Bernardo M. Villegas
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Can We Produce Little Messis?

           Even if Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid was declared the World's Best Soccer Player for 2013, he has still a long way to go to equal the record of Lionel Messi, the Argentinian star player of FC Barcelona who  was awarded the same title four years in a row before the Portuguese player.  That is why the idol of little tots from 4 to 14 who are addicted to the "beautiful game" is still the Barca player who is from time to time called the "flea" because  he is as short as most Filipinos.  "Messi, Messi, Messi" resonates more than Ronaldo cube.   No wonder, as Demetri Sevastopulo reported in the January 23, 2014 issue of the Financial Times, a 12-year old member of the Uighur minority from Xinjiang province in northwest China wants to be called "Little Messi."  His real name is Kaisar Tursun and he dreams someday to play in the World Cup in the China team.  He is one of 2,300 students at the Evergrande International Football School, possibly the world's largest football school located in rural Guangdong province, not far from Hong Kong. 

           The school is a project of a real estate company called Evergrande Group owned by Xu Jiayin, a property tycoon and China's 10th richest man, estimated to be worth more than $6 billion.   It grew out of an investment Xu made four years ago when he bought a struggling professional team in Guangzhou.  As practised by football clubs all over the world, Xu turned around the team's fortunes by hiring foreign players.  His biggest catch, however, was Marcello Lippi, the Italian who coached his national team to World Cup victory in 2006.  As expected, the club has won the Chinese Super League for three consecutive years and became the first Chinese team in 23 years to win the Asian Champions League.  With all of his billions, Xu did not scrimp in putting up the Evergrande International Football School.  As described in the article in the Financial Times:  "With clock towers, medieval turrets and spires, it looks like JK Rowling and Walt Disney have built a magical castle in rural Guangdong. At night, the turrets are illuminated in vivid blue or red--the school colors--adding to the surreal spectacle...The complex has 50 football pitches and is building 30 more.  Not only is it China's largest academy dedicated to the sport but it is almost certainly the biggest in the world."

          What about us in the Philippines?  As we start almost from scratch to build up football as a national sport (I am heading a task force under the Philippine Football Federation that is planning to launch the Philippine National Football League in 2016), can we also develop "Little Messis"?  Not in our wildest dreams can we have the resources of the Evergrande Group!  But wait a minute, there is a 10-year old Filipino by the name of Sandro Reyes (son of former Congressman Edmund Reyes Jr.) who from Southridge School in Alabang moved to the FC Escola in Barcelona more than a year ago.  He is much closer to Messi than Kaisar Tursun mentioned above.  Why?  Because Sandro is training in the same school right in Camp Nou that produced Lionel Messi.  How to discover more Sandros without the vast resources of the Evergrande Group?

          Let me enumerate some of the private initiatives.  Thanks to the long-term view of Megaworld, one of our leading real estate companies, the Emperador football pitch was put up in the Global City of Fort Bonifacio.  It is now the venue for many football matches that attract whole families to watch their children play.  It is also the place where games of the United Football League are played.  The example of Megaworld will be followed by other real estate developers in Metro Manila and other major cities like Cebu, Iloilo, Davao, and Cagayan de Oro.  Then there are family clubs being organized in the housing subdivisions in the Metro Manila area.  The parents themselves are hiring coaches for their children and actually get involved in playing the sport as a way of bonding with their sons and daughters.  Then there is the increasing tendency for private elementary and high schools to contract out the coaching of their football players to such football clubs as Kaya, Team Socceroo and Loyola for more sustainable programs that can go beyond the school year.  Thanks to the efforts of some heads of the foreign embassies in Manila, the Ambassadors' Cup was organized in which street kids from the depressed areas are gathered into clubs and coached by personnel from the embassies themselves.  This laudable project guarantees that the development of football will be inclusive and will not be limited only to the children of the well-to-do.  Then there are business firms like Alaska Milk Corporation, Nestle, Meralco and the First Metro Pacific that organize their own tournaments and other programs to promote the playing of football.  The German Embassy has actually brought a professional coach who will spend the next two years training coaches in the Philippines.  An increasing number of leading Spanish football clubs like Real Madrid, FC Barcelona,  FC Espanol,  FC Sevilla and others are conducting training programs for children during some months of the year in such places as Manila, Negros Occidental, Davao, Iloilo,  etc.   Many football afficionados, both foreign and local, are also preparing football coaching programs for the children in Leyte, Samar, Bohol and other provinces affected by Yolanda and the earthquake.

          I am sure there are other initiatives that I have not been able to include in this cursory listing.  What I wanted to illustrate is that we do not need the resources that the Chinese are devoting to win the World Cup one day.  There are other less expensive ways to develop our own world class players in the next twenty years.  We should let a thousand flowers bloom in the private sector, knowing full well that we cannot count on the Government to be the leading sector in the promotion of any sport.  The Government has more than enough in its hands to make sure that the 25 percent of our population who are still living in dehumanizing poverty do not get left out by the economic boom that is already happening.  I would just like to ask the politicians to stay out of sports development.

          I am so glad that the Philippine Football Federation has gotten rid of politicians and is now in the hands of competent managers.  For comments, my email address is