Bernardo M. Villegas
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Football Fever

           Of course, I exaggerate about there being a football fever in the Philippines.  As the superoptimist, though, I am also applying the concept of a "tipping point" as I did to the economy in general.  In several speaking engagements and articles I have written on the Philippine economy, I have maintained that the Philippines has accumulated a series of economic, political, and social, and governance reforms over the last quarter of a century, that a critical mass of favorable conditions have led to the tipping point at which our GDP can start growing at 7% or more over the next ten to twenty years. In an analogous fashion, over the last two years during which the AZCALS, the national football team, have captured the attention and imagination of the public, we are reaching a tipping point when football (soccer to the Americans) can begin to attract more Filipino children and youth to play the sport as an alternative to the wildly popular basketball.

          In recent months, we have seen football going beyond its geographical epicenter, Barotac Nuevo in Iloilo.  The City of Calamba in Laguna is giving Barotac Nuevo a run for its money.  The vision of the leaders of Calamba is to make it the football center at least in Luzon.  For several years now, some towns of Negros Occidental, thanks to the Cojuangcos, have been conducting football clinics coached by players from one of the top football clubs in Spain, FC Seville. Then the second best football club (disclosure:  I am a Barca fan) in Spain, Real Madrid, is teaming up with the largest insurance company in Spain, Mapfre, to train children in Sta. Cruz,  Davao del Sur, in the art of the beautiful game.  More resources are being poured by the business sector in promoting the sport among a wider audience in the country. Some of these companies are Metro Pacific, Alaska Milk Corporation, Nestle, and Nike.  There are others and more will follow.  I have confidence that the present leadership of the Philippine Football Federation is sufficiently enlightened and united that a clearer direction has been set for the long-term development of football and the avoidance of the political bickerings of the past.

          As a contribution to capturing the interest in the game of more Filipino children and youth, I would like to present to them a living hero and role model that they can emulate.  I am referring to no one else but Lionel Messi, called by Time Magazine as the best football player in the world--possibly of all time. Starting with my own grand nephews, I do not hesitate to advise the children and the youth to literally idolize this player who has been nicknamed the Flea (because of his small size).  Time writer Bobby Ghosh has summarized the reasons for my enthusiasm:  "Every generation produces players who change the game with their talent or approach--Puska, Di Stefano, Pele, Cruyff, Maradona, Zidane.  Messi's third Ballon d'Or not only cemented his place in the galaxy of greats.  It also made him the centerpiece of a singular argument.   'Messi is amongst the best ever,' quoth Manchester United Alex Ferguson, perhaps the most successful manager of all time.  Pep Guardiola, Messi's coach at Barcelona, declared that his team's superstar 'could be the best player of all time.'  The influential British football writer Sid Lowe wrote in the Guardian:  'It is no longer about whether or not Messi is currently the best player in the world;  it is about whether he might even be the best there has ever been."

          "King Leo", as he is sometimes called, is only 24 years old.  That is why children and the youth can look up to him as their idol for many more years to come.  I am holding him up for emulation not primarily because he is an outstanding football player.  He is a model for the young because of his qualities as a human being, especially his humility.  As Ghosh remarked:  "Messi hardly looks a monarch:  he possesses no hauteur, not even the I'm the MAN! swagger expected of a modern sporting superstar.  For someone who has lived half his life in the spotlight, he is surprisingly shy, even painfully so.  'Year after year, I've grown, improved.' he told me after the award ceremony.  'I was lucky to start very young and always have very good colleagues around me as I was coming up, and this has helped me and how I play.'" Unlike other famous football players, he is no primadona and always is a team player.          Over the long run, I think our best football players will come from the lower income groups, not from the elite as they did during my generation in the 1950s and l960s when the star football players came from such schools as Ateneo, La Salle, Letran, and San Beda.  As Real Madrid and Mapfre are doing, the focus should be on children in the public schools such as those in Davao del Sur and other provinces outside the National Capital region.  Messi is the perfect role model for these children and youth.  He came from a working class family in Argentina.  He left his mother country at 13 because his parents could not afford the $1,000-a-month growth hormone treatment that he needed to remedy his very small size.  His height was below the third percentile for his age. FC Barcelona agreed to recruit him and bear the expenses of the hormone treatment.  He reached the height today of 169 cm.  He grew up, as a man and a player, at the club's famous La Masia youth academy together with such other outstanding players as Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta.  It would be great if all the initiatives of business enterprises and football clubs in training Filipino children and youth could result in a Philippine version of the La Masia training camp in Barcelona. But even more important, every major town or city should put up a major football field.  This may be something that President Benigno Aquino III could encourage through the Department of Local Government:  "a football field in every town."  Then, we can really say that the children and youth will be able to say, "It's more fun in the Philippines."

          Another human quality that aspiring Filipino football players can imitate in Messi is his never saying "enough."  As Ghosh said, "...Messi may already have done enough to turn football's divine duopoly into a holy trinity:  Pele, Maradona, Messi.  But that's not enough for the man who sobs after a lost game, who is known to storm off the pitch if he loses a rondo, or training ground contest:  he needs to keep playing, keep winning and (defenders of the world, beware!) keep getting better.  'There's still a lot of time to prepare and to improve,' he says."  A day will come when those who are now investing in the training of the future football players of the Philippines will get together to bring to our country the great Leo Messi.  That day may really bring this country to the tipping point where, at last, we can have our own "football fever" that occurs year in and year out in practically all countries of the world today, except the Philippines.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.