Last Saturday, as the United Football League kicked off hostilities at the Rizal Stadium, another type of football competition was taking place several hundred kilometers south of Manila on the island paradise of Boracay, as four teams battled it out for supremacy in the Beach Football Association of the Philippines (BFAP) National Beach Football Championships.
With the pristine white sands of Boracay as their playing pitch, NCR champion Philippine Air Force, Luzon champion Mama Sita's-Manila Football Club, Visayas champion Visayas-Boracay and Mindanao champion Team Mindanao played each other in a round-robin format to determine the 2012 national beach football champion.
When the dust (or sand) had settled, Mama Sita's of Luzon pulled off a stunning upset, beating favored defending champion Air Force to win the championship. I read about the event in limited news items on print and online, and it piqued my interest enough to make me get in touch with BFAP president Mike Athab, an old friend of mine from our days in UP, to learn more about the state of beach football in the country. I figure this should be an interesting time for the association, what with regular football on the rise and our tourism leaders trying to promote our beaches.
A former PE instructor and the first-ever coach of the UP women's football team, Mike formed the BFAP in 1995 along with some other PE teachers after organizing a fun tournament in Puerto Galera. He has been at the helm of BFAP ever since and he firmly believes that the sport is a good fit for Filipinos.
"Culturally, Filipinos like fast-paced and high-scoring games," Mike said in an e-mail. Since the pitch in beach football is much smaller, Mike explained, goal attempts are more frequent. Also, height is not an ultimate requirement.
"The Philippines, being an archipelago, is a perfect location aside from the weather being ideal for beach football," Mike said. He added that in a 2008 ranking conducted by Beach Soccer Worldwide (BSWW), the country was ranked 35th out of 55 countries.
"BFAP is one of the very first recognized beach football organizations in Asia," Mike said, "which aims to develop beach football by organizing annual tournaments nationwide and creating a grassroots program for the youth. Another BFAP objective is to promote sports tourism in the country and discover its hundred different beaches."
I asked Mike if the BFAP will be hosting any international tournaments this year, and he said unfortunately there is nothing on their calendar, although it is one of their goals for the coming years. They are, however, participating in two major international tournaments.
"Among the international competitions we are looking forward to are the Asian Beach Games in June and Asian Beach Football World Cup Qualifiers to be held in the latter part of the year," he said.
Last Saturday's national championships were the culmination of a series of elimination round legs held last year in key cities across the country. According to Mike, there was an average of 10 teams per leg. "The champion for each leg automatically advanced to the national championships," he said. "The recent national championships were exciting and highly competitive."
On the way to the national championships, Luzon-Mama Sita's upset defending Luzon champion Philippine Army in the Luzon qualifiers held last May at the Subic Bay Freeport, winning 4-2 on penalties after a 1-1 standoff.
In the national finals last Saturday, Luzon swept the round-robin series to bag the crown. They beat Team Mindanao, 3-0, and Visayas-Boracay, 5-2, to arrange a winner-take-all showdown with defending champion Air Force. In a thrilling final, Luzon eventually prevailed, 3-2.
Tito Basug, a defender for Luzon and another an old UP friend, said beating Air Force was a major achievement for them.
"The Air Force was the national champion of the previous year," he said. "The Air Force also has a football regimen unparalleled even by the Azkals. The Air Force team consistently plays and performs well in most of the tournaments held in the country including the current UFL tournament."
The Luzon team was made up of a number of former UP varsity players, including former national team member (and my former neighbor) Pilo Rosell. Others on the team were goalkeepers JP Demontaño and Richard Alipar; defenders Obet Escueta and Abel Fabroada; midfielders Harold Lorenzo and Randy Salisad and Boni Magallona, who plays forward alongside Pilo.
"Most of the members of the team came from the UP Football Varsity Team," said Tito, who himself played for UP in the late 80s and early 90s. "They have been together for a good number of years. The younger ones were carefully handpicked and invited to join the Manila Football Club. They came from Laguna and have played for their college varsity football teams and the National Youth Team."
Beach football is played in three seven-minute periods, with five players per side. But according to Tito, even though the pitch is small, the sand provides a unique challenge and makes it difficult to move around, let alone kick the ball. Players can only wear socks.
"In beach football, you have to consider the pitch and how to use it to your advantage," Tito said. "Because of the pitch's character, a player must continually adjust and adapt. In defense and offense, a player must continuously consider the pitch and how it is affecting the ball, his position, his teammates' positions and how best to bring it forward to get the chance to score."
Obviously, many beach football players are former or current regular football players. In fact, Mike said, he will soon organize tryouts for the national team, and this early, many former Azkals are interested in joining. The national champion Luzon team is also on stand-by just in case they will be invited to represent the country.
"But the long-term goal," Mike said, "is to have a separate National Team for beach football and 11-a-side (regular football)."
With our many beaches and growing love for football, that shouldn't be a problem.