Footballers. Dancers. Details

Footballers. Dancers. Details

July 12, 2011 Diary 0

I’ve always wondered why I love football, even when everyone around me fell helpless to the charms of American football, basketball, tennis, even baseball.

I finally figured it out: I love football because I love belly dancing.

Oh, I can hear your thoughts threatening to storm across the Pacific. What does this have to do with football? (I’m about to tell you!) Is this a spam post? (No.) Is she high? (Uh – no.) Is she self-promoting? (Uh – well…)

Before you leave this page forever, hear me out.

Close Enough to Being the Lone Fan

My own cousins were basketball players for their school varsity teams. My aunt would travel to Manila just to watch a San Miguel game. Most of my football-season weekends here at Purdue were spent indoors, because the world without would clog streets with traffic and drunk students intent on watching the home game while on the verge of vomiting.

And there I was, waiting for a football game, and wondering why I hadn’t fallen in love with other sports the way that my family, friends, schoolmates, and colleagues did.

I was ready to give up analyzing why, until my belly dance instructor’s words made me realize how simple it all was.

“American audiences have a very short attention span,” she said, as my fellow troupe members and I sat in our hotel room, nervous about our coming solos, “Belly dancing and Middle Eastern performances go for as long as 45 minutes. There aren’t big movements. Nothing big happens. But it’s beautiful to watch. A lot of people don’t understand that.”

As I sat in the hotel room, fumbled with beads in my hair, and tried to still the trembling in my legs, I finally understood why I love football. I understood why and how the puzzle pieces fit.

It was about culture, and movement, and detail. I love football because I love belly dancing, and I love belly dancing because I love football. It was a beautiful game for me in the same way that I defined the beautiful dance.

The Dance of Details

True belly dance is far richer, and far more beautiful than the indecent portrait that Hollywood insists on feeding its rapt audience. It is the world’s oldest form of dance, one that borrows from the dances of Northern Africa and the Middle East, and one that evolves today and is fused with other dance forms.

Belly dancers perform to songs as long as 45 minutes, where the rhythms can go from a steady 4/4, to an off-putting 9/8, and even a downright bewildering 21/8. Training takes years, and many dancers start off as toddlers to get muscle control down before tackling the most difficult part of belly dance: conveying emotions through movement. Belly dance, therefore, is a union of controlling individual muscles and expressing one’s years of broken hearts, triumphs, and loves.

The dance is not only about the big movements or the props. It’s about controlling muscles with precision, listening to the details of music, placing meaning in every single step. Every dancer is a vessel for her music. She and the music must be one. If she dances with others in a group, they must move together. Without coordination, the music and the dancer will be like rats thrown into a sack, clawing at each other, a mess, a blend of utter chaos and disorder.

But when the dancer moves with the music, when her body sings the notes and hits the beats; when a group of dancers move as one – the dance glows with sheer beauty. On her own, a dancer’s story is told, and the music and she together weave the tale. When dancers come together, their work is a balance of individual histories and the harmony of the group.

A Tale of Different Cultures

By nature, many Western audiences favor large spectacles, and those that thrill them within minutes – and, if possible, again and again in a very short amount of time. It can be the high jump and split in the air made by contemporary dancers, a touchdown in American football, the lights of Vegas, the loud colors of Disney, even the pounds of food that characterize “American-sized servings”.

Dancers who can control muscles and make tiny, disciplined movements are often lost behind those who wield giant veils or take their hips to the next continent. In the same manner, football (fine, SOCCER) is lost behind games that take minutes to resolve, where players score constantly, and where things are big and loud – and bigger and louder by the second.

It’s a cultural thing, see. There are cultures that crave the big, the loud, the in-your-face derring-do of a modern-day gladiator. On the other hand, there are cultures that look for the details, the small things, the silence, the quiet, the long hours spent waiting in suspense for the single move that will change history.

It can be that single drop of the hip to match the beat. It can be that single goal that spells the difference between moving on to the next round, or waiting in the wings for another chance at greatness.

For some cultures, the big spectacle exists in the small things.

The Magic is in the Waiting

Most of my American-football-loving and/or basketball-crazed friends have the same thing to say about football. It takes forever. Nothing ever happens. No one ever scores. All they do is run.

But that’s the magic of it, isn’t it? You have to wait. You have to watch. In the meantime, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll miss it. You’ll miss how each passed ball has meaning, how each formation is strategic, how each goal is so precious, so prized, because it often takes so long to accomplish.

I hear almost the same thing about belly dancing from my friends. It looks like you’re doing nothing. It’s just your hip going up or your arms doing things. No one ever does big stuff. All you do is move some of your body parts.

Oh, but that’s the magic of it all. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, if you haven’t tried belly dancing, you’ll think it’s easy. You have no idea how difficult it is to make controlled, single, isolated movements. You have no idea how hard it is to work with a group so that you move as one, but still have individual personalities shining through.

The stereotype of a tedious football game is almost the same as the stereotype of a belly dancer doing nothing but making big, googly eyes at men. It’s just a stereotype. It doesn’t exist. It’s not the real thing.

True, there are tedious football games, and dancers who give the rest of us a bad name because of how they abuse the gift of belly dance. But the real thing is amazing. The real thing is difficult to do, and wonderful to watch.

The real thing is beautiful.

The Game and the Dance

We all have our reasons for calling it the Beautiful Game. Football brings out the best in those who watch it. Football looks so easy, where an unspoken language seems to thread through the players, as though they could read each other’s minds. Football is exciting, magical, suspense-ridden.

To me, football is beautiful because it speaks to the culture that lives within. I look for the tiny details that sing far louder than scores or goals: the ball passing that seems endless, the single glance that two players share as they vow to take a ball past the last defender, the deft dribbling that makes individual players look otherworldly in their skill. It’s the same reason that I love belly dance: the details make the picture rich, and the entire picture is wonderful to behold.

And, like football, belly dance exists in the midst of other dance forms. It is not the place of a dancer to condemn other dance forms and hold belly dance up as the sole bastion of art in the genre. It is not the place of football, or its fans, to condemn other sports and hold football up as the only sport to watch. There is so much to see, so much to learn from other genres, other sports, that it would be a waste of time to concentrate on just one sport, just one dance.

It is better, then, that we see how those with different tastes will find their tastes sated by the variety of sports, the variety of dances, that are presented to them. No sport is better than the other, and no dance is better than the other.

They are merely different – and how rich, how varied, how interesting those difference are!

The Beauty of Small Things

Call it what you will: culture, taste, personal preferences…the cause is inconsequential. What remains is the fact that sometimes, it’s the little things that catch the eye, the waiting that builds excitement. The dancer bursting into large movements gilds the lily. The goal is the icing on the cake.

As I sat in that hotel room, as I tried not to trip over my pants, as I tried not to panic, I thought of two things.

First, football and belly dancing appeared to be so different, but I loved both for perhaps the same reasons. Besides, football is a dance, too. The steps are dictated by years of training, and the music comes from everywhere: a player’s loudly beating heart, the demands of the coach from the sidelines, the shouts and cheers of a loyal crowd.

And second: I’m coming home to Manila in August, and I’m teaching belly dance fundamentals on Monday nights at House of Dance, BF Homes, Quezon City.

Because yes, like football, belly dance needs a little promoting, too.

Harry Potter and the Second Eleven
The final chapter of the Harry Potter movie saga is here!

And yet again, I can hear the moans, groans, and thundering facepalms rolling across the oceans. So what, you say? What does this have to do with football? Harry Potter is a children’s story in a fictional universe where wizards, witches, werewolves, vampires, and giants share the stage with kids who play a football-like game on broomsticks when they aren’t off fighting evil.

All setting aside, the Harry Potter books themselves are rich in parallels with the world at large. Wars are always brewing amongst the inhabitants of the world of magic. Mischief is always afoot. Wizards fight for different causes, from the rights of elves to the need to secure borders between mortals and magical people.

One issue, however, runs through all the books and forms the foundation of the main conflict that tears Harry’s world apart.

Take it to the Family


The word itself sounds like a puddle of moist earth, plopping and flopping beneath the force of a thousand trudging feet. The term, indeed, connotes the deepest of depths, the lowest of the low: degradation, dirt, disgust.

Mudblood is a word used to describe any wizard born to a non-wizarding family. In Harry Potter’s world, being a pure-blooded wizard is the ticket to success and prestige. Wizards who come from the outside world, and who are born to Muggle parents, are looked down on, harassed, laughed at, and discriminated.

“Filthy mudbloods,” traditional wizarding families whisper, when no one else is around to hear.

“Mudblood!” Draco Malfoy screams at Hermione Granger – perhaps in frustration that a girl from a non-wizarding-family is also the smartest, most accomplished wizard in his class.

Let us leave the term for once, and take our attention to the wizards who throw it about. Someone who uses the term “mudblood” is, in effect, cursing and insulting someone, and taking the quarrel to the level of one’s family, the incident of one’s birth.

Someone who uses the term “mudblood” judges a person based on where and to whom they were born. All the person’s talents, strengths, and virtues are thrown out the window. And again, the whispers crowd the corners.

Hermione doesn’t deserve all her awards. She might have the best grades and excel in nearly every subject at Hogwarts. BUT she comes from a non-wizarding family. Therefore, she sucks.

Do the words sound familiar?

Someone doesn’t deserve a good life. That someone is strong, that someone has talents, and that someone is truly special. BUT that someone was not born in a familiar place, or to familiar people. Therefore, that someone needs to suffer.

Is this ringing a bell yet?

Someone shouldn’t play on my national team. That someone can run across the football field without breaking a sweat. That someone can score a goal. That someone can defend a goal. BUT that someone wasn’t born in the Philippines to two Filipino parents. Therefore, they can’t play – they shouldn’t play.

So, I ask you again: do these words sound familiar?

The Argument that Never Dies

The forums should never have given birth to such an argument, but as it now still runs rampant through the Internet, it is an argument that never seems to die.

Why hire foreigners to play for the Azkals? Don’t we have enough home grown talent? Why should we rely on non-Filipinos to boost the team? What about the locals who are already on the team? Why should they be edged out?

I’ve seen so many versions of the argument over the years. Forum posters take the angle of local discrimination and colonial mentality, where football officials favor non-Filipinos simply because they are not Filipinos. Other posters talk about how Filipino foreigners are edging out locals, and therefore turning the country into an impoverished wasteland of football players forever waiting in the wings.

As I’ve read and re-read these arguments, however, I cannot help thinking of Harry Potter and the mudblood issue. Traditional wizarding families favor pure-blooded wizards and shun non-pure-blooded ones, regardless of the wizard’s abilities. Some of the best wizards come from the outside, non-wizarding world, but they are looked down upon because they do not come from a long line of wizards.

In the Harry Potter universe, blood and physical characteristics are often conflated with ability. This conflation reflects our own human experience and the history of various acts of discrimination. The traits will differ, but the sentiment is the same. White skin, Aryan features…never mind the artists and musicians, the writers and poets, the leaders and statesmen with their different colors and faces and eyes and traditions.

It is the blood they want, the people scream, as though they could slit people open and measure one’s origins, one’s ancestry. It is the blood they want, the purity, because nothing else matters.

The accusations leveled against the foreign-born Azkals are no different. It is the blood they want, the crowd screams, as though they could slit the players open and measure the percentage of Filipino flowing through the players’ veins. It is the blood they want, the purity, because nothing else matters.

Complain about discrimination all you want – but listen to yourselves first, you who criticize the team.

Listen to your pleas. Do they not sound familiar?

Confusion and Conflation

I heard the same arguments leveled against me when I decided to pursue a PhD abroad. Why do you have to go so far to get an education when we have schools in the Philippines? I’ve also heard the same arguments thrown at me when I decide to pick Mediterranean restaurants over Filipino ones, foreign authors over Filipino ones, foreign movies over Filipino ones. Why can’t you love your own?

The people I’ve spoken with and encountered over the years seem to confuse my choices and tastes for colonial mentality. They seem to conflate ability with location.

I simply like movies that are made beautifully, that meet my standards and expectations in terms of plot, screenplay, acting, cinematography, and direction. My choice has nothing to do with the movie being filmed in the Philippines, Britain, the U.S., or a whole other galaxy altogether. My choice has everything to do with the quality of the movie. The location is incidental.

I love writing and I love reading, and I have encountered very few writers who sing to my soul. It has nothing to do with the places that the writers come from. They have to write well for me to read them. Their origins are incidental.

I love eating. I love kare-kare as much as I love gyros. I have to love food to eat it. I can’t force myself to eat something I don’t like by virtue of the food’s origin. I have varied tastes and I love a wide variety of foods. Their origins are incidental.

I came to the U.S. to be trained in science communication. Schools in the U.S. lead the world in the field; in the same way that schools in Sweden and the U.K. lead the world in sociology and anthropology; in the same way that many schools in Israel lead the world in cell and molecular biology; and in the same way that the University of the Philippines leads the world in confocal microscopy research. My chosen field demands that I choose the best place possible to gain expertise. The location is incidental.

I will not confuse origin and location with desirability or ability. If I simply “loved my own” because it was “my own”, then I would be lying to myself. I would be living a lie.

What a sad life that would be.

Let Them Be One Team

Now, turn your attention to the Azkals.

Many of the members of the current team are very good players. They run without getting tired, defend their goals, and pass the ball deftly and accurately. They have their weaknesses, true; and they are not perfect, but they are training, and they are trying.

For once, let us forget where they are from and who they were born to. Let us look at their talents. Their origins are incidental. Their talents are important.

Many of the current team members were born into communities that have well-developed, well-founded football programs. They have been trained for years, and therefore possess expertise that the team needs badly. It just so happens that they were born in a different social milieu, to one or two Filipino parents, in another culture, in another football atmosphere, in another country.

But does it matter so much what that other social milieu is when they don the blue uniform of the team? Does it matter who their parents are when they try to sing our National Anthem and march under our banners?

Does it matter what culture they were born into when they score goals for the Philippines? Does it matter what football atmosphere they lived in when they are putting up their own grassroots programs and football schools to help future Filipino footballers?

Does it matter what country they came from when they choose to play for this country?

An Issue Steeped in Hypocrisy

The blood and purity issue irritates me because of its hypocrisy. What is a “pure” Filipino anyway? Someone born to a mother and father carrying Filipino passports or holding birth certificates issued in the Philippines? Someone born within the country’s 7000+ islands?

I wish I could talk to a crowd of these detractors, these forum posters.

How dare you dictate what being Filipino means.

How dare you define Filipinos as simply being born in a certain place, to certain people.

How dare you denigrate Filipinos to such shallowness.

You can complain all you want about discrimination, but listen to yourselves first. In wanting to keep a team “pure”, you have also blackened our identity. We are a people born of a thousand traditions and ancestries. We are a people born of a culture rich with centuries of tales and legends, a mixture of races and nationalities.

Your concept of “purity” has excluded that same rich identity, that same rich culture that defines us.

Your concept of “purity” is based on location and parents.

How sad. How shallow.

How dare you.

The Wounds, the Labels

Whenever I think of the issue of birth, one image comes back to haunt me.

In a scene in the first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Hermione is pinned to the floor by a cruel, psychotic Bellatrix Lestrange. Hermione is being interrogated about Harry Potter, and her screams ring throughout the house, down to the dungeons, where Harry and Ron are imprisoned.

A few scenes later, we find the word “mudblood” carved into her lower arm. The wounds are fresh, bleeding. She has been labeled by a “pure” wizard as someone undeserving of any honor or mercy in the world of magic. She has been tortured and condemned by virtue of her being the daughter of two Muggle parents.

It is not the blood and wounds that bother me, but what the torture means. Hermione, an accomplished student, has been denigrated to a mere creature. Her abilities have been disregarded, her strengths ignored, her powers stifled. She pays with her blood.

What must the Azkals prove for their detractors to keep quiet? Why can detractors never listen to reason? How can they not see the simplicity of it all?

It’s not about the birthplace. It’s the spirit that the team members carry.

It’s not about their parents’ birth certificates. It’s their skills that make them good players.

This has nothing to do with their blood.

The game has everything to do with their talent.

Now shut up and enjoy the game with the rest of us.

Meet My New Hero

Let me introduce you to my new hero. Uncle Fester. The Namesake of that Damn Octopus. Au Eie. The man himself!

You remember him, don’t you? He doesn’t like the Azkals. He makes no secret of it, either. He has several online identities, most of which talk to each other about how awful the Azkals are.

Yeah. He’s my new hero.


As I’m typing this, I’m making sure that my armor is well-oiled and fixed. I’m sharpening my sword and shield. I’m also preparing to board up my windows. After all, some people will glance at my title and go, “WHAT? Let me go oil and fix my armor, sharpen my sword and shield, and turn this writer into lumpiang shanghai – as soon as I get off Facebook!”

I do know that not all people are as impulsive.

As I go through my armory and check on my defenses, I still can’t help thinking: Yes, indeed, Uncle Fester. You are my hero.

The Household Name that Wasn’t

The history of our hero’s exploits extends far beyond my own memory and knowledge. All I know is that he married a Filipina, settled in the Philippines, and worked, in one way or another, within the Philippine football scene. Perhaps someone assumed that the German-born-and-raised man was an expert in football and readily allowed him to showcase his prowess and expertise in building the sport, from the grassroots up.

Sadly, that same prowess and expertise did not exist. He was made to leave the football scene, but he clung to meaningless titles, promised money and prestige in exchange for his services – for his mere presence anywhere. He claimed that he was a consultant, a man of great importance, someone worshiped for his football knowledge.

Years later, after numerous troubles, unmet promises, wasted money, and still no programs, Uncle Fester had become the household name that wasn’t.

Reporters avoided him. The mass media generally knew of his eccentricities. He had become the old, senile uncle at the family reunion, the one with all the bombastic stories of adventures, the one generally allowed to talk, the one no one listened to because he was simply a harmless old man with worn out dreams and no friendships to withstand the test of time.

That harmless old man, however, was sharpening his claws and gathering his army of rumors. He was no longer harmless.

Oh no – Uncle Fester had an axe to grind.

Hero Complex

A few rumors here, a few whispers there – and finally, he had his chance at superstardom. He became the informant, of sorts, of a leading broadcast network as it sought to investigate a case against a few members of the Men’s National Football Team.

“Investigation” is too dignified a word for what happened next. The network milked the issue for all its worth, and continues to milk it, even when more people uncovered the truth of Bitter Dude Gone Bonkers.

To some extent, the network was laughed at: didn’t they know that Uncle Fester had ruined many a family reunion by his lies? Didn’t the network do research on the purported whistleblower? Didn’t they know how the whistleblower had enough nicknames to cover all his overblown stories? All his antics?

Uncle Fester protested. He threatened to call in the German police, bring justice to the oppressed, and save the world before bedtime.

How he fumed as his credibility was called into question! How he seethed when his English was laughed at, giggled at, and parodied! How he – formed even more online identities to cover his tracks!

Oh, Uncle Fester. Au Eie.

You are my idol.

An Unlikely Hero

What the Azkals have done for the Philippines in general, and the local football scene in particular, is nothing short of remarkable. Once the underdogs, the Azkals have now shown a good deal of bite. Every game is a chance to unite the country. Every win is shared; every loss is felt by all.

Whether you’re a football fanatic finding all your hopes for Philippine football coming true, or a child still struggling with understanding the offside rule, the Azkals have turned us all into fans.

There was even a debate, a few weeks back, on how people just kept on leaping on the Azkals bandwagon and declared themselves “fans”. Some people who had been watching the Azkals for years looked down on the new fans, who seemed far more engrossed with the players rather than the game. The older fans were not silent about their protest, either. While some people welcomed the new fans, others argued on semantics.

It is not my place to define what constitutes a fan. Uncle Fester, however, seemed to redefine it.

When the news broke forth, and when Uncle Fester’s real name emerged in the media, everyone was no longer simply a fan of the Azkals. Whether they were new or old, novices or experts, young or wizened, silly or serious – all fans rallied behind the team. We all rally behind the team, still.

We were not just fans. We all became supporters.

The Power of Fandom

Again, it is not my place to write a dictionary on fandom. What I’ve observed however, is that Uncle Fester’s public involvement with private issues has sparked debate. We were not simply cheering for the team, or buying memorabilia, or declaring our love for all things football online.

We became an active, roaring, thinking crowd.

Forums, social networks, and websites were not simply milking the issue. They associated the allegations with other issues that had long been dormant.

People again debated on the issue of some of the players being born and raised abroad by one or more Filipino parents. People again discussed how the mass media and other outfits seemed hell bent on destroying the successful Azkals. People became aware of the undercurrents of crab mentality, a cultural habit threatening to destroy the football team and, consequently, its fans.

We became a crowd that refused to accept rumors masked as news. We became a crowd that did not hesitate to air its opinions. We became a crowd that welcomed debate, discussion, criticism, and dialogue.

True, the Internet has long provided a venue for such activities. However, all those activities might have occurred in the past, where the Azkals were the whipping boys, with hardly a crowd cheering them on. Today, the fans are more than just cheerleaders: they have become legal experts, debaters, critics of the culture, philosophers. Thinkers.

The Azkals had carved out their identity. We, too, carved out our own.

The Real Insult

Some might say that Uncle Fester’s brand of melodrama served to unite all fans against a common enemy. I think he did more than just that. His last attempt hit so hard because it wasn’t simply an insult against the Azkals.

It was an insult against the fans.

Did you think, Uncle Fester, that the fans would simply abandon their team because of one rumor? Did you think that one allegation would make all of us run away? Did you think you could singlehandedly take down the success of the Philippine football team because you never found success in your own life?

We’re not stupid, Uncle Fester. We actually know what we’re doing. Don’t tell us how or what to think.

We’re fans. We’re not sheep.

So, Thank You

Uncle Fester is not the only one responsible for the support, the uproar from the fans, the blossoming of thinkers and debaters amongst us. However, he did have a great role to play. So, thank you, Uncle Fester.

Thank you for reminding us that we should always think critically about any claim put forth by anyone. Thank you for reminding us to always ask questions – to always question everything before agreeing with the mass media.

Thank you for reminding us to always check our sources before listening to what anyone has to say. Thank you for reminding us that the mass media has its faults, and that we should always think before we act, discuss before we pass any judgment.

Thank you, Uncle Fester, for making sure that we carved out an identity as fans who were not simply accepting everything thrust upon them, who were not simply swallowing ideas or cheers whole.

Thank you, Uncle Fester, for reminding us that being a fan does not simply mean coming to the games and blowing our savings on Azkals merchandise. It means listening to all sides of the story, debating the merits of each side, doing our own investigation, and actually thinking.

You meant to cause trouble. Instead, you united the fans behind the Azkals. Now, regardless of the truth of the allegations, we’re standing behind what the team can do on the pitch.

So yes, Uncle Fester: Thank you for being you.

A Few More Hopes

I hope that this surge of critical thinking spills over to all other aspects of society. I hope that people actively think and make choices not because their friends pressured them to, but because they think for themselves and know what is right. I hope that people don’t simply accept everything thrust upon them, but learn to think, to question, to do their own research and investigation.

I hope that people start to think. I hope that people open their eyes and debate.

And I hope that I never need to fortify my house and get my weapons ready. I hope that people always read through everything first and think – before stopping at a mere title and making judgment.

We’re thinking fans, after all. Thanks to Uncle Fester – and unlike him – we’ll actually be using our brains.

Now let’s enjoy a plate of fresh crabs and enjoy the next game!