MANILA: 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 non-event in the Philippines, while the rest of the world, including most of our neighbouring countries, go crazy as they follow the games, and football 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.
Football took root and flourished in countries colonised 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. Just look at our neighbouring 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 colonised, but soccer is immensely popular there, to the extent that its former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, even bought a major football club in Britain.
The other exception that stands out is the Philippines: Despite 300 years of Spanish colonisation, Filipinos have little interest in football. 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 football is played, in a sense different “football 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.”
Brazil is the counterpoint to Britain, Jose Miguel Wisnik says in his essay “The Beautiful Game Lives Here”.
He elegantly describes how “straight and angular European football 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 football, 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.
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 football 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.
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 9pm or 10pm, too tired for anything else.
Perhaps, too, Pinoy basketball, like Brazilian football, 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 neighbourhood 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.
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.