A colonial imprint
I’ve always been intrigued by the differences in the popularity of particular sports across countries. Why, for example, is the World Cup almost a nonevent in the Philippines, while the rest of the world, including most of our neighboring countries, go crazy as they follow the games, and soccer competitions in general?
On the other hand, we know how basketball has become our national sport, and how Filipinos follow the game with an alphabet soup of competitions, amateur and professional, local and stateside.
When you survey the countries across the world, and what they consider to be their national sport or sports, you’ll find that so much is almost accidental, a function of colonialism.
Soccer took root and flourished in countries colonized by the European powers, notably Britain, Spain, Portugal, France and the Netherlands. Britain stands out here; football is very definitively not just a national sport in Commonwealth countries but the Commonwealth sport. Spain’s futbol legacy is found throughout Latin America, with El Salvador and Honduras even going to war with each other after a particularly heated game. The two countries were already at each other’s throat over immigration policies but tensions came to a head after a disputed World Cup game. That guerra de futbol lasted all of 100 hours.
Just look at our neighboring countries’ mania over soccer, and you will find a colonial imprint: France in Vietnam and Cambodia, Britain in Malaysia and Singapore, the Netherlands in Indonesia.
There are of course exceptions. Thailand was never colonized but soccer is immensely popular there, to the extent that one of its former prime ministers, Thaksin Shinawatra, even bought a major soccer club in Britain.
The other exception that stands out is the Philippines: Despite 300 years of Spanish colonization, Filipinos have little interest in soccer. What did happen was that during the American colonial period, we acquired a national addiction for basketball.
But there’s more than history and sports. There’s an excellent collection of essays in The New York Times, “How We Play The Game,” exploring the differences in the way soccer is played, in a sense different “soccer identities” that relate back to national culture. The reflections came from Brazil, England, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain.
I loved the contrast in the description of football in Britain and in Brazil. David Winner’s essay is about football in Britain with an apt title, “A Soccer Empire, Deeply Confused,” about how formal, even tense, the British are when they play. At the same time, British football seems to be neither here nor there: “We’re all over the place.”
Winner looks back at how soccer developed in Britain, originally a game that would involve hundreds of drunk men from different villages “rampaging through streets and fields, trying to drive, say, a casket of beer (the proto-ball) into the crypt of a church (the proto-goal).” (I couldn’t help but think part of that tradition lives on: British soccer fans are notorious for their rowdy and drunken behavior after each game.)
Elite schools, Winner writes, converted these “testosterone-fueled rituals” through “smaller teams, sober boys and sodden leather balls,” together with codification of rules. The intention was to discipline boys and men, “instill manly and martial virtues into future imperial soldiers and administrators.”
Today, the British empire is no more, and British soccer can’t quite seem to situate itself.
Brazil is the counterpoint to Britain, Jose Miguel Wisnik titling his essay “The Beautiful Game Lives Here.” He elegantly describes how “straight and angular European soccer became sinuous and curving as it took on the body movements of samba dancers and the martial art dancers and fighters of Brazilian capoeira.”
Wisnik says this happened because soccer, originally a sport of the elite, spilled out into the streets, “played in abandoned lots, meadows and urban gaps,” marked by a spirit of improvisation.
And indeed when you think about it, most of Brazil’s soccer stars are from very impoverished backgrounds, with rags-to-riches stories that still fire up the imagination of many young boys growing up in a favela or slum, hoping someday to make it into the big leagues.
Anthropologists are always intrigued by the interplay between sports and culture. I’m thinking now of how we used to have a “Department of Education, Culture and Sports,” which was probably a good thing. Now we don’t have sports (or culture, or the arts) appearing in any of the names of our government ministries.
The description of Brazilian soccer as improvised got me thinking of basketball in the Philippines. We see how streets are taken over to create a basketball court (more often, a half court), the players dressed in tattered sando (sleeveless shirts) and flip-flops. So captivated was American writer Rafe Bartholomew that he turned out an entire book, “Pacific Men,” about basketball in the Philippines.
Basketball flourishes here because it found a “fit” in culture, mainly male culture. It allowed young boys to find a barkada, to go through rituals of passage (the test of male independence is being allowed by Nanay to stay out late and play basketball in another barangay). The male bonding is incredible—I have met many a “basketball widow,” women complaining about how their husbands come home from work and go straight to playing basketball with their barkada, skipping dinner with the family and returning home at 9 or 10, too tired for anything else.
Perhaps, too, Pinoy basketball, like Brazilian soccer, has become a performance, and more. Our basketball is showing off, or diskarte, sometimes to an audience but more often to teammates. There’s no real competition in many of the neighborhood games, and when one scores, it’s an individual accomplishment.
Maybe basketball is so popular here because it’s fast-paced, a way for individuals to keep scoring. Soccer and, worse, American football, takes ages for scoring and is too slow for Filipinos. But for soccer fans, the sport is so thrilling precisely because it is a game that relies on a team’s maneuvering, building up toward a rousing climax. Pinoy basketball (and that other national sport, boxing) is different, offering quick, constant, instant gratification.
The Azkals seem to be changing our appreciation of soccer, but our national attitude toward that sport is still tentative. I say we Filipinos should do more soccer, if at least to teach us more about patience and team play with still a lot of room for individuals to prove their mettle and become superstars.
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