This appears in the May 30, 2011 edition of the Business Mirror.
The game of life
by rick olivares
“Ano magbabago na ba kayo ng buhay?”
The entire van cracked up with laughter as Rudy del Rosario deadpanned his players from the P #262hilippine Homeless World Cup Team with a poker face. The team was entering the Bureau of Corrections in Muntinlupa City. The lads who are headed for Paris in August of this year to compete in the Homeless World Cup were playing a friendly against the Puzakals, a team of football playing inmates from the Medium Security Compound at Bilibid.
As the two teams lined up for the 11-a-side match, at the Sunken Garden of the New Bilibid Prison, the stark contrast between them was not lost on me. On one side, the HWC team is on a second lease of life so to speak. The boys are given the opportunity to be put in a program that will not only enable them to play the game but to represent the Philippines, continue their education, and find work once their playing days are done. On the other side, the Puzakals, who are incarcerated for 20 years and under for a variety of offenses including murder, robbery, kidnapping, drug pushing, and other crimes are put in a rehabilitation program to get back in the real world.
“Pagnatalo namin kayo, kami pupunta ng Paris,” jokes one Puzakal. There’s more laughter.
The composition of the Philippine Homeless World Cup Team is of boys who have runaway from home, are dirt poor as they literally live on the streets, or have been abandoned. In other nations, the definition of “homeless” can vary. It can be that someone sleeping in a friend’s couch is considered homeless.
Because of our Asian size, they aren’t physically imposing. Nevertheless, what they lack in height and strength they make up with their fighting heart. And in last year’s Homeless World Cup in Rio, Brazil, they won eight of 11 matches in the best showing yet.
“The Azkals are ranked 150-something in the world by FIFA,” further deadpans del Rosario. “The HWC team is 25th in the world in street soccer. The Puzakals are number one… in Munti.”
Archie Bueno, a former national team teammate of Del Rosario who once played for the University of Santo Tomas, loosely formed the Puzakals two years ago. The prison management welcomed the football program as a part of their rehabilitation program and they were formally organized a year later. Today the team has 21 players in its roster including a British national who is also serving time in a Philippine jail.
When an inmate enters prison, he is instantly hit with a tidal wave of negative emotions. Is this the end of the world? Tapos na ang buhay ko kasi mabubulok ako rito. Wala na akong pagasa.
Bueno, who is in for a variety of drug-related offenses, waxes sentimental in the midst of the football fever sweeping the Sunken Garden pitch. This is the second time he has been cut off from his comfort zone. The first time was when he left Barotac Nuevo, Iloilo to play in Manila. “Wala akong kilala,” he says suddenly growing pensive. “Ayun kung ano ano pinagagawa ko.”
Chris Araneta, one of the Puzakals is in for a variety of crimes. He comes from a good family in Cebu but in the recklessness and utmost foolishness of youth, he got caught up in all sorts of wrongdoings; most of which belie his peaceful appearance. The moment he was locked in he felt his world cave in. “Kapag sinimulan niya ikwento buhay niya,” says a prison official about Araneta. “Iisipin mo, akala ko sa pelikula lang.”
“Ganyan talaga,” sums up Bueno. “Nasa huli ang pagsisi.”
His voice trails off. Life behind prison walls has been hard. He has been cut off from his loved ones and the simple things he used to take for granted such as going out at night with friends or even going to a movie. Even now when the Puzakals are playing football in a pitch with no walls, he is still boxed in. There are armed guards in every corner of the field.
I spoke with one guard. “So far wala pa naman sumubok tumakbo.” His automatic rifle is on safety but his finger is near the trigger.
All the members of the Puzakals have some footballing experience. “Para mas madali turuan,” says Bueno who once played striker but now is his team’s playmaker.
Education. Every one of the members of the Puzakals is in the prison’s education system.
Before they are accepted, the inmates have to go through screening. And then they have to renounce their loyalty to their respective jail gangs.
“The only gang I have here,” pronounces Dr. Resureccion Morales, Chief of the Training and Education Division of New Bilibid Prison, “is the educational system.”
All inmates are free to enroll in an education program very similar to the outside world. There’s basic all the way to secondary and tertiary. And when they graduate, it’s replete with the graduation ceremony down to the toga and diploma. The educational system is an affiliate of the University of Perpetual Help.
For Bueno, there is no more sacrosanct covenent inside jail than school and football. “Two things that I took completely for granted,” he laments in a mixture of English and Filipino. “Now I am graduated from college and I get to play football.”
In the match’s opening minutes, Bueno deftly lays a throughball for a teammate that is consummated with a goal. The speed is gone due to inactivity and the ravages of drugs and time. But the skill, it is still there for all to see. For two hours, he gets to reclaim a piece of his own life.