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Sunday, March 24, 2019

Villaflor: One for the girls

WHEN the final whistle blew, my daughter’s team had lost 2-1 to their most bitter of rivals in the schools division regional semi-finals in Bohol, a game they dominated for the most part. But such is futsal, and like football and its other variants, it can be a source of great joy one day, and heavy sorrow the next.

And upon seeing me at the makeshift stands, my daughter, the team captain who felt she had let everyone down because they won’t be going to the Palarong Pambansa, rushed toward me, buried her face in my chest, and wept.

As a football parent since she was four, I had never seen her this inconsolable after a match. “It’s okay,” I said, fumbling for words, my shirt now wet with snot and tears. “It’s just a game.”

A few chairs away, a teammate who had prepared for the match beyond what was required, was just as distraught. To cheer her up, the dad told her bluntly, “Hunong nag hilak kay magkampat na imong kilay (Stop crying because you’ll make a mess of your eyebrows).”

I think about that moment from a few weeks ago and I, as a football parent, realize two things. One is that girls’ football, though still marginalized, has grown significantly over the last decade in terms of numbers, skill, and competitiveness across the country. And two, these girls – whether they’re playing 11-a-side, 7-a-side or futsal – love the sport selflessly to bits, despite all the hurt, despite the bruises and scars in their egos and knees. What makes a girl’s love for football different from that of a boy’s is that the latter don’t have to deal with stereotypes associated with a rough-and-tumble sport. But girls still do, no thanks to a country’s obsession with women’s flawless, white skin.

And while these stereotypes shouldn’t be brushed aside, there are far more daunting challenges that women footballers face: the future of the sport and theirs. Despite the milestones that women’s football has achieved, the sport here remains in the fringes of the public consciousness.

If their male counterparts are constantly fighting for recognition while trying to prop up a fledgling national league, women footballers bear twice the burden. With no national league of their own and media attention is cursory at best, women’s football needs a game-changing boost.

And that boost could come early, no less from the Philippine Women’s National Football Team, otherwise known as the Malditas. At the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup in Jordan that kicks off today, the Malditas aim for a memorable performance as underdogs in Group A against powerhouse China, veterans Thailand, and hosts Jordan. For their first match, they will face the hosts tomorrow at 1 a.m. An upset against China is unlikely, but the Malditas can scalp both Thailand and Jordan. Imagine.

Like many football fans, I am unfamiliar with the Maldita players. But as one who has witnessed the many highs and lows that football brings, I know that every Maldita on the field at the Amman International Stadium will play with all their heart and strive for the improbable. But more than that – and I say this as a football parent – an audacious, impassioned performance from the Malditas will inspire thousands of Filipino girls who, just like them, love to kick ball. Against all odds. Unconditionally.
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