During football matches, Craig Burrows is often mistaken for a member of the Azkals coaching staff. There’s a note of irony in the error — Burrows is an Englishman while national coach Hans Michael Weiss hails from Germany, which England’s football fans consider their most bitter rival.
“Sadly, a few people have made that mistake,” said Burrows, who helped organize the Azkals’ match against David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy last December, as well as a charity match between the national team and the Spanish side CF Madrid last January. While he has been part of the local organizing committee for some Azkals games, he is above all a fan of football and an advocate for its growth in the Philippines.
The 47-year-old Burrows first arrived in the country when he was 18. His father, a military man, was assigned to different parts of the globe, and he had the opportunity to travel to and live in many countries.
But something about the Philippines struck him. “I couldn’t just walk away when I see such injustice in the world,” he said. “I knew I had to come back to the Philippines.”
After briefly going back to England to finish his degree in theology, Burrows traveled to Manila on a charity project for his church.
Even then, he tried to use football as a tool to help his work, encouraging kids to play the sport.
“Sadly, that didn’t work so well back then,” Burrows said, adding that kids were crazier about basketball. “We tried to get children play football, but they weren’t interested.”
Burrows found more success with his charity work. He helps various foundations, and also runs two organizations devoted to charity: the Asian Students Christian Foundation and the Kalinga At Pag-Ibig Foundation. Both foundations offer free education from preschool until college to poor children in Payatas, where many people earn a living as scavengers in the nearby dumpsite.
“For me, education is what’s gonna make the difference,” Burrows said. “It’s not just putting a band aid to the problem. We want to try to prevent the problem from the start.”
The children who were helped by Burrows — Kuya Craig to the kids — have found success in their lives. Most of the scholars in his foundations have become professionals — engineers, social workers, and teachers. In fact, the principal of one of the two schools run by his foundations was once a homeless child.
“When you see a child on the street begging, you don’t think that one day that child can be a principal at the school,” Burrows said. “Even though he was a street child, by giving him the opportunity, now he is the head teacher here making a difference to the hundreds of children in Payatas.
“When I saw that, I saw the potential of charity work and that’s why I wanted to stay involved here.”
But Burrows always had football in his heart, and in 2010, he finally found a way to marry his two passions: helping children and watching the beautiful game.
Months before the Azkals rose to popularity after their semifinal finish in that year’s Suzuki Cup, Burrows was asked to form the Philippine team to the Street Child World Cup in South Africa, a preliminary event to that year’s World Cup. Burrows had a hard time finding poor kids who could play football, but he somehow managed to pull it off.
That opportunity helped change the lives of the children who were part of the team. “If you ask them, they will say that that was the best experience in their life,” Burrows said. “Some of them, it was a radical change in their lives.”
One player suffered from a hearing problem, and had difficulty speaking. “When we spoke to him, obviously you can’t understand him. You never really knew what he was talking about,” Burrows said.
But during the tournament, the shy kid who never spoke underwent a transformation.
“We’re in a school in South Africa and this boy would never do public speaking,” Burrows said. “And the teacher asked, ‘Does anybody have anything they want to say about their experience in South Africa?’ He stood up and started talking!
“I had to leave the room, I had tears in my eyes. I was so shocked that he stood up and started talking.”
The result on the pitch wasn’t too bad either. The squad came home with the Shield Trophy, winning the consolation round of the tournament after beating Brazil, Ukraine and host South Africa.
Even though he prefers to keep a low profile, Burrows’ work in the Philippines has not gone unnoticed.
In 2006, the Queen made him an honorable member of the Order of the British Empire, a prestigious order of chivalry, for his charity work in the Philippines.
“To get that kind of title, you must have done something to be respected,” Burrows said.
He is just as thrilled about the fact that Filipinos are taking to football, that the people he has spent most of his life serving are finally falling in love with the game closest to his heart.
In fact, his Pinoy football fandom has made his do some crazy things. Last March, he and United Football League chairman Santi Araneta promised to swim in the fountains of Peninsula Manila if the Azkals won third place in the Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup. When the Azkals defeated Palestine, 4-3, to secure third place, Burrows and Araneta went splashing at the famous Makati landmark.
Burrows sees a bright future for football in the country.
“Football is the game that will dominate Pinoy sport in a few years, so its future is good,” he said. “The challenge is getting the organization in place that can adapt and grow with the sport.”
» Team Philippines to the 2014 Street Child World Cup hopes for support from private sector
» Team Philippines edges Italy, closes Homeless World Cup campaign with win
» Team Philippines splits matches in penultimate day of 2012 Homeless World Cup