Bernardo M. Villegas
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The Santo Papa Futbol Cup

           Thanks to an invitation from the Romualdez family, I was luckier than most people in Metro Manila who had to compete with seven million other papal devotees to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis during his visit to the Philippines last January 16 to 19.  I flew to Tacloban January 16 and was able to attend the shortened Mass in the airport the morning after with a full view of the Pope celebrating Mass on the side altar.  Immediately after the Mass, I was one of the few who could climb to the stage since in no time at all the police prevented other people from climbing because of their fear that the structure could collapse.  I had enough time to collect some of the flowers and to take pictures of the altar, papal chair and the exquisite statue of Our Lady.  Then during the next hour or so, I was three times within 100 meters away from the Pope who went around and around the various sections of people who attended the Mass.  Finally, on the slow exit out of the airport, our car met the Popemobile that was rushing back to the airport after the itinerary was cut short by some five hours because of the raging storm.

          I cannot complain.  I have several photos to show that I had close encounters with Pope Francis.  I, however, could have done better if the typhoon did not interfere with the schedule planned for the Pope till 5 p.m. that day.  I would have been very close to him, even probably kiss his ring, if the plan to attract him to meet some street children, some of them orphaned by Yolanda, had materialized.  Let me explain.

          As part of the rehabilitation of the Tacloban community after Yolanda, the Remedios T. Romualdez (RTR) Foundation launched a football clinic for street children, many of them victims of the super typhoon, in order to help them to overcome the trauma they experienced.  A total of 96 out-of-school youth and public school students, ages 6 to 13, joined the clinic, which included an 8-day training camp with a tournament and awarding program on the ninth day.  This initiative was the first district-wide football event gathering teams from Tacloban City, Palo Bagatngon, Tanauan, Tolosa, Santa Fe, San Miguel and Alang-Alang.  The RTR Foundation was able to mobilize 24 volunteer coaches from the Philippines, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Korea, Ghana and Nigeria, thanks to the efforts of Team Socceroo Football Club, one of the teams in the senior division of the United Football League in the National Capital Region.   As a reward for the winning team, six chosen players of Team Tacloban were sent to a training camp organized by FC Barcelona Escola held at the Aboitiz Field in Cebu City.  These lucky children were exposed to world class football outside the comforts of their homes.

          Several months before the visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines, the RTR Foundation/Mission Tacloban—with the cooperation of Team Socceroo, the Henry V. Moran Foundation and the Energy Development Corporation (EDC), PASAR Foundation and the Bethel International School in Tacloban organized the SANTO PAPA FUTBOL CUP to pay tribute to the Pope during his visit to Tacloban and Palo.  The Santo Papa Futbol Cup was a two-day football festival that was held on January 15 to 16 at the Bethel International School football field and was to culminate with an awarding ceremony that could have been witnessed by the Pope.  It was highly likely that the Pope would have been “enticed” to pass by even just for a few minutes as his entourage traveled from Palo back to Tacloban since the tournament gathered 5 teams composed of typhoon victims.  Four of the teams came from communities most devastated by Yolanda.  To add to the “luring” power of the event, all the street children donned T-shirts replicating the T-shirt of the Pope’s favourite team in Buenos Aires called “San Lorenzo.”  As the international press reported, the Pope still pays his membership fee to the Club.  I am almost positive that if the Pope had kept his original schedule, he would have relished being with these street children donning the San Lorenzo  emblem.  He would have been reminded of the times he visited the slum areas of Buenos Aires.

           After his visit to the Philippines, Pope Francis met with high officials of the FC Barcelona Foundation to develop projects jointly with a social organization called Scholas Occurentes (founded by Pope Francis when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires) to promote positive values among the youth.  This agreement once more reinforces the truth that football can be one of the most effective ways of fostering virtues and values among young people, virtues such as team spirit, humility, perseverance, discipline, and sportsmanship.  Scholas Occurentes currently has 400,000 centers all over the world.  I am dreaming (since the Pope encouraged us to dream) that when the Pope returns to the Philippines next year, there will be an opportunity  for him to encounter the street children who are being benefited by RTR Foundation and other similar organizations that are using his favorite sport to nurture the values that are dearest to him.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.