The Philippine Specials came from behind to hack out a 2-1 victory over highly-touted Thailand in their first match of the men’s football 11-a-side event at the inaugural Asia-Pacific Special Olympics summer Games for intellectually disabled athletes in Newcastle, Australia, yesterday.
Thailand was up, 1-0, after converting a penalty but the Specials wouldn’t be denied the equalizer just before the halftime break. Coach Jess Landagan and assistant Abner Recacho stirred the boys with an inspiring pep talk then right at the start of the second half, the Specials booked the go-ahead goal. Thailand was totally dominated in the late going with the Filipinos missing at least two golden opportunities to add to their total.
“We started slowly but settled down as the game progressed,” said Mike Moran, a Filipino investment banker who drove two hours from his home in Sydney to lead the cheering in the stands. Moran is a director of the Henry V. Moran Foundation which is the team’s primary backer. Foundation chairman Danny Moran said the win over Thailand is a big boost in confidence for the Specials looking forward.
Mike Moran attended the opening rites at the Hunter Stadium last Sunday and said it was an emotional experience. “The atmosphere was electric, full of enthusiasm,” he said. A crowd of 33,000 jammed the stadium to applaud the athletes from over 30 countries in the traditional parade. “I wore my Azkals jersey,” he said. “A proud moment was when the Philippine delegation was called, definitely applauded and cheered by the appreciative crowd.”
The Specials are made up of 15 players from 15 to 25 with an average age of 19. Five of the footballers are from Elsie Gaches Village, three from Nayon ng Kabataan, five from Baguio City SPED (Special Education) Center and two from Special Olympics North National Capital Region.
Landagan, who led the Philippines in the World Cup street children football tournament in South Africa in 2010, is the Specials head coach. He has involved with the Nayon Ng Kabataan for over 10 years. Others in the coaching staff are Maribeth Javarata, Aris Bocalan and Recacho. Javarata is a SPED teacher in Baguio while Recacho has worked at Elsie Gaches for 20 years.
“This year, the boys started training on their own so we split them into three units, one in Baguio, one in Nayon and one in Elsie Gaches,” said Moran Foundation football director Ed Formoso. “Last September, we started personalized coaching for each unit, Baguio for defense, Nayon for midfielders and Elsie Gaches for strikers. Then, for 20 days last month, we organized a camp in Baguio and our goal was to turn the boys into a football family. They trained daily from 6 to 8:30 a.m. and played games every afternoon from 4 to 6 p.m. In between training sessions, the team had regular activities like visiting day cares and bringing gifts to children. They picked up trash in places they hiked to, they had classroom lessons learning about being eco-friendly. The photos we took during the camp are in our facebook pages on Football For Good and the Philippine Specials.”
Formoso said all the players are intellectually challenged, some in more serious cases than others. “Although several of them are not as agile or well-balanced and react slowly, they all play,” he said. “Our team is called the ICTSI Philippine Specials as it is supported by the ICTSI Foundation which paid for the plane tickets to Australia. Our head of delegation is coach Abner.”
Danny Moran said the partnership of the Moran and ICTSI Foundation will go a long way in developing the Specials into a truly “special” team. “We are grateful to the ICTSI Foundation as our partner,” he said. “This is a very important tournament as this is the qualifier for the Los Angeles Special Olympics in 2015. We are glad that both foundations have aligned advocacies in youth and sports. The support of ICTSI has not only boosted the morale of the players but has also added prestige to the team as they are carrying with them ICTSI, a Philippine global brand.
ICTSI Foundation executive director Narlene Soriano said, “We believe in this very worthy cause. The Philippine Specials have all the elements that the ICTSI Foundation supports: the youth, the marginalized, and the athlete representing the country. We are proud to be the lead-benefactor together with the Moran Foundation. They are a source of inspiration and proof that the mentally challenged can contribute to society.”
Danny Moran and Filipina C. Laurena, ICTSI deputy executive director, recently signed the partnership agreement witnessed by Dominica P. Godinez, head social worker of Elsie Gaches, and Asuncion M. Flores, head of the Nayon ng Kabataan. The Specials are under the care of Elsie Gaches and Nayon ng Kabataan, institutions under the Department of Social Welfare and Development.
The players of the team are defenders Marlon Estares, Ricky Caridad, Rusto Mulle, Jeremiah Tundagui, Jerry Sanchez Jr., Rommel Bautista and Andrew Milo; strikers Raymond Elona and Jovel Banunot; mid field Paul John Nicolas, Delmer Tawatao, Marlon Lumokso, Michael Jordan and goalkeepers Raymund Galiste and Leonardo Limbaga Jr.
Formoso said being involved with the Specials is a life-changing experience. “It’s not so easy to get inside each of them,” he explained. “They each have a soul of their own. I don’t always get in but they’re all beautiful people even if they don’t read or write or spell or count. I know they were very happy at camp. They became a family, not just a football team, I don’t know for sure how much of the camp has been engraved in each one’s heart, we’ll know in a few days, how they react and play.
“The concept was to turn them into a football family, emphasis on family, simply because coaches can only do so much training and practice with special persons. I went on to attempt at turning them into a family, to trust and understand one another, to go beyond the game.
“I also learned that they often forget what they learn today, tomorrow is another day. I learned that one mistake can trigger so much negative response from all and that they cry when scolded and can become afraid to play or train when they feel a bit of pain and that a multi-vitamin can be given to a player and if you tell him, it was a pain killer, the pain would go away. I learned that they have a ‘reset’ button. I was most afraid of this, we can teach them everything we want and they might learn it well but they can also lose it quickly as they can reset or revert.”