I'm back at one of my favorite places in the world, the Football Capital of the Philippines, Barotac Nuevo. I flew in Sunday and am catching some R and R before heading off to the Azkals game in Bacolod on Tuesday.
It's fiesta time in this football-addled corner of Iloilo, and I'm privileged to watch Noel Casilao's over-40 tournament at the town plaza field. Several hundred townsfolk have gathered to spectate, including a handful of indigenous Ati tribespeople from the mountains. Vendors have set up stalls to sell snacks and drinks. Ballroom dance music from the fiesta coronation rehearsal in the adjacent basketball court filters on to the field.
The field is weedy and patchy, but it will do. After some opening ceremonies, the matches begin.
Squaring off in the first game is the Central Philippines University alumni in black versus Ilaud in red and blue. With most of the players featuring beer bellies and graying hair, flying substitutions are a necessity.
On the back of the Ilaud jersey are the words "from friends in USA and Canada." There are familiar faces in the Ilaud lineup. They are starting Waling Bermejo, the UFL referee, and Jezurel Tonog, the 43- year old Negrense who even at his age starts at central midfield for Air Force Phoenix.
Tonog is the oldest of the three Tonog brothers who played in the National team. He is married to Karen Bingcang, a Barotac lady who operates Karen's, a Batchoy outfit a stone's throw from one of the town plaza's goals.
CPU pounces on some schoolboy defending to strike first. 1-0. In the second half Waling tries to score off a backheel but the keeper saves. Soon after Elmer Bedia is in the game.
Bedia is a Barotacnon who has been living and coaching in Australia for decades. He's in town to visit friends and family, give some equipment to the kids, and conduct clinic. He delivered the cross that Norman Fegidero converted for that legendary goal that sunk Malaysia, 1-0 in the 1991 SEA Games. Since then he has sprouted dreadlocks and a few extra pounds. He's also helped spearhead the Philippine team to the Homeless World Cup along with Rudy Del Rosario. Bedia still has the moves. However. CPU Alumni's compact defense frustrates him.
Minutes later Ilaud wins a penalty and Tonog strokes it home. 1-1. Ten minutes from time referee Lofel Araneta, Ian's brother, spots an illegal back pass from CPU (back in their day the goalies could still handle the ball off a kicked back pass, so perhaps the keeper's instincts got the better of him) and calls for an indirect free kick. In the ensuing play Tonog finds the net again and that's how the game ends, with Ilaud winning 2-1.
The next matchup features Noel Casilao's Big Blue Guam versus Caballeros Football club. Casilao coached UST and the Guam national team, so I can surmise his Guamanian friends have chipped in to outfit the team. The Caballeros team sports the legendary Antonio Piao and Lurix "Nono" Araneta, Ian's dad, who like his Azkal son, wears the number 23 jersey.
Everyone talks about Piao. How he was even better than Chieffy. How he terrorized Army's opponents for years and was a force in the National team's attack. He gives us a glimpse of his quality off a free kick that he curves over and around a wall. It doesn't quite have enough topsin and it skips on top of the crossbar.
It's scoreless at the half but in the second, the game comes to life. Heavy rain starts to fall but the players, just like they did decades ago, soldier on. Casilao turns back the clock and strikes twice. The Caballeros, wearing green Mexico jerseys with the word "syndicate" emblazoned on the back, pull one back.
In one sequence the Guam Big Blue keeper is lured way off his line. A Caballero player lobs it to goal. But Jofel Bedia, elmer's cousin, heads it clear. The crowd squeals in delight.
Big Blue eventually wins 3-1. There are handshakes and smiles all around, and later that night, the obligatory drinking session.
I've been told that on Tuesday morning, the day of the Guam game, I can play with Caballeros in their 8AM game. It should be fun. I hope I don't get embarrassed.
I'm a guest of Denrei Catalan. Catalan is an architect, born and bred in Barotac Nuevo, who now works and lives in Qatar. He is here on vacation. A Director of the local Stallions football club, he and his mates have been supporting youth football here for years. Apart from his gracious hospitality, I'm impressed with his vision for football in his hometown. He dreams of regular training programs to help the kids and to augment the incomes of retired players.
After tomorrow morning's game Denrei and I will take the ferry from neighboring Dumangas and catch the game. It should be a busy and action-packed footballing Tuesday for me.
Editor's note: The blogger's views do not represent Yahoo! Southeast Asia's position on the topic or issue being discussed in this post.