Cebu kids play football despite the odds

By Narciso Tapia,
For Yahoo! Southeast Asia

Before the Azkals popularized football in this country, a group of kids in Cebu City already made the sport their life and are reaping awards for it.

Meet the ANS/Pomeroy, Abellana National High School's football team and winner of several regional and national football championships.

Team members buy their footwear from flea markets or secondhand stores, and there are no water jugs, Gatorade, or snacks during football practice.

Francis Ramirez, the team's coach, said his players make do with used shoes, sometimes with holes due to repeated use.

For the boys, Ramirez added, being lucky is finding wearable shoes in secondhand stores or getting footwear donations from parents of players in other teams.

At one practice, one kid was wearing a black shoe on his right foot and a white one from another pair on the left.

"Naa ganiy uban diha, nagpuyo ra sa tolda (There are some players who live in tents)," said Ramirez.

Some alumni would give occasional donations but the main constant support the team gets, usually in the form of snacks during the game and uniforms, is from a Good Samaritan by the name of Carl Veloso, who is not even an alumnus of the school and has a son who plays in one of the opposing teams.

Abellana National High School provides monetary support to the team but it's far from enough.

The greatest fear of players is getting injured because families of team members do not have money for treatment or hospitalization.

There was one tournament when one player suffered a leg fracture. "Nangutana intawn ang bata kung, 'Kalakaw pa ko ani coach?' (The kid asked me, 'Would I be able to walk again, coach?')"

Luckily, the organizers shouldered the expense for the player's treatment and he was able to play again after a long period of recovery.

In some of the team's major wins, the coaching staff would use money from their own pockets to treat the boys to a simple celebration.

"Dili malikayan na mokuot jud mi sa among bulsa para lang nay pahalipay sa mga bata (We can't help but spend our own money just to give the kids a little treat to make them happy)," Ramirez revealed.

The team is sometimes invited to compete outside Cebu but players cannot afford the fare and accommodation costs.

"Mao nay sakit sa mga team sa Philippines, walay exposure (That's the problem with teams in the Philippines, they're not given exposure)," Ramirez observed.

They only get to join tournaments in other places when the organizers defray their travel expenses.

Despite the odds, the ANS/Pomeroy team manages to survive and win over its private school counterparts as well as older teams in exhibition and men's open tournaments.

Representatives from colleges in Cebu and the National Capital Region would observe the team practice and scout for prospective players.

Some players end up in private colleges as varsity scholars, bringing some relief to their parents who struggle to make ends meet.

Other former Pomeroy players become "Little Azkals" or "Teen Askals," the younger versions of the Philippine national team.

Carlito, a barangay volunteer, has two children currently playing for the Pomeroys.

Another son was a former member of the Pomeroy team and is now a college varsity player. He said he watches his sons at practice and during actual games since he fully supports their chosen sport.

He revealed: "Hilig jud nila. Ok man sad nay sport kay sa maadto sa laing lugar (They are really fond of this. I'm glad they engage in this sport rather than pick up a vice)."

According to Ramirez, team training and development is a long-term process. The school search for players that will make up the team starting in the elementary level. The coach keeps an eye on kids studying in the Cebu City Central School who also play football.

He said some kids have a talent for the sport and they just need their skills honed.

A pool of potential ANS/Pomeroy players is chosen from elementary team. These kids make up the 12-under team and as they proceed to high school at Abellana, they are elevated to the 14-under team together with a few other players.

They practice together with the 17-under team, whose members might come from the 14-under team. Practice time is usually 2 to 3 hours a day late in the afternoon.

Abellana's special program for sports enhances the bonding and camaraderie between teammates.

At every year level, two sections are assigned to athletes so teammates become classmates. In and out of the playing field, they face various challenges together, further strengthening their team.

In addition, players are also allowed to cross-train in another sport like sepak takraw or basketball to enhance their athleticism and skills.

"Para mupaspas ang agility ug ma-develop ang uban sense (Players become more agile and the other senses are developed)," Ramirez explained.

As far as Ramirez knows, the Abellana football team has been there since the 60s. In 2007, the team became known as the ANS/Pomeroys.

Rogelio, who has been with ANS/Pomeroy for six years, answered "Messi" when asked about his favorite football player.

He was referring to Lionel Messi, international football player for FC Barcelona and Argentina.

Rogelio, 15, joined the team upon the prodding of his cousins who were former ANS/Pomeroy players. At a young age of 9, his heart was already into football. He was encouraged to join while watching his cousins practice in the Cebu City Sports Center.

"Nasuya ko nila. Lingaw man sila (I envied them. They have so much fun)," he said.

If being an askal, which is short for "asong kalye" and translates to street dog and the basis for the naming of the Philippine football team Azkals, means being tenacious and resilient, then indeed the ANS/Pomeroys are Cebu's Azkals and possibly the future Philippine football team.