Monday, December 13, 2010

Football and politics

This was my column on the date indicated above.

The Philippine National Men’s Football Team, the Azkals, got into the semifinals of the 2010 Suzuki Cup. It’s the first time the national team advanced to the semis in the 14-year history of the cup. Actually, it’s probably the best performance ever by a Philippine football team.

Suddenly, everyone in this country is a football fan. I am not complaining, though. I have always kept the belief that we are better suited for sports like football (or okay, soccer if you think the Americans are correct on this one). Why we continue to be crazy over basketball when we clearly are at a disadvantage because of our height limitations is really puzzling. I’ve always maintained that we have better chances in football.

Media has finally taken notice of the Azkals and has deemed the team’s performance front-page material in the last two weeks. About time, really. Unfortunately, and this is a really sad commentary on the way we manage things in this country including sports, every single article about the Azkals inevitably lead to dirty politics.

The story that is unraveling now is hardly surprising. We’ve known all along that many people wrestle for control of national sports associations as a form of political sports – they want the power, the prestige, and the influence that comes with being called “officials.” At sports events they get better reception while the athletes themselves suffer under the most horrible conditions.

It appears that the Azkals has been hobbling along all this time with hardly any support from the Philippine Football Federation. Its deposed president not only didn’t do anything to support the team in its current unprecedented bid to win the Suzuki Cup, he apparently did more harm by unilaterally giving away the team’s right to play its “home field match” right in the Philippines. Jose Mari Martinez was ousted as President of the PFF last November 27. So the Azkals will be playing against Indonesia in the semi-finals on December 16 and 19 and both games will be staged in Jakarta. Talk about hostile conditions and being underdogs thrice over.

What’s even more appalling is that everyone is taking credit for the Azkals’ splendid performance in the Suzuki Cup. I would like to reprint in full a recent statement made by the Team to set the record the straight:

“In the last few days, Filipinos everywhere have heard about how the Philippine National Men’s Football Team has received all sorts of help from the Philippine Football Federation.

While our triumphs on the football field and the glory we’ve attained is something we are sharing with every Filipino and football fan out there, taking credit for matters one did not do is something we do not condone.

In the past year, the national team has been kept running and going by Mr. Dan Palami who has graciously shared his resources with the team yet has asked nothing in return except that we help promote the beautiful game and win glory for the country.

He has spent quite a lot from his own resources and that amount is something we are not at liberty to say. Suffice to say that it is a lot. And on the contrary, we have not received one centavo of support from the PFF. Not to mention a call or a text during the final rounds of the 2010 Suzuki Cup in Hanoi, Vietnam, we the national team made it to the semifinals for the first time in the 14-year history of the competition.

To hear of a three-year plan that he has put in place is actually laughable and downright insulting. This year, we’ve never had any decent training grounds for us to practice on until recently when we trained at the Alabang Country Club and the International School of Manila. Even the simple matters such as processing the paperwork regarding our request for the release of the Armed Forces servicemen to national team duty cannot be done.

And now there is the matter of the former PFF president telling Asean Football Federation officials that we, the national team, cannot have our own home game, that we fought so hard for, to be played in front of our countrymen.

What a wasted opportunity!

This is not meant to be a laundry list to air out our grievances. Rather, we just want to set the record straight.

Thank you and mabuhay!”

Although I have heard that Dan Palami was actively involved in the national football team, I didn’t realize until recently that he was team manager of the Azkals. I am not surprised that the team has spoken very highly of Palami’s generosity and passion– he’s a man who never does things halfheartedly.

I knew Palami as a little boy because we went to the same College although he was many years my junior. He was, I think, in Grade 5 when I entered College; but we knew each other because the College had this thing about making sure the top students in all levels got to interact in cultural and other academic activities. Palami’s mother was also one of my teachers. Palami went on to become a highly successful businessman. He made a bid to become Mayor of Tacloban City a couple of years ago but was sadly unsuccessful. He was just too clean, too darned ethical and was no match for the political machinations of the political family that has been so well entrenched in Tacloban City since the Marcos dictatorship.

So the Azkals will be playing in the semis against Indonesia next week. They may not be playing in home turf but we can always show our support in many ways. It’s not too late – there’s always something we can all do to support the team.

And hopefully the attention that is being heaped on the Azkals today leads to better things such as more support for national sports teams. Also, it is hoped that the great performance of the Azkals paves the way for better appreciation of football in this country.

All the best, Azkals!

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