Football’s unlikeliest team is its most inspiring

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ROGER STONE is a man of sports, except football.

The 40-year-old American played basketball in high school, and ran the tracks in college. “But soccer,” he said, “we had that for PE class two weeks a year, and that was about it.”

Stone is a Missouri-born missionary who arrived in Manila in 1996. He came in as part of the Summer Institute of Linguistics Inc., or SIL, a faith-based nonprofit organization that works alongside ethno-linguistic communities, helping in the translation of the bible into minority languages.

He established a family here, and not long after moving to Porac, Pampanga, to work with Aetas in 2010, Stone figured in another translation work—this time, as a coach of the very sport he had little knowledge of.

“Moving from basketball to soccer, I learn to convert terms. It’s not called an ‘inbound’, but a ‘throw-in’. When we ‘rebound’ the ball, it means another shot,” he said, laughing.

“Fortuitous” is the word to describe Stone’s entry into the local football scene. His two sons happen

to play the game in their yard, which caught the eyes of neighborhood kids, who happened to join in on the fun.

First, it was only the Aeta kids who came. Then, the non-Aetas followed. The numbers of players grew consistently, but Stone saw no reason to shoo them away. “It’s hard to turn down a kid who wants to play,” he said.

Stone took on the mantle of football coach, guiding the children even if he knew little about the job.

With a little help from Internet research to run drills, and old bayanihan magic to smoothen chunks of a seldom-used space between a field of banana trees and a church into a FIFA-format seven-a-side pitch dimension using rakes, Stone eventually had a team on his hands. The squad even had a name: Porac FC.

The players, aged 11 to 17, showed commitment, developed passion even, as they found in football a home. “I get in trouble if I have to cancel practice,” Stone said, smiling. “They want to play every day. We play six days a week. Only Sundays we take off.”

The other kids, meanwhile, saw the sport as a platform. In an episode of the GMA documentary i-Witness that featured the team, goalkeeper Bimiana Capuno said, “Mahal po namin ’yung sport. Kasi baka dahil po sport na ’to, ito po ’yung maging dahilan para sabihin nila na ’yung mga Aeta, ’di na pala sila ngayon sa bundok. Meron na pala silang maipagmamalaki.”

Football came in as viable team sport in a community where there weren’t many. The list practically ends with basketball in barangay leagues and volleyball in schools.

The sport also bodes well with the natural talent of the local kids. Stone said most of the Aetas had good control of their feet and strong endurance. Also, height in the game doesn’t play much of a factor, which is a plus.

The team started playing without much equipment. The kids played barefoot on dirt. They did have cleats, but they saved it for matches for preservation.

Stone enlisted Porac FC in competitions he searched for in Facebook. The first one was in November 2015 at Ateneo de Manila University,

where the team had to travel from Pampanga on

two pickup trucks. By the time they arrived at the venue in Quezon City, some of the players were sick, Stone recalled.

The team, however, pressed on. They battled with much bigger kids, sometimes even playing out of their age group, but they got clobbered.

Still, the kids wanted to play. What struck Stone the most was how his team never got blown out;

that somehow, they always stayed in the game through sheer athleticism. “Almost every game,

our team was obviously faster than the opponent. We’re always faster.”

Porac FC kept joining tournaments and had a “bit of success here and there”, as Stone put it. Their U-12 squad recently won a six-team tournament in Angeles, while in June, the girls team, composed mostly of Aetas, won second place in the women’s open division of another tourney.

“We only have weakness, and that’s me,” said the lanky, self-deprecating Stone with a smile on his face. “If only they had better coaching.”

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SPORTS is competition, but Porac FC is not primarily in it for the wins on the pitch. Stone will tell you it’s about the experience.

In another serendipitous string of events, which has come to characterize the club as a whole, Porac

FC recently got a chance of a lifetime: Forty-nine

kids from the team participated in an exclusive, three-hour training session with coaches from one of the most prestigious football clubs in the world, FC Barcelona (FCB).

The initiative is part of the recently announced four-year partnership between FCB and Milo Philippines, which also bore the recent “Road to Barcelona” selection camp, where 10 kids were chosen for an international training camp in FCB’s home stadium in Barcelona, Camp Nou.

As for the Porac FC training, Milo Philippines Sports Executive Robbie de Vera said they were looking to help a local youth football club in need of professional guidance, as part of a grassroots development effort, and the Pampanga-based team fit the bill perfectly.

“These kids will get exposed to the FCB coaches for hours only, but we hope it will be a lifetime memory,” de Vera, a former national Futsal player, said at the training session. “Hopefully, we even see a future Azkal from here someday.”

More than the skills boost from the training, de Vera also wishes that the kids’ exposure to world-class coaching will inspire them to pursue their passions further, and that they have learned values which they can carry not only in sports, but in other pursuits, as well.

The session was held at the artificial grass turf of Sparta in Mandaluyong City. It was the first time for 46 of the 49 Porac FC kids to play outside a dirt pitch, and they made no effort in hiding their excitement from the moment they stepped on the top-quality field. Most of them kneeled to get a feel of the grass before proceeding.

Coach Roger Stone said the night before, one of the players in their group chat even said, “No matudtud”, or “no sleep” in Kapampangan.

Manning the training were FCB Escola Camp coaches Marti Vila Llobero and Arnau Blanco Moreno. The two greeted each camper at the field’s entrance with a high-five and a smile. They ran drills that impart FCB’s “tiki-taka” style of play, a continuous

flow of passing offense that operates on teamwork

and skill. “We try to bring our methodology to kids and we have made the same here. Our focus was for

them to understand the game and transmit our philosophy,” Moreno said. “I enjoyed a lot with them and I’m sure with their smile, they can say they have enjoyed, too.”

Stone watched in the sidelines as the

session transpired, looking as awe-struck as his players did on the field. “I would never, in a million years, imagine I would be with FCB coaches,” he said with a smile, again.

The training session wrapped at lunchtime with speeches and a surprise for the campers. Each kid was given their own football ball signed by the esteemed guest coaches.

With new balls and indelible lessons from FCB personnel, Stone was certain of what would happen as soon as they return to Porac. “I’m sure when we get home this afternoon at 5,” he said. “They’re going to ask for practice.” n



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