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.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Bleachers' Brew #188 Black Star Rising

Black Star Rising

words and pics by rick olivares

Ayi Nii Aryee grew up in Accra, Ghana dreaming of becoming a football star like his countryman Michael Essien, who has been a mainstay in the midfield of the Black Stars (as the country’s team is called) and with Chelsea FC for quite some time now. His path to stardom and Europe first went through Asia, Singapore in particular, where he was brought by an agent. Except that the contract and working papers were non-existent.

To cut a long story short, he flew out to Manila to link up with an uncle living in Cavite for assistance but while in transit, his passport expired forcing him to live in the Terminal of the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport at the Clark Special Economic Zone in Pampanga for almost four months. It was like the Tom Hanks movie The Terminal had come to town for a reality series.

I heard about his plight through Peter Amores, a friend in the local football community whose local club Union FC was helping him out. I was working with Solar Sports at that time and not only saw a possible story but also a way to help. I brought it out in our sports news show Sports Desk and in a series of articles in Business Mirror. He was also featured in the British football magazine Four Four Two. In that process, we became friends and I would occasionally make the trip to Pampanga to bring him food and keep him company.

It was never easy living first in the terminal then at a room in the airport’s fire department. It was a daily battle against boredom, forced solitude, and dashed hopes and he tried to keep sane by reading, jogging, and kicking the ball around by his lonesome as both firemen and police kept him under close surveillance (how he can be a threat to national security I have no idea).

Union FC chipped in to help send him home after a couple of false starts, Aryee was able to go back home.

Except that it didn’t end there. He was falsely informed that he had a slot in the Ateneo Men’s Football Team. And knowing enough that it wasn’t true I tried to dissuade him but someone once more paid for his trip. I wondered how lightning could strike twice under the same circumstances. Unlike last time where he was stranded at the airport this time he came in with the correct papers except that he didn’t have a football team to play for. But he did have a place to stay as Dr. Rafael Rodriguez, himself a former football player took him in while his status was sorted out.

Football is a popular sport here in the Philippines yet unlike basketball the scene, it is fragmented and it doesn’t look like much. If there’s a barometer of a sport’s viability here in the country it is the existence of a professional league. And there are none save for basketball. Football here is the national team and weekend warrior leagues that pay PhP500 per game that everyone has to keep their day job. Grassroots programs are a joke because they only train at the low level when there isn’t anything to move up to after college.

Ayi did train with Ateneo on a couple of separate occasions but the coaching staff feared that the two-year residency period would disinterest him and that his papers would not be fixed in time. I did advise him to go to La Salle where nothing turned up. From there, he was steered to the University of the Philippines under former coach Vanni Tolentino who took him in.

It wasn’t easy to sit out two years while playing on UP’s Team B and non-UAAP tournaments. It was in Ang Liga and the Uni-Games where he gave a glimpse of his talent.

In an Ang Liga game versus Ateneo, he blasted home a shot from just a little past midfield that made a wicked curve past keeper Tyrone Caballes, now a teammate at UP, who thought the ball was going out of bounds. He scored a hat trick in an incredible shootout that saw that match end at 5-5. He repeated another of those devastating long bombs later this year when Aryee sent another screaming volley from close to the touch line while going out of bounds that found the back of the net. Those are world-class goals that not many players here can do.

As promising he was on the pitch, he felt a certain desperation that he was thousands of miles from where his dreams lay. Someone offered to get him a tryout in France while another opportunity to suit up for a club in Macau presented itself. The latter seemed the best opportunity to play pro ball but his mother threatened and cajoled him into getting a college degree at UP. She believed that there was a reason why his journey had taken him to the Philippines and that he should find his way through here. After that stern dressing down, he decided to stay, get a degree in UP and play college football. For now.

He remains dogged in his pursuit of a career in Europe or even Asia. At night, he goes with his African friends to watch games in bars. On weekends, when he doesn’t suit up for Union, he gives clinics for kids. He knows his way around Manila now and no longer gets fooled by unscrupulous cab drivers who try to overcharge him (they drop their demands when they find out that he can speak and understand Filipino). He’s gone to Bacolod, Dumaguete, Iloilo, and Boracay. He counts adobo and sinigang na baboy as some of his favorite dishes. He is at home now in UP and no longer feels the sting of racism. He enjoys the company of his teammates and school life.

With the UAAP football tournament slated to start January 17, 2010, there was one last hurdle to overcome. Two schools, Ateneo and La Salle questioned Ayi’s eligibility to suit up for UP, the defending champions. I found it particularly surprising if not in bad taste more so since they had the opportunity to get him to suit up. A friend even wondered why back then I even advised him to go to La Salle something that raised my eyebrows – this is a life of a person we are talking about and it goes far beyond school loyalties.

Personally, I look forward to him playing and scoring those incredible goals of his. While most play for school glory, Ayi Nii Aryee is playing not just to defend his school’s title but also to keep a dream alive and who am I to stand in his way.

Check out some stuff I wrote about Ayi before:

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