Why we’re not into soccer

WITH THE WORLD CUP 2010 MADNESS AT ITS height, when European capitals stand still as their national teams compete, you are likely to ask yourself: “Are we so different that we don’t play the game everyone’s playing around the world?”

It’s not a trivial question. Nearly one billion human beings are said to be watching the World Cup 2010 games, and we’re not. We’re very strangely not participants in what an American columnist termed as the “human family at play.” If football, as a historian pointed out, is “the new religion,” then we Filipinos are weirdly the fringe group atheists. And it’s a game we Filipinos can dream of excelling in some day, unlike the tall man’s game, basketball, in which we are genetically handicapped so that we’ll never stand out.

Answering the question is even more interesting given the fact that there was a time when football competed with basketball in popularity before World War II. Indeed, our sole “national stadium” was not a basketball stadium, but was officially named the Rizal Memorial Track and Football Stadium when it was inaugurated in 1934, in the old Manila area.

Many decades later, high school Ateneans of my generation routinely played both football and basketball, and many of the basketball stars of the late 1960s started off in football.

There are several reasons why we lost interest in the global game, some of which reveal our problems as a nation.

First, at least in explaining why we don’t care about football, there is indeed something to the communists’ big monster: US colonialism.

It was basketball (and baseball) but not football which was our colonizers’ favorite game; and the little brown brothers certainly followed their colonizer’s culture. Bird, Jabbar, Jordan, Kobe—any Pinoy you meet at the mall would know them. Pele, Maradona, Zidane, Ronaldo—who they? (What do we do now after the US joined the global game, which is becoming more and more popular every year?)

We are indeed one of the most US-centered cultures in the world. The ancient civilizations of Europe and their modern structures are alien to us. Welfare state? Social democracy? Labor parties? These are as unfamiliar to us as the football stars, even for many educated Filipinos. The parliamentary system—essentially one in which the people’s representatives, and not the people directly, choose the nation’s leader—is really strange and suspicious to us, even as it has developed over many centuries in Europe to be indubitably the ideal democracy as it prevents ochlocracy, or rule by the angry mob. But our mind-set is still what’s best for the USA (the masses directly voting for their leader, even in an era when media can easily manipulate people’s sentiments) is still the best for us.

The popularity of basketball is a case study of how capitalism molds a cultural phenomenon and, in the Philippines, its unbridled power.

First, it was US-style, profit-driven television that boosted basketball and practically killed football in the country starting in the 1960s. The 48-minute game was divided into four quarters, with a 15-minute, half-time break and 12 one-minute time outs. It was almost designed for TV advertising—for inserting soap, beer and soft drink song-and-dance commercials. Football took so long, and running at least 90 minutes, with only one half-time break, and no time-out, TV advertising in that game was difficult. (FIFA, the world soccer federation, learned to commercially use television for the World Cup only in the 1990s.) Philippine capitalism strived for every second of basketball fans’ attention to be on their product and so they organized professional basketball and named the teams after the corporate entity and their flagship products: Crispa, Toyota, San Miguel, Ginebra, Purefoods, Sta. Lucia Realtors, Talk ’N Text. (In the US, teams were organized by cities, creating some sense of community. But Beermen?)

Second, the Araneta Coliseum (“The Biggest Covered Coliseum in the World”) was built in 1959, a deft business move by the Aranetas to move the center of commercial activity from downtown Manila to the family’s estate in the then suburban Quezon City. Following the if-you-build-it-they-will-come logic, the Coliseum fast became the site of more and more professional basketball tournaments and, with television coverage, made it more popular than ever. (With the huge crowds at every basketball game, the Aranetas built the first mall in the country, Ali Mall, and its success undoubtedly inspired Henry Sy to change his business model from huge department stores to malls that have now created one of the most mall-dotted metropolises in the world. So thank basketball for our mall culture.)

(To be continued)

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer