The first & future Azkals
CITY SENSE - Paulo Alcazaren () - April 9, 2011 - 12:00am

Finally, Filipinos realize the futility of trying to compete in basketball. Vertically-challenged but wily, the Filipinos are, pound-for-pound, better suited for football than basketball. This has been made clear by the triumphs of our national team. The Azkals’ success has seen them move up dramatically in Asian and world rankings; spawning football fever in the only country in Asia that has yet to fully embrace “the greatest game in the world.”

Sure, half the team are Fili-fors (Filipino-foreigners) but at least they have Filipino blood. We do not have to resort to “naturalizing” players like we do in basketball…or what the Indonesians did with that fellow who put those two goals against us in last year’s AFC semis.

The Younghusbands, Neil Etheridge, team captain Aly Borromeo, Jason de Jong, Anton del Rosario and the rest of our scrappy national team seem to have come from nowhere and people wonder, why only now? Did football (or soccer, as it is called in America) just blossom because of the fashionable rise in the sport among fuppie (Filipino yuppie) families in the last decade?

The truth is that football has a long history in the Philippines — 115 years give or take a year. Also, Philippine football has produced world-class players as far back as the 1920s — one player, in fact, made it all the way to FC Barcelona!

I stumbled upon these fascinating bits of information from two sources on the history of Philippine football. The first is an article from a brittle copy of the National Almanac and Guide of the Philippine Islands published by Puya and Minton in Manila in 1926, and the other source is the Internet. I typed in “famous Filipino football player” and got the name of Paulino Alcantara from several sources. Alcantara is a product of a Spanish father and an Ilongga mother and is considered one of FC Barcelona’s greatest players.

Alcantara was a prolific scorer with over 300 career goals.

A Game Played By Half-Mad Foreigners

The article from the almanac section on sports was headlined “A history of soccer football in the Philippine” and was written by Ignacio De Ycaza. He paints a colorful picture of the sport’s progress in the first quarter of the 20th century. I excerpt freely:

“Soccer football was introduced in the Philippines by English sportsmen, members of the Manila Club, two or three years before Dewey fought the battle of Manila Bay (this puts the introduction of football to around 1895). This sport was at first looked upon with a great deal of suspicion by the Filipinos, who considered football as the gamboling of half-mad foreigners.

“But a few members of the younger generation, being highly imitative by nature, very soon began to follow, as closely as possible, the principle or fundamental ideas of the game. …As there were not enough players in the entire city to form two regular teams, they were forced to practice by matching the fire forwards against five members of the defensive line of the same team.

“Some boys that had been sent to college in Hong Kong, China, returned home and taught their friends a little bit about the fine game of soccer or association football. (Within) a year more there were two or three embryonic soccer teams in Manila..”

“(Then) the Spanish-American War broke out, and those two or three little football teams were disbanded and scattered to the four points of the compass. The heads of the different families to which these boys belonged decided to abandon the city, either to save themselves and their families from the bombardment they expected at any moment, or to cast their lot with the Filipino troops outside the city limits.”

The First Official Game

Ycaza continues …”When peace reigned again, and the Americans began to inculcate in the Filipinos their love for all athletic games and sports, these first football teams, whose members had by this time passed from childhood into adolescence, were reorganized and trained.”

Paulino Alcantara with Juan Gamper, the founder of FC Barcelona.

“Five or six athletic clubs sprang up almost over night. Among them were the Manila Sporting Club, the Paris Club, and the Manila Jockey Club. These organizations specialized in soccer and actually came to play a very creditable game. (On of these was)…the Sandow football team (which) came into existence in 1906 with some promising new players …”

“The first official football match in the Philippines was held in Manila on the 15th of October, 1907, in celebration of the opening of the Philippine Assembly. The trophy for this contest, a beautiful silver cup donated by the Hon.William H. Taft, then Governor-General of these islands, was won by the Sandow team; which developed into developed into the Sandow Athletic Club in 1909, and branched out into further athletic activities.”

More clubs soon followed, narrated Ycaza. “ “In 1910 the Bohemian Sporting Club was organized and began to train football players with such ability that in a couple of years’ time it became one of the most formidable Filipino soccer teams in the islands, and the most dangerous rival of both the English team called the Nomads, and the Sandow Athletic Club.”

The First Championships

Ycaza outline the quick ascent of the game.” “In 1920 the Circulo Social Deportivo was organized and produced a football team which rapidly graduated from the junior to the senior category. It kept persistently at the heels of the Bohemian Sporting Club and almost neck and neck with the Aurora Athletic Club in the race for the annual football championship of the Philippines…”

“To further propagate the love for this fine sport and to regulate the football championship contests, which take place every year among the various athletic clubs of Manila, all the football teams belonging to such clubs within the city limits banded themselves together and organized the Philippine Amateur Football Association. This Association held its first championship in 1921 under the auspices of the Philippine Amateur Athletic Federation.

“Casino Español showed interest in soccer football and several matches were played between teams of that organization, to select a team from amongst the members of the club . In 1922 the Casino team and made a very good showing although it could not wrest the championship from the Bohemian Club ...”

The First Azkal

Alcantara was known as El Rompe Redes — the net breaker — because of the force of his kicks.

One of the first “local” boys mentioned by Ycaza went all the way to the top of the sport. Paulino Alcántara Riestrá was born in Iloilo City on Oct. 7, 1896. The Spanish, English and French were already in Iloilo at the time because of sugar. In all probability Paulino was introduced to the sport before his father moved the family back to Spain after the turn of the century.

According to sources on the Net, “ Alcantara was a Filipino/Spanish footballer who played for FC Galeno, FC Barcelona, Bohemians of Manila, the Philippines and Spain. Alcántara was (and still is on record) the youngest player to play and score for FC Barcelona in a competitive game. He played for the club between 1912 and 1927, scoring 357 goals in as many matches and remains the club’s all-time leading goalscorer.”

According to the site All Thigs Pinoy, “Alcántara was the first Asian-born footballer to play for a European club and will go down in history as the greatest Filipino footballer of all time.” The site reports, “He grew up in Barcelona and initially played for FC Galeno before he was soon spotted by Joan Gamper and signed up for FC Barcelona. He made his senior debut at the age of 15 years, four months and 18 days on Feb. 25, 1912 against Catalá SC in the Championat de Catalunya. FC Barcelona won 9-0, and Alcántara scored the first three goals of that match. He went on to help the club win a Copa del ReyChampionat de Catalunya double in 1913 and a Championat de Catalunya in 1916.”

Alcantara’s fascinating story continues, “In 1916 Alcántara’s parents returned to the Philippines and took their son with them. There he continued his studies in medicine (probably the UP or the UST) and played for Bohemians of Manila. He was selected to play for the Philippine national football team in 1917 to represent the country in the Tokyo Far Eastern Championship Games, where he would lead the country to a 15-2 demolition of host country Japan. He also represented the Philippines at table tennis. Meanwhile, FC Barcelona had failed to win a major trophy in his absence and the club pleaded in vain with his parents to allow him to return to Spain. However, he contracted malaria in 1917 and apparently refused to take the prescribed medication until he was allowed to go back.”

International Play And Retirement

“After returning to Spain with FC Barcelona …the club reached the Copa del Rey final but lost 5-2 to Arenas Club de Getxo. In 1920 the club won another Copa del Rey/Championat de Catalunya double with Alcántara scoring in the 2-0 win over Athletic Bilbao in the Copa final. …This marked the beginning of one of the clubs golden eras and saw them dominating both the Championat de Catalunya and Copa del Rey. …He retired from active play at the age of 31 and became a doctor. On July 5, 1927, FC Barcelona played against Spain in a testimonial in his honour. He later served as Barca’s club director from 1931 to 1934.

“In 1920, Alcántara, Zamora, Samitier and Sesúmaga were all chosen to represent Spain at the Olympic Games that year. However, Alcántara chose to stay at home to take his final medical exams. He eventually made five appearances and scored six goals for Spain between 1921 and 1923. He made his international debut on Oct. 7, 1921 at the age of 25 against and scored both goals in a 2-0 win.”

Alcantara retired from the sport a few years later apparently to practice medicine. The site says he came back to the club in the ’50s and to the service of Spanish football, “In 1951 Alcántara was one of three selectors, along with Félix Quesada and Luís Iceta, that coached Spain for three games against Switerland, Belgium and Sweden.” Alcantara passed away in 1964.

Future Azkals

It should be suggested to Senator Frank Drilon that Alcantara be made a provincial hero of Iloilo. I am helping the good senator with a design for the Iloilo River esplanade — a possible venue for a memorial, although a world-class stadium would be more appropriate.

I started playing football in the ’60s because it was the default game over at Don Bosco. Those Italian (Salesian) fathers and brothers played a mean game — even in their sotanas! My classmate was Bert Honasan, who would go on to play for the Philippines and be named Mr. Football of 1977. I was not as good but still played it all the way up to college intramurals for the College of Architecture at UP Diliman (Bert was our coach).

Philippine football lost its steal in the ’80s and ’90s. The Nomad and Ugarte fields were the urban venues but Ugarte disappeared in the early Eighties. The lack of venues is part of the problem but mostly it was this unexplainable fascination for basketball.

Our youngest Juancho now plays for his school, Keys, and they join others in the 8-10 year group. He is a striker and I’ve seen him make a couple of great goals. All the kids are a sight to see, fearless and inspired. They all now want to be Azkals. Who can blame them? And who knows, among them may be the next Younghusband or even the next Alcantara.

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