EMELIO Caligdong refuses to do the rainbow flick.
To the unaware, it’s when you roll the ball up one leg then use the other leg to flick it up above your head and that of your opponent’s. Executed properly, this move certainly draws raves as it shows a high level of skill and a dash of flair. It’s certainly an exciting trick that pumps up any sports fan. But for the man called Chieffy, it’s unnecessary — even for a photo shoot.
“Wala naman sa football ‘yan eh,” Caligdong, vice-captain of our national football team (aka the Philippine Azkals), says. You get the impression that he’s all business when it comes to his sport — a stark contrast to how he plays the game.
His masterful footwork on the pitch is nothing but dazzling. And who can forget that nutmeg goal he scored against Mongolia in Bacolod last year for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC ) Challenge Cup qualifiers? You wouldn’t be wrong in thinking he plays with flamboyance after watching him at an Azkals or a Philippine Air Force game in the United Football League (UFL) and that he carries that persona off the field. But an up-close meeting with the man himself clears all assumptions.
The 30-year-old winger for the Azkals arrives at our meeting place with no posse, having driven there alone. He sits in a corner, silently waiting for the shoot crew to set up. You can see his discomfort once he takes his spot in between the lights. This is a rare breed of Azkal — unlike his more celebrated teammates. At the mention of his mug on buses and billboards, Caligdong chuckles as if he was embarassed about it. He also doesn’t give generic showbiz-type answers — his responses are short and to the point. Azkals coach Hans Michael Weiss once said in an interview for www.affsuzukicup.com that if Caligdong had learned football in Germany or England, the latter would have been one of the best booters there — and the guy just takes the compliment in stride.
“Siguro kung ano ako ngayon as a football player, mga times three lang madadagdag sa skills ko,” Caligdong says. “Tataas siguro ang confidence, skills, at talent ko, pero mas maraming magagaling sa Europe. Proud lang ako na dito ako natuto mag-football kasi hindi lahat ng tao nakakasali sa national team. Sa akin, it’s an honor na nakasali ako sa team.”
When the conversation turns to the football roots that developed his ambition to play for flag and country, he beams with pride. And why shouldn’t he? Caligdong hails from Barotac Nuevo, Iloilo — considered the football capital of the Philippines. Rumor has it that, unlike any other town in the country, Barotac Nuevo has just one basketball court and it’s rarely used to play hoops. Caligdong is quick to clarify that people do play basketball there. “Pero walang tournament, walang liga. Pag summer, ang liga football.”
Any kid growing up there can’t help but play football. It’s a tradition passed on from generation to generation — that football is more than a sport; it’s a way of life. “Pag pumunta kang school o palengke, madadaanan mo ang football field. Maeengganyo ka maglaro talaga,” explains Caligdong, who started playing at the age of five. The youngest of 10 children, he says he learned the game from his brothers and honed his skills by spending hours playing seven-a-side games.
“Kung pwede lang doon matulog sa field eh,” recalls Caligdong. “Kung hindi available ang plaza, sa palayan kami maglalaro. Gawa lang kami ng goals, isang maliit na square, football na.”
It’s through his chosen sport that Caligdong sought to build his future — playing varsity football in high school and college to help him finish his studies. At the time, there was no means to make a career out of football, but he played on with one goal in mind.
“Simula nung bata pa ako, ang goal ko sa buhay ay maging isang team captain ng national team,” Caligdong says. “Di ko iniisip na makilala sa football, maging member lang ng team at maging captain. Confident kasi ako na balang araw makikilala rin ang Philippine football. Kaya nagtiyaga talaga ako.”
The hard work he put into playing through the youth program of the national team didn’t go unnoticed. The Philippine Air Force recruited him, and his impressive showing in the AFP-PNP Olympics opened the door for him to join the men’s team in 2004. And the team earned one historic achievement after another right as he joined it.
Caligdong debuted during the 2004 Tiger Cup, which would eventually be known the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup and which, even now, is held every two years to determine the football championship in the Southeast Asian region. His two goals against Timor Leste gave the Philippines its first win in the tournament. Soon afterward, the team began recruiting foreign-born players with Filipino blood, and the Azkals phenomenon followed after their historic semifinal stint at the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup.
The Azkals made the second leg of World Cup qualifiers for the first time in Philippine history last year. Caligdong also won the Golden Boot, scoring the most goals in the 2011 Long Teng Cup in Taiwan. This March, they won third place in the AFC Challenge Cup. And recently, they won an international tournament, the Philippine Football Peace Cup — a feat last achieved by a Philippine team in 1913.
Philippine football is at an all-time high, and Caligdong says the future is even brighter. “Malayo pa ang mararating ng Azkals lalo at maraming interesadong pumasok na mga batang player,” he says. But he stresses the importance of the support the team gets from fans and the country’s football heads. “Kailangan lang may grassroots program na continuous. Importante kasi ang pag-build ng communication sa team, at habang mas bata nadedevelop ‘yun, mas maganda. Para habang malakas ang senior team mo, ang youth team lumalakas din.”
Caligdong is at the forefront of this movement. Globe Telecom named him one of their sports ambassadors; he leads their sports development and advancement campaign to promote football as a national sport. He also holds the Chieffy Caligdong Football Festival in Barotac Nuevo every February. “Doon ako naghahanap ng players na pwede ko ma-recommend sa national team baling araw,” he says. “Ang plano ko is to encourage the young generation na maglaro ng football at mabigyang pansin ang local talents.”
But his reasons for taking an active role in this program go deeper than just scouting for future prospects. “Marami [akong] matutulungang kabataan sa provinces na gustong maglaro ng football,” says Caligdong.
“Hinahalintulad ko ang sarili ko sa kanila, na ‘wag nila isiping hindi kaya. Galing din ako sa hirap. Galing din ako sa nakapaa maglaro. [At] gusto ko maging inspiration sa kanila. Hindi lang sa pagiging football player. Makita lang nila ang tiwala sa sarili nila.” Self-confidence, he says, is important if anybody aims to succeed on the pitch or beyond. “Test yourself palagi, always aim for the top,” Caligdong says. “Kasi ‘pag iisipin mo talo ka na at hindi pa naguumpisa ang laban, eh, talo ka na, ‘di ba?”
This is the Barotac Nuevo mentality — in any challenge, losing is not acceptable. Caligdong learned to live and breathe it in his early days of playing football. “Kahit saan kami pumunta, lahat ng pupuntahan namin homecourt namin,” he says. “Sayang naman sabihin na football capital of the Philippines, tapos natatalo. So para sa amin sa Barotac, ‘yun ang nakatanim sa mga susunod sa yapak namin. Hindi pwedeng matalo.”
It’s a principle he applies to his personal life as well, that whatever odds may be against him, he always aims to come out on top. This includes, for instance, his family’s planned migration to Texas, where his wife will practice her profession as a registered nurse.
It’s a move that seemingly signals the end of Caligdong’s football career, but he quickly cites examples of fellow Azkals who play for the team despite being based abroad. He’s also ready with a plan for making things work for his family while still doing his part in furthering Philippine football’s present and future. “Siguro pwedeng mauna sila, tapos susunod ako,” he says. “Mahihirapan din akong mawala ang football sa buhay ko kaya may options ako. May plan A, plan B, plan C, depende sa magandang opportunities na darating para makatulong sa family ko.”
Caligdong will still compete in this year’s AFF Suzuki Cup, which starts on November 24 and where the Azkals plan to surpass their previous fourth place finish. After the tournament, he says, his personal plans will be clearer. One thing’s for certain, though: he won’t be hanging up his cleats, even after the Suzuki Cup.
“Wala namang matanda sa football player,” he shares. “Kahit 40 ka, pwede hangga’t kaya mong makisabay. Kung nakita ko naman na hindi ko na kaya makipagsabayan, it’s better to give way. Pero habang ngayong kaya pa, pwede pa.” And watching him run tirelessly from end to end every time he’s on the pitch, there’s no doubt Caligdong’s days as one of our top dogs — er, Azkals — are far from over.
(This article 1st appeared in the Core, Mind section of Men's Health November 2012 issue, for more info check them at: https://www.facebook.com/menshealthphilippines)