Friday, June 18, 2010

Football is Meh

Outside the building where our office is, a gaggle of guards are gathered around outside a small window and looking in. One doesnt need to peek at what they were looking at to know what that was all about: Game 7 of the NBA finals was on -- Lakers vs. Celtics. That's all you hear in overheard conversations everywhere. Meanwhile for the rest of the planet, the World Cup was on, the biggest sporting event on earth. Now I like basketball. I played it when I was younger. I was on the team when the Manggahan Floodway Project decided to hold a league amongst all the construction companies working on the floodway. (I played a few games but -- damn you, coach, I couldve nailed that three-pointer that wouldve won us the championship -- I didnt play in the finals.) I rooted for the mighty, grand-slam winning, Ramon Fernandez led San Miguel Beer team of the late 80s. But that interest waned. Basketball became boring. It was too easy. I think the turning point came when an all-pro, all-star Philippine team was sent to the Asian Games in 1990. This was the Dream Team! Fernandez, Samboy Lim, Alan Caidic, Benjie Paras, Hector Calma. We were supposed to be the best in Asia...and we were trounced by China. I lost interest in the PBA after that. They were just a bunch of overpaid losers to me. And with that, I lost all hope that our country of short people could ever hope to produce a world-beating basketball team. Really, it's amazing to me that the PBA continues to exist!

Anyway, back to football. There has been a lot of reasons put forth as to why we havent taken to the beautiful game like the rest of the world has, and demonstrate no interest in joining the worldwide party that the World Cup is, but none of them sound plausible. "We dont have enough football fields," they say. How is that a problem? When I was in Bangkok, the kids were playing in whatever space was available: on the streets, under the bridge, on any unused lot, it doesnt matter. When I was in China, the Chinese colleagues played during the lunch hour in the small open field behind the office building, with tiny bushes as goal. How about "Equipment is too expensive"? Right, and basketball equipment isnt? Kids in our neighbor countries play football barefoot. Much like kids play basketball barefoot here. Or in tsinelas at least.

"We were colonized by the Americans so football never took off here." Ah, there. The USA was never a football nation. They had their own version of football such that they called regular football soccer to differentiate it from the helmet football variety they invented. We call it soccer too because of that even though we have no local version of football with which to differentiate it. We were under Spain, one of the giants of the modern game, but by the time football was developing into the world game that it is, Spain's power in the islands was waning. But wait! In the Visayas, especially in Negros and Iloilo, they still play it. But for some reason, despite the large Visayan population in the National Capital Region, football is practically dead in Metro Manila. It seems that only basketball-loving Visayans migrate to Luzon.

Paulino Alcantara of Iloilo, all-time leading scorer
for FC Barcelona. Yes, that FC Barcelona (Photo nicked from Wikipedia.)

I noticed something else though. True, we are a basketball-crazy nation, but not that crazy. We dont have basketball fans driven to fervor by the game. We go to the stadium separately, watch the game, and go home in an orderly fashion. When I was in Jakarta, football night is traffic night. Fans for one team arrive in droves, together in rented buses so packed that some sit on the roof. They dress in team colors, waving banners, banging drums, and singing. They were everywhere causing monstrous traffic jams as convoys of buses head home after the game and everybody accepts this as a minor inconvenience simply because it's football. It could be that basketball doesnt foster the tribal feelings that football does, but it could be something else: we are a forgiving people and we dont like war.

Football night in Jakarta. Yes, that's a moving bus.

In his article for the Project Syndicate website, Football is War, Ian Buruma, Professor of Democracy and Human Rights at Bard College writes
Even when football doesn’t lead to actual bloodshed, it inspires strong emotions – primitive and tribal – evoking the days when warriors donned facial paint and jumped up and down in war dances, hollering like apes. The nature of the game encourages this: the speed, the collective aggression.
War dances, warrior paint, war drums... that's the football fan right there. He continues
It helps to have traditional enemies, old hurts, and humiliations that need to be redressed, if only symbolically. It would be hard for Americans, who are neither very good at soccer, nor cursed by great historical hatreds, to share the joy of the Dutch, say, when the Germans were defeated in 1988, or that of the Koreans when they defeat Japan.
And there you have us, the Pinoy. We have no enemies whom we wish to get back at. We dont wish to get back at Spain, America, or Japan for what they did to us when they came over for their respective extended stays in these islands. On the contrary. We admire our former conquerors. We wish we could be like them. We therefore have no interest in participating in the World Cup wherein we, a country of no technological advantage to speak of, can wage war with our former masters as equals. We're just not that kind of people. While the Chinese still harbor resentment for the Japanese for what they did such that a Japanese history textbook could offend the Chinese, we just go, 'Meh, whatever'. We have no desire to settle scores with Spain, the US, or Japan on the pitch. We have no desire to beat Malaysia even though they appropriated Sabah from the Sultan of Sulu. We just dont feel competitive with them. (There was a time when they felt competitive with us when we were their rival in intellectual and economic fields in Southeast Asia, to which we responded with our usual 'Meh', instead of 'Oh yeah? Let's settle that on the pitch.' But those days are gone. Malaysia won that fight long ago and now have no desire to beat us at anything anymore.)

Maybe we have no desire to do battle with other countries. We just want peace. We're that kind of a people and that is good. It's either that or we're a people who can't be passionate about anything. So what if we can't develop a passion for soccer? At the end of the day it's really just a game, right? Maybe it isnt and we're missing one hell of a party and we're not showing interest in wanting to join. Besides, I want to play and I can't find anybody to play it with.

Update: An officemate pointed me to this post on a new book on basketball in the Philippines. Pacific Rims by Rafe Bartholomew. It sounds like an interesting book that tries to explain the inexplicable: Why basketball?