Jessica Zafra: Philippines, Welcome to Earth
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Our favorite headline from the last football World Cup appeared in a local paper: “Football fever grips the planet—except the Philippines.” It summed up our attitude to sports outside of basketball and to the world at large: We don’t care.

Sure we are interested in other countries—if there are Filipinos in them. Theoretically this means we care about everybody, since we would be hard-pressed to name a country whose Filipino population is zero. At the Azkals game in Ulan Bator there were 200 Filipinos cheering in the stands. However, our interest is usually confined to matters directly concerning Pinoys. We’re tribal that way.

In this we are like our former colonial master the United States. “Turkey?” laughs the American semi-celebrity in a game show, “That’s the name of a country?” She is not a rarity, and her ignorance is based on arrogance. Who cares? We don’t need to know, we rule.

America’s grip on the Filipino imagination is so powerful that we may as well be American. The 52nd state—if they hadn’t rejected us. We are so in tune with the American culture of celebrity that we are more up-to-date on the gossip than middle Americans. (Of course we care less about, say, Martin Scorsese’s next project than the fact that someone with a strand of Pinoy DNA is in American Idol.)

Was the American audience’s sudden interest in football, the most popular sport on the planet, a sign that they’d decided to take notice of the world? Or was it because their team unexpectedly did well at the 2010 World Cup? Whatever the trigger an interest in football is always good, for it is the most politically-charged sport of our time. 

Is there a more public arena in which former colonies can do battle with their ex-colonizers? Revenge may be symbolic only, but it is still sweet. On the other hand Zinedine Zidane and other football stars from former French colonies won the World Cup for France. Elsewhere, the tensions between Honduras and El Salvador finally flared into war after a World Cup qualifier in which Honduran fans were attacked and the Honduran flag defaced. A few weeks later the Soccer War of 1969 began.

The late clairvoyant Paul the Octopus could not have predicted the football explosion in the Philippines. Five months after the World Cup which, incidentally, saw the triumph of our other ex-colonizer Spain, we suddenly discovered football. The general public anyway, because we have always had football. Iloilo-born Paulino Alcantara played for FC Barcelona in the 1930s and still holds the unimpeachable record of 357 goals in 357 matches. But football had been relegated to the sidelines in the Philippines, along with any team sport that is not basketball.

When the national football team, newly nicknamed the Azkals, beat the Vietnamese at the Suzuki Cup, everyone suddenly noticed that (a) We have a football team, and (b) The players are hot. (Never underestimate the power of good looks. We live in the most image-conscious era in history.)

It is an indicator of our more global perspective these days that fewer people take issue with the composition of the Philippine team. (“Racial purity” with its echoes of genocide and ethnic cleansing is too heavy an issue to load onto a sport.) Sure, many of the Azkals are half-Pinoy and half-foreign, but so are half the people we see on local television and at the movies. So they can’t speak Filipino—their mothers raised them abroad. The Constitution says they are Filipinos; no secret magic was invoked to make them eligible to play. And we do like our tisoys.

The Azkals are in Myanmar for the AFC Cup, and already we see how Pinoys are getting a crash course in football geopolitics. Live coverage of the matches has been forbidden by the Burmese military junta; we are reduced to following the games on Twitter. With its 140-character limit, Twitter is not the ideal medium for promoting football in the Philippines. It reduces “the beautiful game” to a scoring contest (a.k.a. “Mine is bigger than yours”), and if numbers are the lure football cannot compete with even the lowest-scoring basketball game.

Every other minute a fan in the Twitterverse demands to know why the games are not being aired on TV. Someone explains what martial law is and what it does to one’s freedom. A minute later someone else asks if the telecast has begun; the idea that an entity would be so cruel as to bar media coverage is unthinkable to the Facebook generation and its 500 million friends (“Ang damot naman ng military junta!”). Do they think military dictatorships could be swayed if there are enough “Dislikes”?

Perhaps some of the frustrated viewers, deprived of a visual for the match against Palestine (Dammit I need to see Neil Etheridge hurl his magnificent mass at an incoming ball!), wondered where Palestine is, Googled it, and learned of the troubles in the Middle East. Surely not all of them were tweeting such gems as:

Ipasok si Manny Pacquiao!”

Ipasok si Becks!”

Sikat lang si Beckham dahil sa mukha niya.”

“(Horrible slur on someone’s female ancestor), magaling siya!”

Sana maka-score si Neil Etheridge!” (Not impossible but highly unlikely for a goalkeeper.)

Today the Azkals meet the team from Bangladesh in their final attempt to qualify for the next stage. They need to win big. The news we have access to is 140 characters small. Between refreshing the page for the latest tweets, perhaps some newly-minted football fans will check out Bangladesh on Wikipedia and discover the complicated history of a country outside of their own.