Last Sunday was quite a smorgasbord for sports aficionados from all walks of life.
For appetizers, we had the men’s finals between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal at the French Open as well as the Canadian leg of the Formula 1 Grand Prix. The main course consisted of Game Seven of the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics series and of course, the now controversial Pacquiao-Bradley split-decision title fight. Dessert was a special Sunday offering of the PBA pitting sister teams Barangay Ginebra and Petron. Capping the day was the featured match for Day 3 of the Euro Cup between reigning champion Spain and perennial contender Italy.
At the UP Diliman Oval in Quezon City, however, the menu consisted only of football.
More than a thousand flocked to the day-long football festivities organized by a local football club at the UP Oval – an indication of the growing critical mass of football enthusiasts that cut across the different sectors of Philippine society.
There, football clubs from urban poor communities and public schools played against students from gated subdivisions and exclusive schools. As early as seven in the morning, the UP Oval was already humming with the simultaneous matches, with players aged from as young as five years old. Not even the summer-like weather could dampen the mood of the teams and their respective supporters and family members who came in full force.
Now, if only we could muster the kind of fervor that could be felt with the crowd at the UP Oval last Sunday in every Azkals game, it would not matter to us if it is played at the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium or at the Panaad Stadium.
Dissecting the Rizal Memorial crowd
The crowd at the Rizal Stadium during the Azkals-Indonesia match last Tuesday was a mixture of football enthusiasts, curious spectators that are yet (or trying) to appreciate the beautiful game, prying onlookers of showbiz and sports personalities in attendance, and shrieking fans of the good-looking Azkal players.
From the onset, the equation is already tilted against those who truly enjoy football, with a big chunk of those at the stadium being there for reasons other than love of the game. This equation makes the idea of a “home crowd” quite tricky. (See: Wanted: Barangay Azkals — A look at the home crowd at Rizal Memorial)
After all, football fans can only cheer so much if stadiums remain half-empty. The idea of a “home crowd” suggests that we own the stadium; that we own each and every game that is played in our “home” stadium. There is no way an “away crowd” — much less an “away team” — can feel threatened with a half-empty stadium.
The question then is how to make football enthusiasts – the same horde who were at the UP Oval — be stirred and stimulated to pack the Rizal Football Stadium to the rafters.
Owning the games
For starters, perhaps the Philippine Football Federation and the Azkals management can request the major commercial sponsors of the Azkals, especially the networks that broadcast the Azkals’ games, to partially subsidize gate receipts in order to make the game more accessible to the great majority of football followers and give bulk discounts to recognized community-based and public school-based football clubs.
Ticket prices remain one of the primary deterrents in popularizing the game that we have only recently begun to love. Even the established leagues in Europe, except for the hugely popular English Premier League, have cut back on ticket prices to ensure that fans continue to patronize and enjoy each and every game of their favorite clubs.
The chants and the cheers will only come after we have built that intangible atmosphere of a home crowd. There is no shortcut in building that home-crowd feeling. It cannot be achieved by artificially chanting phrases that only a few can relate to.
Barangay Ginebra was not created in two or three games.
No one now knows who coined that legendary chant of Gi-Ne-Bra, Gi-Ne-Bra or that famous chant for the player wearing Jersey No. 7: Ja-Wor-Ski, Ja-Wor-Ski. And neither would anyone from among the throngs of Barangay Ginebra fanatics care to know who and how these chants were coined. What matters to them is that these are chants that they can identify with; that these are chants they own and have been a part of, for several basketball years now.
As to those who watch the football games for other reasons — the curious spectators, prying onlookers, and shrieking fans will eventually be transformed to football enthusiasts when the novelty of football would have passed. Otherwise, these groups will simply wither away.