SAN FRANCISCO—The Azkals had a good week this week. After losing to North Korea, they came back to win against India 2-0.
But that’s not the only big story about the famous Philippine football team which has helped ignite interest in the sport in the country.
It’s international women’s month, and in an odd twist, the Azkals are marking the occasion by wrestling with allegations of sexual harassment and crude behavior toward women.
That’s certainly bad news.
The allegations were made by Cristy Ramos, former head of the Philippine Olympic Committee and a one-time national football player herself. (She also happens to be the daughter of former President Fidel Ramos.)
Ramos’s complaint was aimed mainly at players Angel Guirado and Lexton Moy. As reported in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, she also had strong words against team captain James Younghusband whom she accused of not doing enough to discipline his teammates.
“He didn’t do anything to his teammates,” Ramos was quoted as saying. “I hope he teaches his players to behave well.”
I first heard of Ramos from my cousin Butchie Impelido, the North America scout for the Malditas, as the Philippine women’s national team members are called.
He said Ramos didn’t like the name “malditas.” Essentially, he said, she thought it was demeaning to the Filipinas. But the name has stuck and the team has moved on.
I’ve been told by a source Ramos is a pretty controversial figure in Philippine football circles. Apparently, she rubs some people the wrong way. And she certainly has struck a nerve with her complaint, provoking some pretty harsh attacks on Twitter.
But I’ll say this: Anyone who takes the trouble to consider the way the country’s female athletes and women in general are portrayed deserves to be heard.
Anyone who would have the guts to publicly take on a team like the Azkals, who have become a group of male folk heroes in a macho-obsessed culture like ours deserves to be taken seriously.
Moy, one of the Azkals players she accused of behaving badly, put out a statement, calling Ramos’s complaint “a heartbreaking misunderstanding.”
“It deeply saddens me that such a misinterpretation can be so painstakingly blown out of proportion. I cannot wait for the truth to come out, as I am being wrongfully labeled, judged and criticized,” he said.
The suggestion is that Ramos made up or perhaps imagined the bad behavior she said she encountered, including Moy allegedly asking her about her bra size. One source familiar with the team said it had all been a misunderstanding. Well, hopefully, it is.
Especially since the recent controversy follows last year’s rape allegations against some team members. That too, was portrayed by this source as “a misunderstanding”—though the explanation wasn’t exactly reassuring—that the allegations shouldn’t be taken seriously because they were made by a woman some team members portrayed as a slut.
Which brings us back to the twisted machismo that may be at the heart of the Azkals’ image problem. There are some encouraging signs that the team’s leadership gets it.
“This issue has taught players how even a small thing can lead to a huge and painful misunderstanding, and they now want to take extra measures to avoid a similar future occurrence and see what we can do to help champion gender rights,” team manager Dan Palami was quoted as saying in the Philippine Star.
Government officials, led by Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman, are focusing on the fact that the Azkals being composed of Filipinos who were raised in the U.S. and Europe. I don’t completely buy that argument.
Had Moy, who is from New York, behaved in the way he allegedly behaved in the United States, he would have been in deep trouble with his team and the American public. As my cousin Butchie, whose daughters played for a university in Illinois, noted, in the U.S. even college players must undergo forms of gender sensitivity courses.
Instead, I’d argue that this incident is about young men who enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity and prominence in a culture in which male star athletes sometimes think they can pretty much get away with anything — and who badly needed to be reminded that all that fame and attention comes with responsibility.
I’m writing this as one of many overseas Filipinos who want the Azkals to succeed.
My own sons aren’t into football (or soccer as it’s called in the U.S.) But I know many Filipino soccer moms and dads who would certainly be proud to have their children play for the Philippines. My own cousin Butchie pushed hard to have two of his daughters play for the women’s national team.
But this isn’t just about overseas Filipinos, or Fil-foreigners as they are also called. At the end of the day, this is about helping the growth of Philippine football, about encouraging more young kids throughout the archipelago to become excited about the world’s most popular sport.
The Azkals have played an important role in this change. They deserve a lot of credit. The presence of foreign-born Pinoy players also helped expand our definition of Filipino at a time when our overseas communities are growing steadily.
But the Azkals must now take every effort to project pretty much a spotless public image. It’s their responsibility.
Cristy Ramos may not be the most popular figure in Philippine sports right now, but I really think she just gave the Azkals a much-needed jolt.
And this whole mess may turn out to be just a minor bump in the road.
Fifteen maybe 10 years from now, when the Philippines is an even more formidable force in football, when the sport has become even more popular in the archipelago thanks to the successes of the Azkals, we will hopefully remember this incident as just a sad footnote in the team’s storied history.
On Twitter @KuwentoPimentel. On Facebook at www.facebook.com/benjamin.pimentel