With less than two weeks to go until Christmas, I reflected on my relationship with beggars, easily the most recognizable sign of poverty in the newly industrialized Philippine Republic.

While it is fact that nearly all beggars live terribly difficult lives, I have always felt that a significant proportion of these people are either criminals who are looking for a quick way to fill their pockets or naive people who feel that it is the only way they can eke out an existence in the difficult and more complex times we all face.

When I was a kid, I heard the harrowing story of criminal syndicates who would abduct children and force them to serve as beggars in order to line their own pockets. In certain cases, they were forcibly maimed to make them look more pitiful and elicit passers-by and their pity. Either way, these young souls would end up living and dying by these evil hands who controlled them like puppets on strings.

Then there are those who take to being beggars simply because they are unwilling to work for an honest living. They would rather prey on the sympathies of total strangers and sell off their dignity for a measly amount than live a more honorable life by working at whatever job comes their way. They expect that if they look pitiful enough and elicit more tears than the last, they will get handouts without fail.

With that in mind, I have always looked up to the humble vendors who sell cigarettes, candies, sampaguita garlands, newspapers and even “street food” such as fishballs and barbecues. Somehow, that they attempt to earn a more honest living by actually working to offer products and services is a source of respect since it shows their willingness to do more to be more in the world.

And finally, many of the poor people who end up in the streets and shanties come from the provinces hoping for instant success and wealth in the big city. Alas, they often end up in an existence even worse than their old lives back in their native lands.

In these cases, it helps to realize that life in the city can easily swallow you up unless you have the willpower and the right connections to help you around. Oh, if only they realized how gigantic the step from the rural backdrop to the urban scene can truly be.

Life has not always gotten easier, and the continued existence of beggars is proof of this concept.

Again, I have nothing against beggars in general. And poverty itself has many causative factors such as corrupt governance, unequal distribution of resources, violation of human rights and outmoded cultural practices. It is just that now and then, a so-called “street rat” has proven time and again that with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work, he can rise well above his old way of life and become great in his own right. And there will always be people who are willing to lend that helping hand, if only they (yes, many of those so-called “beggars”) would help themselves.

*****

Recently, the Philippines got another shot of national pride when the national football (soccer) team advanced to the semi-finals of the Asian Football Federation Suzuki Cup tournament with a scoreless draw against Myanmar (Burma), which was good enough considering the team’s good points standing in the group division. Along the way, they surprised many by besting defending champions Vietnam 2-0 in a group match to push themselves into the quarterfinals. While the country is known for having produced some globally recognized athletes, the strong performance of the unheralded “Azkals” (short for “asong kalye” or “street dogs” in local lingo) was a pleasant surprise in a nation known for its basketball and pool mania.

However, after Philippine Football Federation president Jose Mari Martinez reportedly turned down an invitation by the tournament organizers to host the semifinal match against Indonesia due to the lack of a “suitable venue”, things got ugly very quickly.

The head of the national team decried the decision, saying that they had not been consulted before the decision was made. They admitted that while the team’s home stadium in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental was not exactly at par with the likes of Wembley Stadium, they felt that it was a chance for the home crowd to watch them in action and cheer them on with each effort. They even said that with a bit of sprucing up, the venue could still be good enough for regional tournaments such as this.

In addition, they revealed that they did not receive any support from the Philippine Football Federation, and it was through a generous private donor that they were able to join the tournament and make it this far in the competition. They claimed they never even received a single call or text message from the national federation, and that it was unfair that the federation claimed the glory for bringing the team to the competition and supporting them.

While the immediate fame has been cast on the not-so-popular sport of football, the real casualty in all this is the sorry state of Philippine sports.

Many of the national sports federations focus merely on the politicking and jockeying for key positions in getting their “share” of the annual budgets, while athletes are often left to their own devices to train in sub par conditions with lacking equipment and other resources. To make matters worse, trips to international competitions are often overshadowed by the massive delegations of non-athletes looking to get a free pass to a place abroad and the perks that go with these out-of-country endeavors. So not being picturesque moments of Filipino pride, these end up being serious sources of shame.

Phil Younghusband, who played with English Premier League club Chelsea, scored one of two winning goals in the Azkals' upset victory over Vietnam in the AFF Suzuki Cup.

It is in times like these that I thank the heavens for athletes like Manny Pacquiao, Efren “Bata” Reyes, Phil and James Younghusband, Elma Muros, Eugene Torre and more who prove that the Filipino athlete can be among the world’s best despite the squalid condition that our national and many of our regional sports programs are in.

I previously made a case for football being the team sport which could put the country on the map long after many of our current crop of superstar athletes have faded well away. With their impressive performance at the ongoing AFF Suzuki Cup, the proof I have sought may have finally arrived.

Four-time World Cup of Bowling champion Rafael “Paeng” Nepomuceno once said that the greatest honor any athlete can compete for is for flag and country. It would be wonderful if we all acted like true athletes. Imagine where we would be now.

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