The country's national sepak takraw team, training under near-anonymity and far from the media spotlight that's focused on the more high-profile sports teams, is aiming for a good showing in next month's Southeast Asian Games in Indonesia — even if they're still one player short.
In order to compete in the three sepak takraw events lined up in the SEA Games - regu, doubles and hoop — a team needs to have 12 players. Unfortunately, according to national team assistant coach Hector Memarion, they only have 11 male players and nine female players.
"As of now, we don't have a training pool," Memarion said. "All of these players (pointing to several players practicing) are with the national team. We have 11 players on the men's team, and we lack one more. The women's team has nine."
Mamerion explained that the Philippines usually participates in the regu and doubles events, but if they can't have the full complement of 12 players, they may be forced to focus solely on the doubles events.
"Regu is composed of five players, three players and two substitutes. Doubles is composed of two players and one reserve. If we will be one player short, we will just concentrate on doubles. Because if the same players compete in both regu and doubles, they will get too tired and run the risk of injury."
If that happens, it would be a shame, since the team is coming off a respectable showing in the recent 26th King's Cup in Thailand, an elite tournament featuring 23 countries where they managed to snare a silver in men's regu and bronzes in men's doubles, women's team, women's regu and women's doubles.
"It's a sign of improvement," Memarion said of their five-medal haul in the King's Cup. "All the Southeast Asian countries were there. They were also using the King's Cup to prepare for the SEA Games."
In the 2009 SEA Games in Laos, the team brought home bronze medals in men's doubles, men's regu, men's hoop and women's hoop. That team was also in danger of falling one man short, but luckily they came up with a solution.
"I had to play," Memarion said with a smile. The former national player had retired from active competition in 2008 to join head coach Rudy Eco's coaching staff, but found himself answering the call of duty again a year later just to complete the Laos team. He quickly rules out another "coming out of retirement" for the 2011 SEAG.
"I'm old already. Let's give chance to the younger players," he said.
Thailand is again expected to dominate the SEA Games competition, with Malaysia also seen to figure prominently in the medal race. That's no surprise, considering both countries have professional leagues to keep their players busy. "Thailand has a quarterly series, while Malaysia has a takraw leg," said Memarion.
It's a cause of frustration for our local coaches, because the physical make-up of sepak takraw players across Southeast Asia is pretty homogenous, and there's no reason why Filipinos can't excel in the sport as well.
"Yes, with the proper support, training, exposure," Memarion said when asked if the Philippines can join the sport's elite. "Compared to other countries, all the players are the same. But their players really have the support and scientific training. Thailand has a takraw institute. You can study there if you want to take up sepak takraw.
"Here, people don't know the sport. We need to promote it soon. We're running out of talents, and our players are getting old. We need fresh athletes."
Currently, there are no regular sepak takraw tournaments apart from the National Open and the Hagedorn Cup. Those two tournaments are held only once a year, so there's nothing to keep our athletes busy all year round. The national team does join the International Sepak Takraw Federation (ISTAF) World Series, which has several legs held in different countries, but locally there are no regular competitions that can spur interest or be a source for local talents. Only the Palarong Pambansa serves as a feeder of new recruits, but very few provinces can form competitive teams.
"We cannot host a leg yet (of the ISTAF)," said Memarion. The Philippines is currently running seventh overall after two legs of the ISTAF, with the third leg scheduled in December in Malaysia.
Still, Memarion is grateful for the support extended by the Philippine Amateur Sepak Takraw Association headed by retired general Mario Tanchangco. "We have a venue to practice (the Brent gym inside the Philippine Sports Commission complex) and we have enough training equipment."
The team practices four to five hours a day, five days a week. SEA Games medalists get an allowance of around P15,000 per month, while non-medalists receive around P10,000 a month. New recruits start out with around P8,000.
Drumming up interest in the sport, Memarion concedes, is an uphill battle without support from the private sector. Given the nature of sepak takraw — a fast, action-packed team sport that's sort of a cross between volleyball and football — you'd think that with the proper marketing and promotions, it could easily take off here.
"If you look at the sport," Memarion says, "it's exciting. It's fast-paced, and it's actually very hard to play." You can only use your head, legs and feet to hit the ball across the net, and doing so requires the right amount of athleticism and skill. "It's harder than volleyball," Memarion observed.
The team hopes to finally strike gold in this year's SEA Games, although Memarion says a silver is more realistic with their best chance coming in men's doubles. If they do bag a gold, hopefully that would give sepak takraw -pardon the pun — the kickstart it needs.