by one team, everyone rejoiced and cheered. I was amazed to see that all these people coming from different backgrounds stopped to watch kids play football. At that moment, I realized that there was something special about Barotac Nuevo. The town’s passion for football can’t be found anywhere else in the Philippines.
Why are Barotac football players the best when it comes to football? Simply because it’s in their culture. I asked one of my friends from Barotac regarding the town’s passion for football and he said that football is really just the main sport in their town. Barotac kids prefer football over basketball and thus more local tournaments are held giving everybody the opportunity to play. “Kids here play football every day,” he said. Aside from this, Barotac Nuevo has many football icons for locals, both young and old, to look up to. Among them are Yanti Barsales, Ian Araneta and Chieffy Caligdong, all members of the Philippine “Azkals” Football Team.
Playing football at Barotac Nuevo exposed me to the kind of passion for football we need to become a genuine football nation. When Barotac players play, games will always be intense. When Barotac players score, cheers will always be loud. When Barotac players run, plays will always be exciting. I adore these Ilonggos for their strength and skill when it comes to playing football.
The lack of uniforms, shoes and facilities give Barotac players the drive and determination to play every game like it’s their last. This underdog mentality can be our fighting chance on our way to becoming a genuine football nation.
The next time you go to Barotac Nuevo, Iloilo and you see kids playing football, don’t be surprised if they come to you saying “Hampang taha!” That’s the signal it’s time to play with them.