By Keith Pereña
A couple of weeks back, one of my colleagues approached me with a huge sheet of paper. On it, I noticed the names of other colleagues with numbers alongside them; he then asked if I wanted to place a bet on who was going to win the World Cup. I must have looked blank for he followed that up with, “You don’t follow the World Cup, do you?” As far as I was concerned, it was just one of those big events that needed to be reported on. It was just news.
In the days following that conversation, almost everywhere I went in Dubai had some sort of event around the World Cup. My colleagues would huddle near the television and let out cheers as the matches progressed; open mic nights became crowded because of football fans glued to the television; every 15 minutes or so, someone would pass by donning a football jersey; my work now involved keeping track of which team was winning. But the hype surrounding it failed to strike a chord with me.
Before every World Cup fan reading this picks up their torches and pitchforks, kindly hear me out. Back in Manila, kids like me grew up being introduced to one sport and one sport alone: basketball.
Knowing how to play was some sort of rite of passage for Filipino kids. I remember watching one game with my grandfather, it was some sort of rematch between the PBA’s (Philippine Basketball Association) biggest rivals back in the 1970’s: the Crispa Redmanizers versus the Toyota Tamaraws. My eyes lit up at the agility of players. I was rooting for one of the players that my grandpa pointed out to me – Atoy Co. Sure, he was in his 60s, like everyone else playing the match, but when he glided around the court, my younger self immediately knew that I had to be able to play like him — and he coincidentally was our next door neighbour.
On top of the Crispa-Toyota rematch, Space Jam also happened. How do you get a kid to really want to pursue basketball? Simple, have cartoons play with living legend Michael Jordan, and throw in a killer soundtrack for good measure. I Believe I Can Fly was my go-to song whenever I would go to the court for practice. Standing along the three-point line, I would look at the bleachers and imagine MJ and Atoy Co cheering me on to make the game winning shot.
Mine is just one of the many stories of Filipino children being introduced to basketball at a young age. That doesn’t mean, however, that football didn’t exist for us. We do have a football team — even a national team to represent us. The Philippine Azkals placed second in the 2014 Asian Football Cup.
I first saw a football pitch in Manila when I was 12. My parents were on vacation from Dubai when we went to one of Manila’s fancier districts for a food festival. Near the gastronomic festival surrounding us was a well-lit field with some kids my age. The kids donned some red and blue jerseys, which later in life, I came to know as from the FC Barcelona team. They were kicking this ball back and forth between two ends of the field and they were all trying to get it inside the area with a net in it (a goalpost!). My initial reaction was ‘oh, rich-people basketball’. I immediately associated football with Manila’s upper echelons because (1) the only field I ever saw in Manila was in the affluent district and (2) makeshift basketball rings were more ubiquitous than makeshift goalposts.
Fast-forward to 20 years later and I’m now living my life in football-dominated Dubai. Sports stores here don’t have basketball jerseys and shoes displayed on mannequins, they have football jerseys and shoes with spikes (What d’you call those things again?). Seeing all this, I began to think that maybe it’s not the ‘rich-people’ game I made it to be. There were huge similarities in how the makeshift basketball rings of Manila’s streets have been replaced by children kicking a ball around in communities around Dubai. It was a nice change in perspective.
Five years since I arrived in Dubai, I now realise that the UAE’s football frenzy is a direct counterpart of Philippines’ basketball mania. And since I’ve never set foot on a football field ever, maybe I should try it out — as I like to say: first time for everything.
Keith’s only ‘sport’ is chess. Seriously