Why we’re not into soccer (2)

A RECENT TIME MAGAZINE COVER STORY ON the World Cup 2010 games observed: “One reason why football is the world’s most popular game is that it is just so accessible, you can play anywhere.”

That’s not exactly true. Basketball is the more accessible game for one major reason: a basketball court is 10 times smaller than a football pitch, and therefore much easier to find.

A football match in, say, a Tondo slum, is nearly impossible. Certainly not for basketball—any small street could do for a half-court game, and electric posts are always nearby for the hoop. In a crowded Manila area where we lived in the 1970s, they would just close a narrow street for a neighborhood full-court tournament, and put up the two goals in the middle of the street, anchored by hollow blocks.

A football match on the other hand requires a lot of space; a big, level area. The upper classes would have such spaces, of course, but to be popular, a sport has to be accessible to, and played by, the masses. And in Metro Manila, the masses just didn’t have such spaces, or weren’t given the space by government. Yes, football still got to be played in rural areas where space was no problem. But then it is the capital which is also the trend-setting cultural capital.

The need for space is the reason why in the Philippines football is identified as a sport of the rich. Elite Catholic schools like Ateneo, La Salle and the University of Santo Tomas have huge campuses, and therefore football fields. In contrast, the lower-classes’ public schools like Emilio Aguinaldo High School in La Loma, Torres High School in Tondo, and the colleges in old downtown Manila like Far Eastern University and the University of the East have cramped properties where only basketball courts can fit in.

Parallel to the dearth of football fields in our metropolis is the scarcity of open parks, a requirement in most cities elsewhere. Our property magnates just don’t care about open spaces. Who remembers that Ugarte Field in Makati was originally Sebastian Ugarte Football Field, to honor a football star in an era when open spaces and football fields were more important than office buildings? Indeed, it’s a bit symbolic of what has happened in our country: no longer a field for play, Ugarte’s renown is as a protest site of choice. And whatever happened to the metropolis’ green spaces of the 1970s? “Greenhills” and “Greenbelt Park” have become gross misnomers.

This point to the role a government has relinquished. If creating parks and soccer fields isn’t being done by companies, it is the state which has to fill this need. Whatever happened to the regulation that a certain percentage of commercial properties should be reserved for green areas or parks?

There is one final reason football hasn’t been popular here, something that those who are fond of cursing our country should keep in mind so that they may become kinder in their criticisms of our nation: Where we are in the planet. There is much truth to the adage, “Geography is destiny.” We are in the planet’s tropical region, with a long rainy season. Worse, we are in the first land masses after the vast typhoon-generating Pacific Ocean, and consequently get to be hit first by these storms. How can you keep interest in football, when you can’t play it as often as you would like to because of continuous rains for months?

The football that I remember from high school was played in a soggy field with patches of “carabao grass,” a far, far cry from the immaculately green pitches you see in the World Cup games. And you would be all covered with sticky mud after a game. In summer, on the other hand, you risked having a heat stroke. But basketball you can play indoors, and in fact, many municipalities and colleges have gyms mainly designed for the game.

US colonialism, television’s power to mold culture (and now, even politics), our elites’ lack of social responsibility, the state’s abdication of its regulatory responsibility over companies, geography—all these explain why we don’t play the human family’s game. And they also explain many of our problems as a nation.

Our being disinterested in the global game highlights the fact that we are sorely lacking in tools for nation-building. Watch the World Cup matches and you would see, say, Australians with their faces painted with their flag, a Ghanian in ecstasy at his national team’s win, a usually-reserved German lady in tears as their national team loses a match. The beautiful game is a secular sacrament through which one feels oneness with one’s fellow citizens and therefore one’s nationalism is strengthened.

The closest version we have would be the Pacquiao fights. But he will be retiring soon to be a professional politician, and we can only root for such entities as Tropang Texters, Beermen and Ginebra Kings to provide some escape for our little minds.

It’s a dream perhaps, but maybe it’s time to damn the past and the rains, and kick-start a national football team as our nation enters a new and hopefully optimistic phase.

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer