Bernardo M. Villegas
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Start Them Young in Football

           Like all alumni of De La Salle University, I was ecstatic last October 11 when in a heart-stopping game, the Green Archers won the UAAP men's basketball championship for 2013 after a long drought during which its arch rival Blue Eagles reigned for five consecutive years.  I enjoyed every second of the last ten minutes which I watched since when the game started I was still on board a plane from Cagayan de Oro.  The excitement reminded of a similar day last August when I watched with some friends the finals of the Gilas Pilipinas championship in which the Philippine national team lost to the Iranians, although accomplishing the almost impossible feat of qualifying for the world championship to be played in Madrid in  August 2014.  There is no question that basketball is by far the most important national sport in the Philippines.

          My usual optimistic nature, however, is hard put in overcoming my fears that we will not go very far in Madrid.  Although I will pray that the Philippine national team will reach at least the quarter finals when they play with the giants (literally) in the Spanish capital, the final words of President Benigno Aquino IV at the end of the Iran-Philippine showdown keep ringing in my ears:  "We don't have seven footers."  Yao MIngs, Pau Gasols and LeBron James' are still very rare among our male population.  Sounding like a broken record, I state once again that, in contrast, below six footers like Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, and Neymar da Silva Santos exist by the millions in our country.  These liliputans are among the best football players in the world today since height is not necessarily an advantage in the beautiful game.  That is why the best news in the sports world that I have heard recently is that some lucky children from 6 to 14 years old from all over the Philippines and Asia will receive one of the best Christmas gifts this coming Yuletide season:  they will be trained by coaches coming from arguably the best football club in the world, FC Barcelona.

          This news was an antidote to the depressing information that the Philippine Olympic Committee denied the request of the Philippine Football Federation to send a youth team to the Asian Football Cup championship  in Myanmar next year. I am glad that the bad news has been converted into an opportunity  by our local football enthusiasts.  With the leadership of the PFF under President Mariano Araneta, all the stakeholders of football are resolved to wage a grassroot campaign to spread the playing of football far and wide, in as many Philippine regions as possible and among as many social sectors, including street kids in the most depressed areas and special children like those with the downs syndrome.  What was started by three embassies (Argentina, Brazil, and Chile) is spreading to many more embassies.  There is now an Embassy Cup in the making in which football teams made up of  street children from the slum areas of the Metro Manila will play against one another after each of the teams is coached by the personnel of the various foreign embassies, assisted by NGOs and academic institutions.  My university, the University of Asia and the Pacific, is one of the moving forces in this initiative. 

          What is this Christmas package that will benefit some 200 children come December 18 to 22, 2013?  The training academy of FC Barcelona--FC Barcelona Escola--returns to the Philippines after a very successful football camp last April 2013 in which 148 children of 17 different nationalities obtained world-class training from coaches coming from FC Barcelona Escola.  These fortunate children learned much more than just football skills.  They imbibed virtues of cooperation, modesty, honesty, respect for others, hard work, discipline and the other human qualities for which the tiki-taka style that the Catalan booters learned from the Dutch is famous.  If FC Barcelona continues to dominate Spanish football, despite three changes of managers over the last three years, it is because a culture of cooperation and solidarity has been institutionalized through rigorous training that starts from childhood.  Even among ordinary players, children as young as two or three years old can already be initiated in the skills and styles of football, something which is difficult to do in other sports except swimming.

          Parents who are interested in the Football Camp this coming December 18 to 22, 2013  may get in touch with the organizers, Nicholas Reyes and Michael Reyes at 0917 566 9739 and 0917 596 1624 or landline (632) 217 8771.  They may also log on for more information to www.fcbscolaphilippines.com. FCBEscola International will send two coaches who will be assisted by six trained local coaches who are able to integrate with the language and culture of the Philippines.  While the FCBEscola coaches are here, they will also spend time improving the skills of local coaches for the benefit of the many football family clubs that are mushrooming in Metro Manila and suburbs as well as other Philippine cities.  This welcome initiative of FCBEscola in partnership with the local football club called TeamSocceroo can meet the needs of the increasing number of young people in the Philippines who are shifting their attention from basketball to football.  This augurs well for the long-term sustainability of the Philippine National Football League that is scheduled to start in 2016, just a year after the launching of the ASEAN Economic Community.  Within the ten-country ASEAN, the Philippines at the moment stands out like a sore thumb as the only country where football is hardly played by the masses.  In all our nine ASEAN neighbors, football is the national passion. It is about time that we, at least in sport, look more like our Asian neighbors rather than a clone of the United States.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia