Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Peace Be the Journey, The Football Odyssey of Ayi Aryee

It is incredible how the hopes and dreams of many lie in a spheroid that measures 28 inches in diameter and weighs 14-16 ounces. The ball is an object of affection that defines many a nation and is a source of genuine pride. In fact, El Salvador and Honduras have gone to war over it. And most recently, Germany used the game to showcase its vibrant economy. For many people, football isn’t just a mere game. It’s the great equalizer in the game of life.

Ayi Nii Aryee made a conscious decision to pursue a football career after high school in Accra, Ghana. He knew that if he dedicated himself to the game and worked hard at it, he could make a living out of playing the sport he loves the most.

The success of his countrymen Michael Essien, Stephen Appiah, Shilla Illiasu, Gerald Asamoah, and David Odonkor in Europe only steeled his ambition. The fourth child of a brood of six, Ayi took a United Arab Emirates flight to Singapore last April where a countryman agent of his took him to play for Sporting Afrique, a team of Africans playing in the S-League, the premier football league of the former British colony.

Ayi was both nervous and excited about the prospect of playing overseas. Singapore was a long ways from Europe, but he figured that it was a step closer in following his idol, Stephen Appiah, the captain of Ghana’s Black Stars and who also starred for one of the top football clubs in the world, Fenerbehce of Turkey. But instead of being quartered with his fellow Africans, he was billeted at a hotel where he had to pay for his board and lodging. The problem with that was the pay that was promised him was an empty one. Ayi was to receive far less than what was initially offered. Dismayed and out of money, Ayi rescinded the contract and left for the Philippines where he sought the help of an uncle, Wisdom Obi Tanko, who resided in Cavite. The Philippines intrigued Ayi and he wondered if there was a club that he could hook up with. Tanko put his hand on his nephew’s shoulder and said, “The passion of the nation is in basketball, not football. It is going to be hard.” Undaunted, Ayi returned to Singapore to retrieve his belongings but he wasn’t allowed to enter. Immigration officials said that since he no longer had a work-permit in the island nation, he wasn’t allowed to enter more so collect his belongings that he had inadvertently left behind. Upon his immediate return to the Philippines last July 13, 2006, he was likewise not allowed to leave the terminal of the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport at the Clark Special Economic Zone since his passport had expired.

He sought the help of his country’s embassy in Singapore only to be passed around by the local consulate as well as the Ghanaian missions to Japan and Malaysia as if he had the plague. The young footballer was confined to the terminal for 47 days where his hope and health greatly waned. One time, he gave a security guard the last of his money to buy him food since he couldn’t leave the terminal’s premises. But the guard never returned and that evening, weakened by the lack of food, Ayi collapsed and hurt himself. The airport’s Executive Vice President Alexander Cauguiran, has been a steadfast pillar of support. Cauguiran not only shelled out his own money to help the stranded Ghanaian but transferred him to the more comfortable Fire Department that was outside the main terminal. The seldom used conference room has become Ayi’s living quarters where he passes time by devouring books and magazines while listening to reggae music.

The 49-man strong Emergency Services Department of the airport have “adopted” Ayi as one of their own. They not only share with him their food but they keep him company as well. Says Virgilio Gatdula, a fire fighter for 10 years now, “Gusto namin dalhin sa bahay kahit ilang araw lang kaso hindi pwede gawa ng expired passport niya.” Everyday, Ayi volunteers to help wash the cars or fire engines. “It’s the only way I can repay them for their help,” he smiles. “If this were another country, I would be in a jail cell.”

The rest of the Emergency Services Department watches Ayi’s odyssey with great interest. For many of them, it’s their first look up close with a footballer. Football doesn’t even excite them. But during the recent ASEAN Cup Qualifiers in Bacolod where the Philippine National Team made it to the Finals after a stirring three-game win skein, everyone shared in the 19 year-old’s enthusiasm for the sport.

Despite the period of inactivity, Ayi looks at this temporary setback as “one of life’s challenges,” as he likes to say. “I treat it like I just suffered an injury.”

He trains twice a day – one in the early morning and one in mid-afternoon. The firemen are amazed. “We train hard,” says one fireman. “But when we see Ayi – he runs from 3pm until it gets dark – umiiling kami. Hindi namin kaya yung ginagawa niya na takbo ng takbo.”

Ayi’s training is confined to the tarmac behind the fire station with the majestic Mt. Arayat in the background. Every time he steps out of the fire station, there is a security guard nearby – a grim reminder of his confinement. It is also here in the tarmac where he sometimes gets to play pick-up football games with visiting well-wishers particularly Manila-based club Union F.C. which has championed the Ghanaian’s plight. People have brought him books one of which is a Filipino-English dictionary to help him understand the language better. Ateneo De Manila has likewise considered giving the young footballer a scholarship and chance to play for the Blue Booters.

Last November 18, Ayi celebrated his 19th birthday in the company of a few well-wishers. For his first Noche Buena, he shared a simple meal with the firemen on duty. But his long-delayed birthday and Christmas gift has come in the form of a plane ticket via United Arab Emirates (that was paid for by Union FC) that will take him back to Accra this coming December 30.

“This is a wonderful wonderful country,” beams the young African who heaved a huge sigh of relief at the sudden turn of fortunes. “Everyone has been so helpful and friendly from the start. In that Tom Hanks’ movie, he (Hanks’ character) doesn’t want to leave the Terminal because he knows he will be arrested. But in my case, I know I will be free. Now it’s getting back my life again. I will finally get to play football again. And I know I will be back because this is truly a great nation and I will never forget what the people here have done for me.”

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