a slice of football heaven: barotac nuevo

English: Map of Iloilo showing the location of...

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by Bob Guerrero

MANILA, Philippines — It is the day after Christmas, and like the Three Kings, Ebong Joson, a.k.a. the Blue Haired Fanatic, and I are on a pilgrimage. We find ourselves in Barotac Nuevo, Iloilo province, to soak in the atmosphere of the Philippines’ number one football town.

Barotac Nuevo has produced national team footballers for generations as university football programs regularly recruit thoroughbred players from the small town. Her sons populate the rosters of top club teams. Almost all the notable homegrown Pinoys on the Azkals learned their football growing up there. In a basketball-mad nation, Barotac Nuevo has always been an oasis of the Beautiful Game.

Azkal Ian Araneta planned a youth tournament here in his hometown months ago. He invited superfan Ebong to watch. Ebong invited me. In seconds, I decided to go. In minutes, I had booked my flights online.

Lurix Araneta, Ian’s father, picks me up from the airport. The former national team player is slight of build and soft-spoken, but legend is he was a terrific striker for Army. We chat all throughout the ride from the Iloilo Airport, and in 45 minutes, we arrive.

FIELD OF DREAMS

At a glance, Barotac Nuevo looks like any other small town in the Philippines. It seems quite unremarkable, with verdant ricefields and rustic Filipino homes dotting the highway.

And then you reach the plaza, where, under the shadow of the San Antonio de Padua church’s bell tower, lies the football field, perhaps weedy and patchy in spots, but definitely a full-size regulation pitch. It’s also fringed by mossy three-step stone bleachers on three sides.

I’m introduced to the other movers and shakers of the local football scene — Melvin Juarez, Jessie Sazon, and Sammy Causing, collectively known as the Caballeros Football Club. They are feverishly working to set up the lines and the goals for tomorrow’s tournament.

True Ilonggo hospitality is the order of the day. The organizers, all top footballers in their time, seem to appreciate my interest in Barotac Nuevo and welcome me with open arms.

I come not just to watch, but also to fulfill a dream of playing pick-up football in Barotac Nuevo. But unfortunately, the elements aren’t cooperating. A steady afternoon drizzle has scared off most of the players, except for a hardy bunch of lady booters, including one with exceptional pedigree.

Ina Araneta is Ian’s kid sister. She studies in Barotac Nuevo Comprehensive High School, and even though just a junior, is already being offered football scholarships by universities in Manila.

In spite of the rain, she and her mates take the field for a five-on-five with one very obese football commentator.

The girls can play. The standard is light years away from the typical girl game in Metro Manila. The ball control and dribbling is, as they say in football jargon, quite cultured. I huff and puff and try to keep up.

The obese football commentator should have scored. We get a free kick from some distance. Our opponents were expecting me to lob it to Ina. I go direct into the small goal with the tip of my boot. I catch it sweet, on target, with decent venom. But the keeper, a pretty little thing, maybe 13 years old, flat out dives and bats it clear.

We retire that day after some roast chicken and a few bottles of Gold Eagle beer outside our digs, the Aseur Pension House. It’s run by the chatty and vibrant Lorena Leigh, a Barotac Nuevo native married to an Englishman. Like everyone we meet there, she treats us like family.

THE TOURNAMENT

The next day dawns cold and stormy. We all wonder if the tournament will push through. But a trip to the plaza reveals that a little moisture won’t cancel a tournament in these parts. Ian, the gracious host is there, along with fellow Barotacnon Azkals Chieffy Caligdong and Roel Gener. Misagh Bahadoran has also come along for additional star power. Also in attendance are a bunch of youth teams, shivering in the waterlogged field during the very wet opening ceremonies.

After the pleasantries, the games kick off on the five small fields carved into the larger field. The lower divisions, from five to seven years old, are scrappy affairs, with the kids all swarming around the ball like ants. The older kids show more panache, although one field is basically little more than a giant puddle, where kids slosh around while hacking away at the ball. The kids show amazing skill, even the ones who play barefoot. The uniforms might be mismatched and the surface a tad ragged, but it’s clear that this is football country.

Meanwhile, Ina Araneta is lording it over in the women’s division, goals coming thick and fast. Her team wins the title handily.

By this time, Ebong Joson has transformed himself into his alter-ego, the Blue Haired Fanatic. Resplendent in blue wig, shades, and blue, red and white face paint, he’s a hit with the kids.

Lunch is across the street at Karen’s eatery. In between mouthfuls of authentic Iloilo batchoy, I gaze at yellowing pics on the wall of past Philippine National Teams. Most are stacked with Barotacnons.

That afternoon the tournament winds down. One team wins its division in a heart-stopping penalty shootout. Trophies are handed out. The spirit is great. Everyone has a wonderful time, especially the hundreds who lined the field to spectate.

MORE FOOTBALL

The next day is when we are slated to leave, but there’s more football. An open, inter-barangay tournament kicks off, and two senior teams duke it out on the pitch. They are mostly local kids, but vacationing Barotacnons based in Manila, like Stallion FC’s Ruben Doctora, are also in the mix. I trot over behind a goal to take pictures and hear a small, raspy voice calling my name from the crowd.

It’s none other than the town’s most famous product, Chieffy himself. We chat. I express regret that I’ll miss his inter-barangay game later in the afternoon because of my flight. His friendly, humble nature, in spite of his fame, is classic Barotac Nuevo.

I walk back to the center of the field and a stranger comes up to me and shakes my hand. He recognizes me from my Azkals commentary and thanks me for always mentioning his town whenever a Barotacnon Azkal makes a good move on the pitch. “Pumapalakpak ang tenga namin dito tuwing naririnig naming binabanggit mo ang Barotac Nuevo,” he says.

Doctora, after blazing over the bar twice, finally finds the back of the net. The halftime whistle blows and it’s time for Ebong and I to catch our flight. We say our goodbyes and thank yous and vow to see each other again.

The town leaves an indelible mark on me. But one last anecdote speaks volumes about how a passion for football is so deeply ingrained in local life.

Remember the little goalkeeper girl who stopped my shot the day before the youth tournament? On the day of the tournament I was suprised to see her in street clothes. I asked her why she wasn’t playing. Her answer shocked me. “Di pa ako pinapayagan ng doktor kase kaka-opera ko lang sa appendix,” she replies.

What kind of a football player instinctively dives flat out on the ground, in a friendly pick-up game, to make a save, on fresh appendix stitches?

A player from Barotac Nuevo. Where football is religion. And making the play is all that matters.

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