ILOILO CITY?As the World Cup fever nears its climax in South Africa, basketball-crazy Filipinos should know that they have a hero to inspire them to switch to football as a national passion.
And it?s not the great Pelé of Brazil, Argentinian legend Diego Maradona or the current world top player Lionel Messi, also of Argentina, or heartthrob Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal.
Long before these heroes burst into the global football scene, there was Iloilo-born Paulino Alcantara.
Alcantara, born to a Spanish military officer and an Ilongga mother on Oct. 7, 1896, is considered to be one of the sport?s legends, especially in Spain.
While he is largely unknown to Filipinos and even Ilonggos, he is revered in the world football community with tributes and memorial sites devoted to him in the Internet.
??He may be unknown even to the young players, but he is an icon to many of us,? said Pablito Araneta, also from Iloilo and former vice president of the Philippine Football Federation (PFF), which groups around 35 football associations in the country.
Alcantara scored an astonishing 357 goals in as many games played, or an average of one goal per game, as a striker of the Futbol Club Barcelona (Barcelona Football Club) where he played from 1912 to 1927, according to the club?s website.
He also helped Barcelona, one of the top clubs in the current Spanish league, win five Spanish championships and 10 Catalan League championships, the first professional football league in Spain during that period.
His strength was legendary. Medium built and lacking the physique of a professional athlete, he, nevertheless, earned the title ?El Romperedes (Net Breaker)? on April 30, 1922, after a powerful kick 35 yards from the goal ripped the net in a game between Spain and France.
??For many years after, children from Barcelona would recall that moment and would wish to do the same as the man from the Philippines,? according to Alcantara?s profile in the FC Barcelona website.
Except for online accounts, however, there is little information on Alcantara and his family.
Araneta said a research conducted by PFF in 2007 during the commemoration of the centennial of Philippine football showed that Alcantara?s father was a Spanish military officer stationed in Iloilo. Other accounts identified his mother as surnamed Riestrá.
No official records
Ilonggo historian and lawyer Rex Salvilla said he has not come across official records of Alcantara and his family, which could explain why he is not well known among Ilonggos.
Salvilla noted that Alcantara was only 2 years old during the Philippine Revolution in 1898. His father, being a Spanish official, could have gone home and brought his family to avoid imprisonment or could have surrendered before taking his family with him to Spain, Salvilla said.
But according to various accounts posted in the website www.world-football-legends.co.uk/alcantara/php, Alcantara came to Spain when he was 14 years old, a year before he debuted with FC Barcelona. He returned to the Philippines in 1916, or when he was 20 years old, and played for two years with the Bohemians, a Filipino football club.
He returned to Spain and resumed playing with his club in 1918 where he rose to become a legend.
On the other hand, in it?s Philippine football centennial issue, the Pinoy Football Magazine, published by the PFF, said Alcantara became the youngest player to wear the FC Barcelona jersey when he started playing for the club when he was 15.
Missing the Olympics
But more than becoming a football star, Alcantara was dedicated to becoming a doctor and did not play in the 1920 Olympic Games to study medicine.
He retired from football in 1927 to dedicate his time to medicine but he briefly coached the Spanish national team in 1951, which was unbeaten in the three matches that he steered the team.
Alcantara died in Barcelona on Feb. 13, 1964, at the age of 67, according to the FC Barcelona website.
It was also during Alcantara?s peak that the Philippines became an Asian football powerhouse with the country bagging the gold in the 1913 Far Eastern Games, the forerunner of the Asian Games.
While Alcantara missed the 1913 games, he played four years later as part of the national team that routed Japan 15-2 in their match in Tokyo.
Japan was among the Asian teams that qualified in the round of 18 in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
??That rout of Japan was the highest that the Philippines had advanced in international football,? Araneta said.
World?s No. 169
The international football federation Fifa currently ranks the Philippines 169th out of 207 member-countries in men?s football.
Despite the Filipinos? preference for basketball and boxing, football players and fans have increasingly drawn inspiration from Alcantara?s exploits to raise local awareness and passion for the sport.
A life-size statue of Alcantara was unveiled at the PFF office at the PhilSports Complex in Pasig during the football centennial commemoration in 2007, said PFF general secretary Chito Manuel.
In Alcantara?s home province of Iloilo where football is popular especially in Barotac Nuevo town, dubbed the ??Football Capital of the Philippines,? players and fans can readily cite Alcantara as proof that Filipinos can do well and even be among the greatest in the international football arena.
?We don?t have to stop at watching the World Cup and cheering for our idols. A hundred years ago, an Ilonggo already showed us the way to greatness,? said Duffie Botavara, president of the Barotac Nuevo Footbal Club.