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.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Loyola Meralco Sparks in Singapore

The Loyola Meralco Sparks disembark from the shuttle right outside the team hotel in Singapore.

The Loyola Meralco Sparks in Singapore
Part 1: Hope
by rick olivares

May 16, 2012
The call time for the Loyola Meralco Sparks was at 4am at Terminal Three of NAIA. Midfielder Jake Morallo arrived early and decided to sit on a trolley near the entrance so his teammates could spot him as they arrived.

The dynamic midfielder hails from Dumaguete but studied and played for Norman Fegidero at West Negros University. If Morallo was one of Bacolod’s best-kept secrets, he certainly made a splash in the 2011 Suzuki Under-23 National Cup as he was a part of the team that routinely destroyed teams en route to the trophy. With the Sparks, he has all the more come to national prominence with some clubs hoping to sign him away from Loyola soon.

In spite of the early call time, Morallo was wide-eyed and couldn’t contain his excitement. It wasn’t simply a trip abroad but the Sparks were competing in a foreign club tournament. “Sana manalo,” he said sounding somewhat unsure.

No one really knew of the opposition. For years, Philippine teams had been taking it on the chin from other national squads. The sports had made tremendous strides in terms of popularity and quality back home. This is where everyone got to see how the clubs have developed.

The team streams in at first, one at a time then in bunches. The team then makes its way to the ticket counter where they are given a special lane in order to accommodate the personnel and the loads of equipment brought in.

It isn’t solely Morallo who is excited. Matthew Hartmann, suspended by the Philippine Football Federation for issues stemming from the 2011 SEA Games is suiting up on a technicality. The suspension did not cover foreign matches as the federation forgot to include the Asian Football Confederation.

“I hope to contribute,” he chimed in. Ditto with midfielder Simon Greatwich who will be playing his first game with Loyola.

Surely hope and optimism are genuinely evident in the squad. On loan midfielder Anto Gonzales brims with a megawatt smile despite the earliness. While waiting for other teammates, the rest of the Sparks go up to the food court to grab some chow. Talk centers on recent UFL and NBA matches as well as the recent brawl in NAIA between a couple of celebrities and a newspaper columnist. Goalkeeper Ref Cuaresma, back from a coaching seminar in Malaysia is cracking jokes.

Cuaresma’s horsing around continues when the Sparks learn that their flight is delayed. He falls to the floor as if he has fainted. People snap pictures of the ‘unconscious’ player.
With Master Kim at Changi.

The players, led by Phil Younghusband, gather around head coach Kim Chul Su to examine his tie and the Loyola Meralco Sparks crest that has been sewn onto his long sleeved polo shirt. The Korean coach is known for being nattily dressed even in the stifling and humid tropical heat. The coach smiles.

“I wonder how many ties coach has packed with him,” wonders aloud the team’s striker.

“One for breakfast, one for lunch, there’s one for every occasion,” jokes forward Mark Hartmann.

“Master Kim” as the coach is fondly called has made the Philippines his home for eight years now. His English remains a tough challenge. “I’m shy,” he offers. Kim once attended a coaching seminar in England but because of the accents, he had a hard time understanding what was being said. But once on the field with formations being drawn on the board, he understood. “The accents – he says of the Younghusband and Hartmann brothers – are sometimes hard to understand…”

The Korean talks about his football philosophies that he has imbued his Far Eastern University teams with. He has done the same with the Sparks but not exactly the way he wants it. “It will take time,” he says noting that he has been with Loyola for less than a year. “Maybe soon.”

Now unleashed from his shyness, he talks about Barcelona’s tiki taka, Manchester City’s incredible Premier League finish, and Philippine football. His English may stop him but like everyone else thus far, he is animated and hopeful.

The trip is long and largely uneventful which is really how flights should be. The only difference is when Phil Younghusband is asked to invite the passengers to watch the match by Loyola on Friday.

Cebu Pacific flight 5J801 touches down at Changi at exactly 10:05. While going through immigration, Hyo Il Kim, one of the Korean midfielders on the team is hoping to see more of Changi. The airport was recently named the world’s best airport but since the team was in the budget terminal the main airport will not be seen.

Inside the team shuttle ribbing the Korean players.

The presence of the Korean, Fil-Brits, Europeans, and Africans on the team has created a new dynamic in the squad. Formerly an alumni team of Ateneo, there are now only two from the school left in the squad – defenders Patrick Ozaeta and Dexter Versario (although team management and the coaching staff are largely alumni from Loyola Heights based school).

On the shuttle to Santa Grand East Coast Hotel where the team will be billeted, Master Kim and the other Sparks rib Hyo and Byeong Yeol Jeong. Over lunch where room assignments are handed out, the two Korean players are separated and they both cheerily protest. “No!” pleads Hyo who gesticulates to emphasize his points as their teammates crack up in laughter. “Together.”

Belay Fernando, acting as team manager as Woowee Evangelista will be unable to join the team because of work, asks Master Kim who smiles and laughs at the ‘predicament’ of his fellow countrymen.

After lunch, most players go to the room to get some badly needed rest. Midfielder Davide Cortina goes with his fiancée, Belle Nayve, who works with the club, to Queensway to purchase some boots along with defender Roxy Dorlas.

Cortina sold his restaurant in Italy to move to Germany where he met Nayve. And n their travels, the couple moved to the Philippines. Once Cortina saw the burgeoning football scene, he joined a club. The Italian, quickly noticeable being his long hair is tied in ponytail, is quiet and reserved. He is rooming with Dorlas, who hails from the Hague, Netherlands.

Practice is at 5pm at the Jalan Basar Stadium where the team will play Geylang United in Friday’s first round match-up.

Call time at the hotel lobby is at 4pm, but well ahead of the time, the Younghusband brothers make their way there for a quick meeting with Chelsea Singapore officials. Even abroad, they are clearly recognizable as the face not just of the Sparks but the resurgence of Philippine football. They both confess to enjoying accommodating these requests. “It wasn’t so long ago that we had to beg for attention for the sport,” said James. “We want to keep the attention of football.”

Goalkeeping coach Dang Cecilio is already down feeling recharged by the short nap. When asked of Loyola’s chances, Cecilio makes no bones of the match-up with bottom dwelling Geylang. “We will not leave anything to chance,” he notes in Filipino. “We will respect them but play them hard. We have a chance to move on.”

While the rest of the team has yet to come down, the lobby is filed with players from Phnom Penh Crown. Earlier, I had a long talk with my counterpart, Andy Brouwer, an Englishman who has made Cambodia his home and is the team’s media officer. He keeps tabs on the Philippines and is glad for the chat.

The Phnom Penh Crown players over lunch beg team management for a change in their backroom staff when they see team’s female staff -- Belay Fernando and the team’s physiologist – reveals Brouwer. “They got excited and asked for a change in the backroom staff.”

I met the Cambodian team’s coach, Englishman Dave Booth, during a FIFA seminar early this year, where I was asked to give a talk about establishing media relations. Booth, who has been in Asia for a long time looks relaxed. “We’re only facing Tampines,” he dryly says of tonight’s match-up. The Cambodians are up against the Singapore side Tampines Rovers who boast of noted scoring machine Alexsandar Duric.

“Good luck,” I bid Booth and Brouwer.

“We’re going to need it,” says Brouwer as their team gets on the bus for long ride to Clementi Stadium that is on the other side of the island nation.

That evening, Phnom Penh Crown, long time under achievers in regional club football, gain a measure of respect as they take the fight to the Singaporeans and only lose after a late Duric goal, 4-3.

Part of the Loyola Meralco Sparks' equipment.

With Phnom Penh Crown's Media Officer, Andy Brouwer at the hotel lobby. Andy pens the incredible so go check that out.
The Younghusband brothers in discussion with Singaporean sports journalist Colin Pereira (who I met while covering the 201 Suzuki Cup and he remembered me being chased by some Indonesian fans for wearing a Philippine jersey) and  Chelsea FC's Felise Low, Marketing Manager for Asia Pacific.


  1. Nice write up. Keep it up!

  2. I'm watching the match tomorrow in Jalan Besar with my friends! Best of luck to the Sparks!