by Martin Mieto (Special to the Asian Journal)
Every day, an untold number of Filipino children are no doubt imitating the moves of their favorite players on the courts of the Philippines. They go to sleep dreaming of someday becoming the next Magic Johnson, the next Jordan, the next Kobe, or the next LeBron James.
They dream about making it into the NBA or one of the pro leagues in the Philippines. They picture themselves becoming Filipino basketball stars using the legacies of NBA stars as motivation and inspiration.
Meanwhile, the legacy of a Philippine sporting legend (a legend of the world’s most popular sport no less) is ignored, buried not just by the sands of time, but also by the immense shadow of basketball.
The basketball buzz that perpetually enthralls millions of Filipinos is indeed a welcome enduring presence in the sports landscape of the Philippines. But the intense fascination Filipinos have with basketball comes with a price. The importance of other sports is diminished. The legacies that Filipino athletes leave behind in other sports are forgotten.
Too many kids want to be like Mike or Kobe or LeBron. Not enough want to be like Paulino.
I’m glad you asked.
Paulino Alcántara is a legendary figure in Philippine sports all right. He’s just not a basketball legend. Instead, he is a legend in the world’s most popular sport, one played in over 200 countries, including the Philippines. He is a soccer legend. Or more probably, if you were to ask Paulino, he may describe himself as a legend of fútbol. He was a man who led the Philippine team during its heyday in the early 20th century.
Though today, the Philippines is currently ranked only 168th in the latest FIFA rankings (and 2007 marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Philippine Football Federation), it has had a few landmark moments in its soccer history that are worth mentioning.
For instance, the Philippine national team is the oldest in Asia. In its inaugural match on February 1st 1913, the Philippines was victorious against China 2-1. Four years later, the Philippines achieved its most lopsided international win, a 15-2 thrashing of Japan in Tokyo on September 10th 1917. Alcántara was a part of that squad.
Alcántara, a Filipino-Spaniard, was born to a Spanish soldier dad and a Filipina mom on October 7, 1896 in Iloilo City, Philippines. He went on to spend his childhood in Barcelona, Spain.
In 1912, Alcántara was talented enough to attract interest from Joan Gamper, who at the time was the President and founder of current-day Spanish soccer powerhouse FC Barcelona (or FCB for short). He was subsequently signed by Gamper and made his club debut shortly thereafter.
Alcántara’s Barcelona debut was one to remember. He helped the club to an 8-2 win over Català SC and scored a hat trick in the process. The 15 year-old Alcántara thus became not only the youngest player ever to suit up for Barcelona but its youngest ever scorer as well. He also achieved distinction for being the first Filipino and Asian player ever to play for a European club team.
Though Alcántara was skinny and not physically imposing, he had guile and possessed a formidable shot. This was never more evident then on April 30, 1922 at Bouscat Stadium in Bordeaux, France. On that date, Alcántara (playing for Spain against France) let fly a shot that shredded the net. FCB’s official site pays homage to Alcantara for that, proclaiming, “For many years after, children from Barcelona would recall that moment and would wish to do the same as the man from the Philippines.”
Today FC Barcelona is undoubtedly recognized as one of the best club teams in the world. The 2006 UEFA Champions League winners are often mentioned in the same breath as other European giants like Juventus, Manchester United, and fellow Spanish rival Real Madrid. Certainly part of the credit for the lofty stature Barcelona enjoys today goes to Alcántara.
His credentials are significant and impressive. During his club tenure, he helped establish Barcelona as one of the most successful clubs in Spain. The team won five Copa Del Rey Spanish titles (including back to back titles in 1925 and 1926) and 10 Catalan championships (including four straight from 1924-27) during his 15-year career.
Upon his retirement on July 5, 1927, Alcántara was (and still is) Barcelona’s leading scorer with 357 goals to his credit. His FCB scoring average was a stellar goal per game.
At the time of his retirement, Alcántara was still only 31. What prompted his retirement? Alcántara sought to fulfill his aspiration to become a doctor.
And so, unlike the short-lived baseballer turned doctor Archiebald Graham in the film Field of Dreams, Alcántara was able to achieve a dual dream, becoming known as Dr. Alcántara after a famed soccer career.
One could say that he went from thrilling fans with his on-the-field exploits to treating them off of it.
Besides club football, Alcántara played for three national squads: the aforementioned Philippines in 1917, Spain from 1921-23 (scoring six goals), and for Catalonia off and on from 1915-24.
He later served on FCB’s board of directors from 1931-34. He was also the manager of Barcelona for a short stint in 1951.
Alcántara died on February 13, 1964 in Barcelona, but not before he had established himself as a 20th century soccer legend.
In its illustrious history FC Barcelona has seen the likes of some outstanding players. Romário. Figo. Rivaldo. Ronaldinho.
But before them all came the little big man from Iloilo City.
Perhaps a young Filipino boy, inspired by the tale of one of his nation’s most successful athletes, will trade in being like Mike for the opportunity to be like Paulino.
Don’t get me wrong. I love basketball. I love it just as much as any other Filipino.
Still, I can’t help but wonder: What would happen if those in the Philippines became as enthusiastic about soccer as they are now about basketball? After all, it’s hugely popular nearly everywhere else on the globe.
Perhaps, in twenty, fifty, or even a hundred years from now, a young Filipino boy, his resolve strengthened by the story of Paulino, will grow up to someday lead the Philippines to its first ever World Cup appearance, and in the process, cement himself as the next Philippine soccer superstar.
That will be a proud day for all Filipinos.
When that day eventually comes, may that boy, now a man, and his teammates be the ones to carry on the proud soccer legacy left behind by the one and only Paulino Alcántara.The first Philippine soccer phenom. But hopefully not the last.