Heroes on the field

 

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Tacloban Surge (from left): Sugbo, Gerado, Ruiz, Malquisto, Relano, Cablao, Diorico, Tumampo, coach Pimentel, and Pongos (photo by Janvic Mateo).

First published in the Starweek, 25 May 2014

Goalkeeper Ralph Relano, 26, was named the most valuable player following an impressive performance that helped his team secure the championship in the recently-held Sama-Sama beach football games in Boracay.

No one would have thought that six months ago, this man – who seemed to have an unlimited supply of energy – felt nothing but helplessness as he watched Super Typhoon Yolanda destroy their house. As he waited for the storm to pass, sitting in a corner of a nearby concrete shelter, he prepared himself for the worst: his father, who was in their house when it collapsed, might have died.

“I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to go out and find him,” he told STARweek in Filipino.

As the winds started to abate, Ralph said he spotted his father under the debris, along with their chicken and dog, protected by a small wooden table that served as their cover.

Channeling enough courage to venture outside and face the wrath of the typhoon, Ralph ran as fast as he could to get to his father. The rescue mission was a success, but not without him being slammed by a strong gust of wind into a fallen guava tree.

While this was happening, Ehgie Gerado, 18, was inside their house in Tacloban, watching members of his family crossing a flooded street to get to a safer place.

“My father was walking back towards our house when I saw him slip and get submerged in the (waist-deep) flood,” he said in Filipino.

Ehgie went out to rescue his father, whose leg had become stuck in debris that littered the flooded streets. His father, who sustained a deep cut in his leg, had to be stitched up without anesthesia.

Back in Palo, Wilberto Sugbo, 21, was with his family preparing to move to a safer location as winds started to tear at their house. He and his brother carried their 78-year-old grandmother. “She kept on telling me that the way I’m holding her hurts,” he said in Filipino. “I told her that we cannot do anything about it because we had to survive.”

These tales, often described as heroic by those who documented the events in Eastern Visayas last year, are not uncommon among Yolanda survivors. But for them, being heroes was farthest from their minds; they just wanted to survive. As Wilberto put it, “Why will we surrender if we have an option to survive?”

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Ralph, Ehgie and Wilberto were among nine players from typhoon-devastated areas in Leyte to compete in the third Sama-Sama Games in Boracay, a beach football event that seeks to bring together teams from different walks of life.

The team – with Rizal-based coach Joselito Pimentel, who ended up working with the team months after he re-located to Tacloban to join in the relief work – called themselves the Tacloban Surge, an attempt to spin the memory of a terrible experience into something positive. Other members include Kiel Mhiko Malquisto, 19; Joenel Cablao, 21; Teodoro Ruiz Jr., 20; Genesis Pongos, 21; Reynaldo Tumampo, 19; and assistant coach Francis Michael Diorico, 30.

The team competed six times in a span of two days. They never lost a match, even against those touted as “powerful” teams.

But behind their highly-competitive spirit, the players admitted that they have suffered or are still suffering from trauma and stress.

Ralph for instance, is still living in a makeshift house, while Ehgie and his family spend their days in a tent as they slowly rebuild their damaged property.

The goalkeeper said memories of Yolanda come back every time rain starts falling, especially since three children of his cousin died when the typhoon struck Tanauan, also in Leyte.

He, like the others, admitted that football had become his escape from the devastation of Yolanda.

With all the destruction around him, assistant coach Diorico said he never could smile and mean it – at least not until the football match they organized in January “to get away” from everything.

“I felt really happy while playing,” he said.

Croatian Marco Kasic, who had been organizing the Sama-Sama Games for the past three years, said he understands how football can become a form of therapy for survivors of disasters and calamities.

“Football is a great part in rehabilitation. You can rebuild someone’s house, but psychologically, it’s very difficult,” he said. “For us, this is a very amazing opportunity for them to get away from Tacloban and forget about everything.”

Peter Amores, founder of the Tondo Futkaleros, recognizes this as well, saying they have conducted football clinics through the Field of Hopes project in typhoon-devastated areas like Bantayan Island in Cebu. “It seeks to erase the (bad) experience that they had,” he says.

Nurhayati Abdullah – country manager of DHL Express, one of the partners of the event – said the results of the games showed the spirit of those affected by the typhoon.

“It wasn’t a great event that happened to them, they are still recovering, but for them to come together and share their passion and their talent… It’s really great. I’m really happy,” she says.

The members of the Tacloban Surge, who said they gave their best to secure the top award, said they hope to share the experience of football therapy with the children back in their communities.

“They want to play. Somebody just needs to organize it,” says Ralph.

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The presence of the team from Tacloban has given a new meaning to the Sama-Sama Games, which seeks to develop a sense of unity among the participants.

Teams included the Futkaleros from Tondo, two teams from Gawad Kalinga and a team from Dream Big Pilipinas, described as a non-profit organization that “makes use of football as a tool for community development through transformation of the youth.”

Local players and foreign visitors from Boracay, as well as teams from universities, participated in the event.

“In the football field, everyone wears the same uniform and there’s no distinction. No one knows where you come from, no one asks where you come from,” says Kasic in describing the nature of the event.

“That’s a great way to show these kids that if they can adopt the same attitude off the field, both the privileged and the underprivileged, if they treat each other with the right respect, the world and our lives would be better,” he adds.

Kasic says football is a fun way for people from different communities – as well as social status – to change the way they see other people on and off the field.

“Some of these younger players who are coming from disadvantaged communities, they may have inferiority complex towards foreigners. This is a great way of breaking down barriers,” he says. “They are playing with them, competing with them, in most cases beating them – it’s a great way to kind of remove those psychological barriers that are sometimes present.”

In the Sama-Sama Games, Kasic maintained that winning is not the ultimate goal, but rather the values that the players would learn through football.

In addition to the actual games, the program also included various workshops aimed at building the character of the teams, especially those coming from disadvantaged communities.

DHL, for instance, brought fellows from Teach for the Philippines to conduct an activity with some of the teams.

“It’s about teaching the children to dream big… There are many (side events that contribute to the values formation of) the children, not just coming here and playing football,” says Abdullah. “That’s what we want to promote, quality in education and quality in learning.”

Abdullah noted that they support the objectives of the games as it promotes unity among diverse groups, which she said ties in with the whole concept of “sama-sama.”

The support provided by the company to the games falls under the “Go Teach” pillar of their corporate social responsibility program. The other pillars are “Go Green” and “Go Help,” the latter started in response to the need for relief and rehabilitation of Yolanda-affected areas.

Kasic said that the participants would take inspiration and motivation from the event.

“We just want them to care for themselves enough to invest in themselves. You don’t need money to invest in yourself, you need dedication, discipline to make sure that you care enough to study hard or train hard,” he added.

Coach Pimentel – whose original purpose in going to Tacloban was to help in the relief operations of his foundation Kids International Ministry – said he ended up working with Leyte Football Association to help players affected by the typhoon. They conducted a tryout to select players for the team that will play in the Homeless World Cup in Chile later this year.

The coach said some of those who played in Sama-Sama will be tapped to join the team, provided that they raise enough funds to support their travel to South America.

He stressed the importance of letting the players go back to the field despite what happened.

“They need to understand that they can still do the things that they did before,” he says.

The players said they are determined to continue playing.

Ralph, who works as a waiter in a local restaurant, said he would like to attend trainings that would help him become a better coach.

Ehgie, meanwhile, will continue playing while finishing his degree in education (major in physical education) at the East Visayas State University.

Wilberto graduates today with a diploma in education from Leyte Normal University. He plans to teach in a public school in Palo, “to make myself as an example.”

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