Sunday, June 20, 2010

Soccer Diplomacy

(It's soccer to me because I'm Filipino. But for the benefit of foreign readers, I'll call it football for the meantime.)

The world is currently going through World Cup fever. Every four years, the world stops and focuses its attention on a group of teams trying to win the biggest sporting event on the planet. But in an archipelago in Southeast Asia, all the inhabitants of its 7, 107 islands are just now recovering from the thrilling NBA Finals that saw the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Boston Celtics in 7 games (ugh). Then, attention is given to the possibility of a fight between best pound for pound boxer in the world, Manny Pacquiao, and the guy who claims to be the real best in the world, Floyd Mayweather, Jr.

Filipinos' first and greatest love is basketball. It's just fact born of history. Our former colonizers, the Americans, gave it to us, and it was love at first sight. The Yanks weren't big on football, so it didn't flourish on our shores. It was ironic that a nation whose people's average height is 5'4 happens to end up falling head over heels for a sport meant for tall people. As I said in a previous blog:

"I'm proud of our rich history in basketball. Hell, I can be very jingoistic about it. I love the sport more than the English love football and a fat kid loves cake. I love the Filipinos love for it. The sport is so deeply embedded in our culture. Whenever my colleagues from other countries ask why we are so enamored about the sport, I say because it's already in our genes. I tell them, give a child a ball, his first tendency will be to kick it. But give a Filipino child a ball, his first tendency will be to dribble it."

As a diplomat, I learned the hard way that a rudimentary knowledge of football was an important tool in developing cordial relations with my peers. It's not that vital, but it can really make the atmosphere of diplomatic discussions friendlier.

My introduction to football diplomacy happened 2 years ago when I attended a training program in Turkey for young diplomats. The participants' ages ranged from mid-20s (like me) to early 30s. Given this age range, all of us were fit enough to test our skills on the pitch. My only problem was I had no skills to speak of. I tried football a few times when I was in grade school, but the lure of the hardcourt was too strong.

From the start of the program, I've been turning down invitations to go to the pubs to watch football matches, usually organized by the Latinos. And when the training organizers brought us to a sports facility in Ankara to allow us to lose some pounds, everyone was on the football field while I was the only one shooting hoops in an indoor gym. I guess it's a case of life imitating geopolitics.

Then the moment of truth finally came in the hotel we stayed in while in Pamukkale. I had to finally play and itaas ang bandila ng Pilipinas. "Andres Bonifacio, atapang a tao" and all that. All I had to do was kick a stupid ball, right? How hard can it be? As it turned out, very hard.

The football field was much, much larger than a basketball court. That meant more distance to run. The weather was freezing outside. And while, for kanto basketball, I had a decent outside shot thanks to my "soft touch," I had s**tty footwork. And as the game's name suggests, it's all about the footwork.

After running aimlessly like a headless chicken for several minutes, a Latino friend noticed my ignorance and asked me nicely if I was okay, probably his diplomatic way of telling me to stop acting like a dork. A Southeast Asian friend, wanting a neighbor to save face, suggested I try a different position. He thought my fat ass would make a passable goalkeeper. I asked, "That will make me stop running right? I just have to stand near the goal, don't I?" He gave me a yes that must have been equivalent to a facepalm of disbelief. "Goalie, huh?," I mused. How hard can it be?

Then it came, the volley of balls that came my way. The incoming balls may as well have been speeding bullets. How hard can Africans kick the ball? My chest found out the answer. The players from the Balkans? My groin painfully discovered that out. This went on until I ended up a goalkeeper whose main objective is not to get in contact with the ball. My African colleagues tried to cheer up their "brother from another mother" by telling me I'm doing great. I finally asked for a substitution to allow me to nurse my bodyaches.

The closest thing I ended up to looking like someone who knew football was when I went out with my Asian friends to the football shops in Istanbul to buy footie merchandise and visit the Besiktas and Galatasaray stadiums. Apparently, there are three major football clubs in Turkey: Besiktas, Fenerbahce, and Galatasaray. Galatasaray was said to be the most popular and successful, but I bought Besiktas stuff because I liked the team's colors: black and white. I thought it would look smashing with my San Antonio Spurs stuff, who sported similar colors.

So to anyone out there who hopes to enter the Philippine Foreign Service, I highly advice you start brushing up on football knowledge now. Watching the World Cup going on in South Africa is a good start. Then we can all go back to wondering what team LeBron James will end up playing for next season.

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