Written by: Sydney Briana C. Tan (SA 21-X); May 1, 2017
It was a warm summer night, and the field was freshly mowed, ready for the daily grind. The huge spotlights lit along either side of the field lit up the scene. It was quiet, as most students have already gone home, and all I could hear was the sound of young men joking around before practice.
I was warmly welcomed by my key informant, Rafi Lipardo (#31), and he kindly asked me to sit on the bleachers while the Ateneo Men’s Football Team began practice.
Unlike many people out there, I was never a fan of football. I was always annoyed at how one team would spend so much time passing the ball to one another and finally make it to the frontline just to have the opponent’s defender “clear” or kick the ball out. I thought this was effort wasted, and I can’t imagine how teams are willing to attempt to do the same thing over and over.
Because of my preemptive bias, I began the activity expecting to be bored out of my mind while watching the team do the same pass-pass-charge technique for 2 whole hours. However, this all changed after coming to observe training.
They start off with two drills. One of which is the test of the keepers’ agility and instinct. Coaches would take turns simulating penalty kicks. According to my key informant, balls kicked in just about every direction, and the keeper must keep the balls from entering the goal by making the right decision to stay down to guard the bottom side, to leap to defend the right or left corner, or to protect the center of the goal. The goalkeeper position is the toughest, in my opinion, to play because one mistake means a goal for the opponent. As said earlier, the keeper has one decision to make before the kicker makes his move, and this has a lot riding on it because one goal is difficult to make up for. The way I see it, millions of probabilities run through the keeper’s head whenever an opponent’s striker comes near. His decision on which part of the goal to guard changes at every spot the kicker is currently in. AJ Arcilla, the team’s goalkeeper, shows a good balance of intuition, instinct, and skill, which are qualities a keeper should possess.
Rafi also told me about their UAAP semi-finals game against DLSU last year. The game ended in a tie, even with added time, and this could only mean one thing: penalties. Opposing teams arrange their lineup for shooting penalties. After doing this, each team takes turns shooting into the goal. I asked, “Doesn’t this add so much pressure on the keeper?” He answered, “No. The pressure is on the kicker.” He then explained that the keeper has so many possible areas to defend, so his chances of predicting and choosing the right spot are relatively low. The pressure is on the kicker because once the opponent scores in a penalty, he has no choice but to make sure he scores as well. A miskicked ball determines the end of the game. I found this so interesting because a mix of mind games, astounding pressure, and skill come into play. As for the semi-finals round last year, both teams continued scoring until the Ateneo’s keeper at the time, JP Oracion, made an epic save on DLSU’s Jose Montelibano’s attempt. The crowd went wild, and this meant Ateneo, with a 5-4 scoreline, was going to face UP in the finals. Montelibano stayed crouched down with his head on the ground for a few minutes before getting up and accepting his team’s loss. The pressure is definitely more on the kicker than it is on the keeper.
Going back to the training session, the rest of the players go on a 15-minute jog around the oval. Rafi says it prepares their bodies and prevents muscle injuries. Players also engage in stretching exercises to improve flexibility. Being more flexible would enable players to concentrate more on how hard they kick the ball instead of concentrating on safely extending their leg to avoid injury.
The players then have a 1 to 2-minute water break. It was during this break that I stepped onto the field, so that I wouldn’t disturb anyone, and asked Rafi to teach me something. He taught me how to do a “throw-in.” This is given to the opponent of the team with the last touch when this team kicks the ball out of the boundary. A chosen player from the team that now holds possession and throws the ball back into the field. However, “throw-ins” are much more difficult than they seem. The player must decide what will maximize his team’s chances of winning. You can’t just throw the ball to the nearest player, and you can’t throw so hard that it makes you lift one or both your feet in the process. Any player that violates the latter incurs a “foul throw” and possession is given back to the opponent. Rafi asked me to do a throw-in to make me realize it is harder than it seems. The whole body is at work: the core, arms, and legs. A player must keep his body stable with his legs stuck to the ground and his core strong enough to allow his arms to exert the right amount of force. Most of my attempts failed. They were neither strong enough nor on target. There are so many rules that players need to keep in mind to use to their advantage.
Another crucial part of football is accurate passing. After the water break, which Rafi said jokingly, is the best part of training, the players practice passing and controlling passes. Football is such a team sport in the sense that just because you’ve passed the ball doesn’t make you off the hook. The quality of your pass is important for increasing your team’s chances of winning. According to Rafi, some players tend to make the mistake of passing without thinking, which is why quality passing is emphasized in training. Players must always be, both literally and metaphorically, on their feet. Being unpredictable is one advantage in a football game; therefore, players must think fast and know when to pass and receive a pass.
The players divide themselves into two teams to simulate a game. Each team is composed of 7 players, and they use half the field instead. I was thinking at this point, how can they learn anything new when they’re just playing against each other, not other teams from other universities? However, my key informant told me that your teammates’ skills become a disadvantage when playing on opposite teams. They learn from one another because, instead of working with them, they must counter them. This shows how flexible football players ought to be.
After the “7v7,” they get another well-deserved water break and proceed to the cool down. The cool down is another series of stretching exercises to prevent the muscles from cramps and injury. This is followed by a 10-minute processing session with the coaches, and training officially ends with a pep talk from the captain. My key informant sat next to me on the bleachers, still ready to answer more questions.
I ask him about the football epidemic and how common it is in Philippine society. He believes it is one of the most admired sports because a significant number of people play and support it worldwide. He tells me that football is mostly played in Iloilo, which is known as the football capital of the Philippines, Manila, and Cebu. However, football in the Philippines has experienced a lack of support in terms of funding and facilities. So many people love the sport, but the Philippines is staggering to help its players reach that of players from foreign countries. Rafi told me about his experience being part of the Philippine team back in 2010. He was chosen to represent the country in a tournament in Malaysia. This was a big step for him, but unfortunately, they lost every single game while they were there. I asked about his opponents which were Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Laos, with Australia being the most challenging team to go against. He says the reason for lack of investment in football is the lack of guaranteed returns for the investors. Revenue comes through ticket sales, but because not a lot of people watch games, investors end up losing more than they earn on the sport. Clubs like Kaya FC and Agila FC are funded by incredibly wealthy men whose love for the sport overpowers any worry of losses. This leads to a decrease in opportunities for the those without the connections to get into such football clubs. He says that, for the Philippines, there is room for improvement and that the players with immense passion deserve better facilities to hone their skills.
People love football because they forget their worries, even just for 90 minutes. On the field, nothing else matters but the ball and their teammates. Football puts an emphasis on respect, as seen in all the rules implemented throughout a game. Violations like handball, dangerous play, shoving while extending one’s arms and/or elbows, and tackling another player with no intention for the ball are severely punished in a game. Yellow or red cards may be issued and possession may be given to the opposing team. Players learn how to be aggressive yet respectful at the same time.
In my opinion, football seems to be a timeless sport. Although the primetime age to play professionally is within your early 20s to early 30s, anyone can participate in the sport. The rich, the poor, and everyone in between unite in love for football despite their differences. Players can start as early as Grade 1 and can end late as their 50s. The youth participate in Milo or local sports fests to test their skills against that of other players’. In college, we have the UAAP and a series of other tournaments. For the graduates, they can play professionally by entering football clubs upon graduation. For the older football lovers, they can play with one another in Sunday leagues. I know the Ateneo has this, and I often see white-haired men playing the game and remembering the feeling of back when they were still young adults.
The Ateneo Men’s Football Team is composed of players from diverse backgrounds. Some are recruits from Hong Kong, Italy, and the United States. Others come from Metro Manila schools like Zobel, Xavier, and Ateneo High School. As for the last group, these are composed of people coming from Cebu. I found it funny how their “7v7” games are also termed as “Manila vs. The Rest of the World.” According to Rafi, he never gets tired of his teammates even though they see each other almost every single day. They become family and form lasting bonds even when part of the team graduate. Rafi says that football players ought to have the passion, determination, and love for the sport. Sometimes these matter more than your skills. He then goes on to enumerate his hardships as a student-athlete at the Ateneo. Practices are held late at night to avoid conflicting with night classes, which means that after a long day of school and practice, players only have about 1 to 2 hours to do all the studying and homework before crashing and going to bed. But players come home feeling exhausted, so their bodies barely allow them to study anyway. I ask him if he regrets being a student-athlete, but he responds by saying he can’t imagine life without football because he’d have so much free time and be bored out of his mind. He genuinely loves the sport, which is what fuels him to keep going through the hardships, winged quizzes, and crammed homework. Players struggle to find the right balance in life, and I personally think this is a test of time management skills and finding a source of daily motivation. I left the Moro-Lorenzo field wanting to watch one of their UAAP games and apply what I’ve learned. I gained a new understanding and appreciation of the sport thanks to my observations.
My “throw-in” experience made me realize how different being on the field is from being on the bleachers. On the field, so many eyes are watching your every move, and one mistake warrants criticism. The pressure, even without an audience, is still a bit overwhelming because the coaches are observing each player closely. Players must meet their coach’s expectations and perform their very best the whole time. Also, when throwing the ball, I noticed my lack of fitness and exercise as well.
Asking Rafi questions added much to my understanding because, being long-time friends, I wasn’t afraid to ask him questions about obvious things. It is useful to have someone coming from an insider’s perspective. When discussing with Rafi about what I just saw during training, I realized how different my perceptions are from what is really happening. It just shows that my own biases interfered with my findings. However, it is also interesting to learn so much about something that never caught my attention. I understood more about the amount of passion each football player has and how much sports IQ it takes to be able to play a good game and to be the team to beat.
As mentioned earlier, I learned a lot about how much passion, skill, and instinct is required from a football player. A questionnaire would never be able to capture this because it asks respondents questions and expects an answer from a set of choices to quantify results. To capture each person’s perspective on the sport, the questionnaire would have to be full of questions requiring short answers. Each response is unique and are impossible to quantify. As for a formal interview, this cannot go on for long, otherwise the interviewee will grow tired and answer questions half-heartedly. Interviews focus on one specific topic and has a direction and flow. By having a key informant, I got to fully understand all kinds of aspects of the training session and more. I asked questions from the top of my mind and had no exact flow to the discussion. This gave me a richer understanding of football.
However, if one needed to find answers to research questions, which require majority’s opinion, like “What qualities in a coach are most valued by football players?” or “What is the best time to train?” then a questionnaire would be the best option as opposed to participant observation. With participant observation, you are placed in one setting and you must observe with the available conditions. A questionnaire, however, allows you to gather responses coming from different perspectives not limited to given conditions. Research questions may be answered via interview. If the observer does not have the time and/or resources to conduct a participant observation, perhaps an interview would be the straightforward, more convenient option. The interviewee must be coming from the observed group of people to gather accurate answers.
I realized that a training session within a football field could serve as a parallelism of daily life in Philippine society. First, the rookies come from abroad like Hong Kong, USA, and Italy. This just shows how much Filipinos value foreigners and always prefer them to Filipinos when recruiting. The same thing happens in society where foreigners are given special treatment because we always think that anything to do with the “West” is best. Second, so many people have the passion for football, but it is not given the support it needs because of a lack of return on investment. In Philippine society, teachers and researchers are barely given grants for their research. The government fails to support these people; therefore, causing the Philippines to stagger in terms of innovation. Last, only the rich have the power to create professional football clubs and join football clubs. Players who see football as a career after graduating often aim to join famous football clubs like Kaya FC, Agila FC, and Ceres. However, these clubs are owned by the rich; therefore, a player would require connections to join these clubs. The privileged have more opportunities available to them, while the less privileged are left struggling to live out their passion as a career. In Philippine society, the same things happen where the privileged can gather even more privileges, while the less privileged struggle more when striving for success. Nonetheless, I realized that football is more than just a pass-pass-charge technique.
It is an interplay of wit, instinct, courage, and skill, and people will real talent deserve better.