by Dino Maragay, The Philippine Star Features, November 20, 2009
They came in droves, looking to fulfill dreams of strutting their football wares and unleashing their competitive spirits on a prestigious, nationwide stage. And they all got what they dreamt for.
For the 3,500 players who trooped to the Alabang Country Club Fields in Muntinlupa to see action in the 14th Alaska Football Cup, the overwhelming stint was all worth it. A total 250 teams from various parts of the country battled it out under the scorching heat of the sun, the number so vast that tournament organizers needed to stage 24 matches simultaneously.
On these 24 football fields comprising the main football battleground resided stories of inspiration, excitement and astonishment. True enough, Alaska Milk’s nationwide football summit not only brings together the country’s youngest, most determined players but also introduces them to a world of hope, chance and appreciation.
And over the weekend, the players found themselves at the spotlight. They all felt important.
For Kathlene Gail de Leon, who plays defender for the De La Salle Univeristy Lipa football squad, taking part in the tournament has enabled her to perform above par. For three straight years, her team, based in Lipa, Batangas, has traveled about 78 kilometers north to engage other squads in the annual tilt.
And in those three stints, De Leon has learned to further develop her skills and brandish a winning attitude.
“The opportunity to learn was always there. Plus I get to meet a lot of fellow football players too,” the 14-year-old defender told The Star while resting on the sidelines as her team plays its fourth match during the opening day last Saturday.
Yes, expanding one’s network was also part of the show for Alaska Football Cup participants. In fact, among the tournament’s regular sidelights were scenes depicting players from various squads exchanging high-fives, hand shakes and fist bumps as they come across each other within the football grounds.
At a booth where Alaska Milkhad set up a three-hole panel for practice-kicking, players of all sizes, clad in their team jerseys, formed a line to test their skills. Small tokens were awarded to those who would score on a kick. The players, grinning from ear-to-ear, saw this as an opportunity to get to know their peers, with a handful of kids from rival squads exchanging high-fives and sharing occasional moments of laughter.
They had a field day. Above else, it’s still a tourney
Even with the friendly, laid-back atmosphere of the 14th Alaska Football Cup, the tournament, above all, remains a competition – and a stiff one, so to speak. Amid the occasional laughter and sideline chatting, coaches and teammates can be heard stretching their vocal cords to demand, for instance, an execution of a play or at times, express frustration at getting bad breaks.
Tomas Lozano, who has ran the Alaska Football Cup for more than 10 years, said this year’s tournament drew an astounding 250 teams – a dramatic increase from the 30 squads that saw action during the inaugural league 13 years ago.
“To say that this year’s tournament was very good is an understatement,” Lozano said. “We have reached the maximum, right now we have 24 fields and we cannot do more. Now I’ll ask Alaska if we can do the tournament for two week- ends instead of one. And with a bigger field, maybe we’ll have 500 teams (joining) next time. It’s up to Alaska Milk.” Lozano said half of the squads came from the provinces in the north and south – a testament to the tournament’s drawing power. A total of 3,500 players were on hand.
Judging by the numbers alone, it’s quite obvious that finishing at the top will be like toppling the Great Wall – and that’s essentially what makes the tournament highly attractive, competition-wise.
Jonel Losarito, 11, and Ambry Vincent Carenan, 9, witnessed such tight competition firsthand. Their Balayan (Batangas) FC team had just lost to a taller, heftier squad in a lopsided match, 0-5.
“Malalaki po. At malakas din mang-asar (Our opponents were taller and they trash-talked us),” Losarito said in an interview while enjoying a brief break.
Losing by a blowout in a high-profile tourney, at most times, is psychologically damaging. But Losarito and Carenan vowed to take the setback in stride and come back.
Asked if they’d be able to bounce back and finish strong in their next games, Carenan optimistically said: “Oo naman, kuya (Of course).”
A moment to cherish
Perhaps the most-striking side story of the 14th Alaska Football Cup was that of a squad which never expected to be joining such a massive tournament at all.
The moment they alighted from a jeepney they had rented to reach the venue, members of a football club from Arkong Bato, Pasig City, couldn’t believe what they saw. “When the oys saw the vast football field and the colorful sea of assembled players, they were really astounded,” recalled Julius Ulep, the club’s senior guardian and one of its acting coaches. “Up to now we couldn’t imagine making it here.”
Ulep’s squad is composed of residents of a Gawad Kalinga (GK) Community Development Foundation housing project in Pasig. It was formed some year’s back primarily to fuel the boys’ passion for football. And now they are among the 250 teams that battled for supremacy in one of the country’s premier football leagues.
Cash-strapped, the squad enjoyed financial support from the Alaska organization, something the players are ever-grateful for.
“Alaska Milk acted as our sponsor. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. That’s why we are really grateful to the organization,” Ulep said. “However, we still lacked some equipment. In fact, some of our players acquired playing shorts from a cheap store just last night (before the tournament).”
Ulep said his wards were so determined to impress other squads that they felt down after suffering their first loss.
“Some people may think that the players are already contented just to get here. But for the boys, it doesn’t end there. They wanted to win and prove that they belong in the tournament,” he said.
“Making it to the Alaska Football Cup is definitely a dream come true. And we’re cherishing that dream by playing our best,” he added.
And if an offer comes to join next year’s tournament, will the GK football squad take it?
“In a heartbeat,” several members of the team simultaneously quipped.
As this writer compiled quotes from various personalities at the venue, thousands of stories more were lurking within the confines of the vast field, waiting to be told. Such is the diverse world of the Alaska Football Cup.
Riding the sidelines
by Dino Maragay, The Philippine Star Features, November 20, 2009
Like their sons and daughters, they are very much part of the game.
The 14th Alaska Football Cup, which was held over the weekend at the Alabang Country Club football grounds in Muntinlupa City, featured a record 250 teams and about 3,500 players. And these 3,500 young strikers trooped to the battlegrounds with their own following — their parents who displayed the kind of intensity that can match the passion of rabid sports fans.
And like their young bets, they came well-equipped for the tournament. While the kids sported knee-high socks, elbow and knee pads, and nonslip soccer shoes, mom and dad donned bandanas and umbrellas. Armed with digital cameras and handy camcorders, they, too, braved the afternoon sun’s wrath to get a piece of the action.
Indeed, the Alaska Football Cup isn’t only a highly competitive sporting meet. It is also a family event.
As The Star roamed the massive football grounds — which had been divided into 24 football fields to allow 24 games to be staged simultaneously — parents can be seen on their toes, their voices rocking the open field.
It was obvious that they’re into the game. At various instances, they felt like going for the goal themselves or intercepting an attacking foe. Unfortunately, all they could do was scream their hearts out and rally behind their kids’ squads.
For Cherilyn Dela Cruz, whose six-year-old son Gabriel suited up for the Quezon City-based Athletico Diliman FC, cheering on the sidelines is “a very tiring but fun experience.” Mrs. Dela Cruz’s passionate screaming stood out from the rest of the spectators as her son’s team notched its first victory during the opening day.
“I felt very tired but happy to see him (Gabriel) play,” said Mrs. Dela Cruz, who added that it is her first time to personally watch the Alaska Football Cup.
For a sporting event of this magnitude, intense matches are all over the place, including on the sidelines. British national Steven Melrose was spotted leaping and yelling as his son Daniel was on his way to nailing a goal in an effort to tow Makati FC to victory.
Even during a brief interview, Mr. Melrose’s eyes remained glued to the playing court. As a die-hard follower of the sport, he admitted getting emotional at times when his son plays.
“In watching my son play, I feel a great sense of pride and fulfillment,” said Mr. Melrose, who has resided in the Philippines for five years. Daniel Melrose, 15, is likewise on his fifth Alaska Football Cup appearance.
While most parents can’t help it but be very vocal in supporting their squads, others chose to remain calm, sitting back and enjoying the action.
Mr. Edwin Hernandez was cuddling his youngest son as he witnesses his older son Lorenzo, 11, play a match for the Nasugbu (Batangas) football squad. In a short chat with this writer, he said the exposure his son gets from the Alaska Football Cup boosts his confidence.
“Playing here also improved his (Lorenzo’s) self-esteem. Additionally, he was able to meet new friends,” he said.
Mr. Hernandez added that the tournament provides a great opportunity for a family to bond and enjoy quality time.
Mrs. Dela Cruz’s, Mr. Melrose’s and Mr. Hernandez’s firsthand experiences as mere spectators are just tiny footnotes to Alaska Football Cup’s epic list of side stories — the list goes on.
Parents may differ with each other on how they react to their kids’ on-court performances, but they all have the same wish: to see their sources of pride excel in such a major sporting event.