Athletes and scholars
Last Sunday I watched the championship round of the UAAP football competition at Rizal Memorial Stadium in Manila. It was the first time in 10 years that the women’s football team of the University of the Philippines had made it to the championship, so I knew I just had to attend.
I used to think football was a slow game, but last Sunday I found myself gripping my seat as the game unfolded.
UP lost to Far Eastern University, 2-1—a close fight that still left UP in second place for women’s football.
Later that night the UP Alumni Association sponsored a celebration dinner for the team members and their parents, and that was where I learned more about what goes into the making of our UP women athletes. I had visited the football teams (both men and women) at practice and knew they were fighting great odds—having to play in a field that often resembled a large mud hole, shared with track and field athletes at practice, which meant that sometimes a hammer throw would end up in their field, adding to the moon craters.
Both teams have the highest regard for their coach, Anto Gonzales, who is tough but nurturing. The parents of the women’s team members told me about how their home diets had changed, with the coach insisting on healthy eating, which means no soft drinks, no fried food, and lots of fruits and vegetables.
“Imagine, we never bought kamote (sweet potato) in the past, but now it’s part of our meals,” one soccer mom told me.
I was curious how our players ended up in football, which is one of the most “masculine” sports around.
The stories ranged from one player growing up with brothers who played football to another attending schools that encourage women’s sports in general. But there was one common denominator: The support of parents.
Both moms and dads actively support their daughters in the team, but there were more soccer moms than dads, and they are a feisty lot. Several of them talked to me with hoarse voices because they were cheering (and jeering) the whole afternoon.
The team players practice early in the morning, as in 6 a.m., and put in more hours as competitions approach. Despite that, they are serious about their studies. The players are doing all kinds of majors, from sports science to political science and family life and community development. Some have ambitions to make it to medical school afterward, and I have no doubt that they’ll make it.
One proud father said his daughter has “negative hours” left when you account for study, practice and games. He laughed, talking about how we tend to emphasize “don’ts” with our teenage children. With football players, there are so many things to do that there’s no time for the “don’ts.”
Overcoming macho football
The history of women in sports is an interesting one. In the ancient Greek Olympics, there was a separate Heraean (named after the goddess Hera) Games for women, but these were more of a side event. In our modern Olympics, women were allowed to take part from the beginning but it took years for women’s participation to grow. It was always presumed that women’s anatomy and physiology (including menstruation) put them at a disadvantage when it came to competitive sports.
Yet women found ways to get into the sports, and football was a particularly important arena for their struggles.
Ancient China had a form of football called cuju (literally, kick ball), originally formulated some 2,500 years ago to train soldiers. In time it became recreational, played by all classes and by both men and women. And there is a story that in the Tang dynasty, a 17-year-old girl was able to beat a team of army soldiers at cuju.
In the west, women were playing a form of football in France as early as the 12th century, but historical records are sporadic in showing female participation as football developed.
In the early 20th century, there was a very active British Ladies’ Football Club that drew large crowds to its games. The founder, with the appropriate name of Nettie Honeyball, saw football as part of women’s emancipation, a way of proving that women are not just “ornamental and useless” and that if women could play football, there would be a time when they could sit in Parliament as well. Remember, this was during a time when women could not even vote.
The men did not take things lightly. The British Ladies’ Football Club was banned in 1921 from using the football fields—and this policy remained in place until 1971.
The women responded by forming an English Ladies Football Association, practicing in rugby fields instead.
Today, football remains largely a male domain. In the Philippines, some Catholic schools even ban their girls from playing football and other competitive sports.
Internationally, the struggle for equality in sports continues, sometimes with almost funny consequences. Iran was banned from participating in Olympic women’s football when it insisted that its players use the hijab (hair covering).
Since 1991 there has been a FIFA Women’s World Cup held every four years, with one scheduled this year.
Sen. Pia Cayetano, herself a triathlete, is one of UP’s soccer moms and it was she who reminded me last Sunday that it was International Women’s Day, so appropriate for the championship game. I checked on the standings of UP teams in the UAAP competitions and found that for the current season, UP women’s teams are champions in badminton, table tennis and taekwondo, and rank second for swimming and of course football. In no small way, UP women’s varsity teams have contributed to getting UP into third place in overall UAAP ranking.
Gender equality is high up in the UP sports agenda, demonstrated dramatically when the UP Pep Squad performed with the theme “pantay pantay,” which included the women lifting the men into the air.
I am certain that in the years ahead, each Women’s Day will be an occasion to celebrate even more women’s participation in sports, and to demonstrate that varsity players, both women and men, can excel in both sports and academics, doing us all proud as “Iskolars ng Bayan.”
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