WHILE this country of midgets continues to feast on the triumph of the Los Angeles Lakers, the unending PBA conferences, the 86th NCAA season, the PBL Liga and whatever there is in basketball, a so-tiny segment within our fractured sports culture is trying to catch a glimpse of the ongoing World Football Cup in South Africa.
The few oddballs on the off-side here but in synch with the rest of the world strain waking up before dawn for whatever delayed telecast there is of a game or a BBC update on the World Cup. Among them are the Cinderellas, Baguio's women's squad whose collective and individual names hardly ring a bell despite their close to two decades domination of the on-and-off national and invitational leagues of the world's most popular sport.
Over 20 of the Cinderellas' trophies are rusting in my cubicle. They're mementoes only to Peewee Agustin, Randall Dampac, Gabby Soriano, Petronio Dacoron, Dan David, Tino Tizon and a few others who used to drive them to playing venues if and when the fuel would warrant, then bring them home tired and triumphant.
The girls had missed out on some tournaments -- not so much for the trophies but the joy and art of playing. Those were times they failed to find sponsored transport or collect and sell enough empty bottles and old newspapers for food and registration fees.
Billeting had never been an issue. They slept in classrooms or were taken in to the houses of friends or rivals for the regular tournaments. They would travel midnight straight to the playing venues for the blitz, seven-a-side one-day tournaments, lugging water jugs and a few kilos of "adobo" (which doesn't easily spoil) for breakfast, picnic lunch and supper then sleep the long drive back home - almost always with the championship trophy.
Blame this passion for soccer on Manny Javellana, a football fanatic and no-nonsense Brent School coach. In 1986, he knocked on schools and assembled high school and college girls that he trained into a most formidable team. Two years later, they began making a mark in national tournaments. Knowing they were ready for competition, he bade them goodbye and returned home to Bacolod.
In summer 1991, the girls pooled their stipends and hired a jeepney for the YKL-Fuji National Cup played on weekends in Quezon City. With the driver as their only fan, the girls just kept on winning with the barest of resources outside the field.
"At lemon time, we'd quench our thirst with tap water while the other teams were popping bottles of Lipovitan," recalled skipper Monique Jacinto, standing at four feet and 11 inches with fellow striker Annaliza Umoc.
In-between classes, the girls would raise the round-trip jeepney fare in time for the next weekend games. One night before summer's end, they quietly arrived home with their first-ever championship trophy, with Umoc establishing a record of 13 goals in a single tournament. The feat would have triggered community celebration were it in basketball or were they representing a city of any other country.
The Cinderellas then convinced then city prosecutor Erdolfo Balajadia to spearhead preparations for the 1992 First Baguio National Women's Cup. They downed tough Polytechnic University, 1-0, in the final, then repeated on the same team, 4-2, with a nerve-wracking shoot-out the following year in the First National Ladies Cup at the Burnham Park.
For lack of airfare, the Cinderellas missed their 1994 title-retention bid. Host Davao won that one, the same team they would face in the final of the1995 Cup in Sta. Cruz, Laguna.
By then, eight of the Cinderellas were in the national team, and only four of them were allowed to play at a time in Laguna. With only nine or 10 in the field due to the rule, they breezed through the preliminaries and semis in Sta. Cruz. For the final showdown against Davao, however, they needed to complete the 11-member lineup.
From the crowd, the girls yanked in Roberta Sandejas, a lanky 16-year-old who was training for the La Salle high school squad. She came to watch and suddenly found herself wearing the Baguio colors.
Newsman and men's coach Peppot Ilagan, whose ward Jimmy Eslao eventually played in the Australian national league, rushed to Sta. Cruz to chart the game plan against Davao.
With the Davao side marking strikers Anna Umoc, Richelle Ranchez and Cheng Mendoza, regulation play on Friday the 13th ended in a 0-0 draw. On the 13th minute of extension, a scramble before the goal mouth sent the ball flying towards Roberta, whom the Davao side ignored for her awkward beginner's stance.
The comely high school senior just tipped it in for the golden goal - her first in her first tournament. The Davao belles dropped to their knees, some in tears. The Baguio side rushed to Roberta, lifting their instant heroine as she raised her fist in jubilation.
Roberta went on to join La Salle's college team. The Baguio squad went on collecting more championship trophies with unbreakable regularity, mostly seven-aside and beach football titles for lack of regular, 11-a-side tournaments in a country fallen heads-over-heels for basketball.
(Continuation on Monday)