THE football playing field in Apayao as described by one coach is “worst.” The contractor filled the entire ground with sand making it looked like a venue for beach-sports activities rather than football. “It was a miscommunication between the contractor and the administration,” said a local football fan. There were no grasses so the bare sands and dirt mixed. It was soft and dusty so that when athletes ran, their feet sank making movement difficult and the air gets covered with dusts. Yet sand and dust could not hinder the fierce competition of the athletes.
Eighteen young boys clad in their uniforms perform drills before the game. Eleven players are starters while the rest are reserves. Coaches employ various drills and warm up exercises. Spectators who barely see practices like this are amazed.
“Nagmayat a kitkitan o (It is a beautiful sight),” exclaimed an old lady watching the preparation before the secondary level championship match between Baguio and Benguet. The warm up is usually followed by the huddle. Coaches talk to the athletes for the last time before the game reminding them of strategies and keeping their motivation high. Then they end it with a prayer before they line up for introduction. I observed that the Baguio team has its brief player-moment, their arms lock on each other, before the game proper.
Football is not like basketball where scores can reach a hundred. One goal is oftentimes enough. Baguio beat both Ifugao and Kalinga teams with 1-0 score during the elimination round. One goal decided the elementary-championship-rubber match. No goal was scored during the regular time of the championship match of Baguio and Benguet secondary so penalty shootout decided it. This explains the difficulty in scoring. It is hard to dribble with the feet among experienced defenders especially when the ground is uneven. It is difficult to control the ball like making a pass when athletes are at full speed while trying to lose their defenders. One mistake and the ball gets away. The goal keeper is the last line of defense. That is why every goal hit is celebrated crazily. Athletes throw their arms in the air, run the length of the field, kneel tapping their chest, or give a thunderous yell. Coaches close their fist, get on their feet, or shout in jubilation.
The fiercest battles take place near the goal post. The strikers try their best to sneak and score. They would force their way to the goal. The defenders, waiting for help defense from the midfielders, do everything not to give any chance to the strikers. I would see the dusts rise up many times on these areas during the games in Apayao. The supporters are on their feet nervously yelling to keep on fighting. I understand now why this game is the most popular sport in the world.
Football is a battle of skill and will, of grit and determination, and of talent and attitude. In Apayao, the management and coaches agreed to allot one hour for the game, 30 minutes first half and the same 30 minutes for the second half. It was an hour of non-stop play under the scorching heat of the sun. If an athlete will not compete out there, he gets easily beaten. They have to outrun each other, be on the first ball, and fight for the ball possession using their strength. If not, they will get beaten. The only rest the athletes get for this whole hour is the half-break or when they get substituted. Substitution is not like basketball game where they can take one player out and then put him back after some minutes. I did not notice any time out called. After our first game, some of the athletes had to go immediately to the clinic because of sprained ankles and muscle pains. The next day, they were there again ready to play. They have to be mentally tough. Down 2-0, co-captain Nissi of Baguio City kept shouting at his teammates not to give up or not to let go. The coaches kept reminding their players to hang on.
The athletes literally give everything they have. After each game all are exhausted and banged up, that is why losing stings so much. When Baguio team lost the finals to Benguet, many of the athletes cried. It is sometimes hard to accept that our best is not enough to win. Last year in Abra, the venue of CARAA, Benguet stole the title from Baguio. This year at Apayao, they defended the title. For some of the Baguio Football athletes, they failed to redeem themselves. For the seniors in the team, they disappointed their elder teammates who have been champions during their time. For them they did not fulfill their promise. The crying would not stop. It was a rivalry between Baguio and Benguet after all.
The reality of sports resounded once again. One should rise while the other must fall. Yet as Coach Ariston Bocalan, head coach of the Baguio Football team, champion for the last 7 straight years before last year, “sometimes it is not always about winning, it is sometimes about learning.”