ASK a typical Filipino which sport he or she follows or plays, and easily that one would reply basketball, volleyball or boxing.
Perhaps, this is because of the extensive attention given to these disciplines by the local media. Or, the heroes they have generated have become the darlings of the multitude of fans over the years.
For its part, football has produced significant inroads in the sporting psyche of the Pinoys. We have fielded national squads that have successfully competed in the global arena, as well as local commercial teams that have commanded local following and landed considerable airtime on sports TV. Not to mention, our universities and colleges field their own rosters lording over the pitches in their respective campuses.
In the provinces and the countryside, the scene shifts to a different angle as the sport is growing in popularity among youngsters, not only as a leisurely physical activity, but also as a means to elevate their status in life, especially those who have less materially and financially. This is happening through the efforts of an organization called Football for Humanity (FFH), with Christopher Stephen Thomas, a British national, leading the charge.
As its president and founder, Thomas describes FFH as a concrete advocacy with a mission to create positive transformations through the sport of football. It is a registered charity locally and in the United Kingdom (UK).
“Through the foundation,” Thomas explained, “we will help Filipino children, especially the underprivileged and the marginalized, to conquer the limitations of poverty and lack of opportunities. Football teaches values and develops a sense of identity and purpose, beyond the self, because a child learns that he is part of a team. “
He went on to say, “FFH could show children that they could be winners, and that the sport can help them reach their dreams. We will create opportunities for the kids to see the world, and for the world to see their immense talents.”
Football as a constant
THOMAS knows for certain what he is talking about, as life was difficult for him back in Merseyside, UK—the very heart of British football. In the 1980s that also meant being in the middle of urban conflict. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had coal mines padlocked, and low-income communities that made a living there vented frustrations on many distractions, including gang wars, hooliganism, drugs and all other trappings of urban dysfunction.
Thus, the young English boy grew up in a state of revolt, which involved his faith, culture, family, and even his education. He was an Anglican thrust in a Catholic school, and experienced discrimination and segregation at an early age. Fortunately for the young man, these difficulties strengthened his resolve and also encouraged him to ask questions. All the way to early manhood, Thomas felt a strong need to expand himself and get out of what he perceived as a limiting and dead-end future.
After venturing into military training with the Royal Marines, Thomas remembered his childhood dream of travel and discovery. He believed this could be answered through education, and thus he entered a university and earned a Sports Development degree. As a full-fledged educator, the wanderlust in him took over and drove him to bring his talents to Thailand, where he spent a few years as a physical education teacher. However, he felt the urge to do more.
Approaching his 30s, Thomas came across a street preacher who challenged him to self-reflection. That was when he discovered his spirituality and, in his own words, found “the only thing that brought me peace.” The young teacher-athlete realized he wanted a life that went beyond physical and material experiences and aspirations, and thus exchanged the excitement of the streets to quiet moments of reflection.
Amid the many transitions in his life, the only element that remained constant was football. Thomas remembered that as a young boy, he received athletic medals and trophies as a reminder that he excelled in the sport.
He looked back: “I was always on the brink of making football my career, but the trappings of the exotic lifestyle of a young UK academe in a foreign world distracted me. I looked upon lost opportunities with some regret, but I believe I am meant to do bigger things other than focusing on myself.”
IN late-2013, during a hiatus in North Wales, Thomas was profoundly affected by the situation in Leyte when Supertyphoon Yolanda (international code name Haiyan) struck and left thousands dead and hundreds more homeless. He remembered about his Filipino friends, “one of the kindest people I have ever come across.” The English native decided he would pay them a visit, help if he can, and know more about their land and culture.
Soon after, the Brit landed in Davao and he realized that the country had suffered a series of misfortunes due to natural disasters. Though amazed at the authenticity of the people, the beauty of the countryside and the ease with which foreigners can communicate and feel much at home, he was also bothered by their current state. Particularly, he was extremely bothered by the number of poor children who roamed the streets.
Stepping into Manila, Thomas connected with the football community as he leveraged on the sport to see the Philippines and made his way to its provinces. There, he discovered the talents of the children, yet he was saddened by the fact that there was little or no athletic culture that should have been a major part of their education.
A “lucky break” came when, in 2015, he partnered with a UK-based insurance firm for its football advocacy where he had the opportunity to share with thousands of underprivileged children his passion for the sport.
Since then, Thomas had immersed himself in the country’s grassroots football program as he founded FFH together with this author. They have already established a successful two-year pilot program in Naga City, Camarines Sur. Currently, FFH has been tapped to bring its program to Mindanao, where he had come across thousands of youth “who need to be guided [but] have the potential to be great athletes.”
Eyes on the goal
THOMAS only has favorable words for Filipinos and football:
“They can definitely play the sport. With the right training, they could be developed in a culture that promotes excellence in the sport. Dedicated coaches and teachers can create the culture and the discipline to nurture champions.”
He continued, “The Philippines must also open itself to receive training from the experts in the world, because there is little to speak of a football culture locally. That is what Japan did; that is what China is doing. Then miracles will start to happen. Communities can do this. It’s a myth that it takes billions of pesos to implement this ideal.”
The footballer further said that through such, “we would be able to see the transformation in the youth and in their families. This will result in a transformed society: healthier, more proactive, more involved, with a competitive and winning spirit that erases the walls of poverty, conflict, abuse and, more recently, the destructive effects of dangerous philosophies like radicalization and violent extremism.”
With regard to FFH, Thomas widens his perspective to its Philippine football countryside program like a coach to a field full of possibilities, yet trains his sights like a striker to a wide-open goal.
“Central to our strategy is the creation of football infrastructure. For children to have a safe space to play in and be in love with the sport, we will build our signature football cage, a 20-by-30-meter enclosed space, in as many barangays as we can, where they can play small-sided games to improve speed, agility, technique and teamwork.”
He then pointed out three core areas, which he said are “nonnegotiable” requirements for the Philippines to sustain the development of football, especially at the barangay level: “Local communities could create their own identities, and many [of them] playing together could institute a football culture and tradition, just like what happened to basketball. Unlike basketball, however, we have the opportunity to excel globally, given the right training and preparation.”
“Another unique feature of our strategy,” Thomas stated, “is that we want to bring nations together, just as our credo declares. We build peace, hope and relationships across continents by fielding volunteers who also have the mission to share what they know and are passionate about. We’ve already implemented that strategy in Naga City, and we can duplicate that in many other locations who are willing to learn.”
Thomas is of the opinion that “the next Messi or Ronaldo may well be that little boy in a remote island who does not even own shoes, but has the talent and the heart of a champion, and the will to make us all proud to be Filipinos.”
Making a difference
THE British commits himself to help bring about positive changes to the Philippine countryside through FFH.
“We will always make a difference in the places where we are called to bring in football. One day soon, FFH will bring a team of young hopefuls to the UK, where they can train and be discovered. In the near future, we will have a Filipino team that we can truly be proud of.”
It’s been interesting times for Thomas, who has always dreamed big in a land where football in the grassroots is a struggling start-up. Notwithstanding, he has a famous historical figure—from his native land, no less—to draw inspiration from.
“Sir Winston Churchill once said, ‘As long as we have faith in our own cause and an unconquerable will to win, victory will not be denied us.’ And as I see children happy, getting equal opportunities and having a shot at success, then I will never give up.”
Still possessing a commando mentality from his Royal Marines training, Thomas goes as far as, to quote him, “putting my life on the line, in my mission to reach these children. They deserve a better future, and FFH is here to help them attain it. Let the children play, let them have fun, and let them aspire to be the best.”
Image credits: Rica Espiritu