In the Philippines, football had always been in an obscure spot in the sports scene—until a fateful match in the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup dubbed the “Miracle in Hanoi” put the sport back into the consciousness of Filipinos. Since the comeback of the Men’s National Team, the sport experienced a renaissance. The success brought by the Azkals paved the way for a new generation of football fans and the revival of grassroots programs all over the country.
As supporters of the beautiful game look forward to the future of the sports scene, a handful of historians have also begun to look into its rich past. While they reveled in the recent victories and discussed the feats of current athletes, these did not hold a candle to the once-forgotten great, Paulino Alcántara.
Legend lost to time
Ilonggo historian and Chief of the Iloilo Provincial Government’s Public Information and Community Affairs Office Nereo Lujan discloses he first heard of Alcántara through an article on the football great’s passing published in 1964. He discloses how he confirmed that Alcántara was, in fact, born in the Philippines, “In the February 14, 1964 issue of Diario de Burgos, a news story on his passing appeared [and] it was mentioned that he was born in Iloilo.” He continues, “Incidentally, there is a town in Iloilo named Concepcion which, during the Spanish time, was known as Comandancia de Concepcion, a military outpost in northern Iloilo. His father, according to various articles, was a Spanish military officer.”
Alcántara was born in 1896 in Concepcion, Iloilo to a Spanish father and Ilongga mother. The family then moved to Spain in 1899 where he developed as an athlete and was later discovered by FC Barcelona, a top-flight football club in Europe. At the age of 19, in 1916, the football player later returned to the Philippines, as seen in a recovered 1916 passport application filed by the football player himself. Back on home soil, he led Bohemian Sporting Club to back-to-back titles in the Philippines Championship and played a vital role in the Philippine National Team’s historic 15-2 victory against Japan in the Far Eastern Championship Games, scoring a brace and leading as the squad’s captain. However, this short stint for the Philippines was cut short when he insisted on returning to Spain after battling malaria.
From 1918 to 1927, Alcántara made his mark with FC Barcelona once more. Aside from raking in titles like the Copa del Rey and Campionat de Catalunya, he was also known for his memorable goals. He was later given the nickname “El Romperedes” after a net-breaking goal. Alcántara would go on to score 395 goals in 399 games—a record that he would keep for 87 years. “Alcántara [was] very much revered in Spain,” Lujan explains.
While he had long been celebrated overseas and his legacy preserved through books like Paulinho: El Primer Crac de la Història del Barça, it took a resurgence of interest in the sport to allow him to be recognized in the Philippines. “Considering he spent only three years in the Philippines…it is understandable why he was recognized late,” posits Lujan. Despite the delayed recognition, Filipino fans wasted no time in honoring possibly the most successful player in the history of the country and Asia. “His name only surfaced in the Philippines around 2007 as it went viral following the discovery of his place of birth,” he adds. Because of archiving, Alcántara’s legacy as a Filipino football great was saved from Philippine history.
Following the resurfaced documents fusing Alcántara with his Filipino heritage, tributes in honor of the athlete began with the renaming of Philippine football’s most prestigious competition to Copa Paulino Alcántara and the construction of the Paulino Alcántara Heritage Football Stadium in his birthplace of Iloilo. His legacy has also paved the way for young athletes to make their mark on the world of football, being especially important for Ilonggo footballers like Jovin Bedic of Kaya FC-Iloilo and Mikaela Villacin of the Under 18 Girls National Football Team and an alumnus of FC Barcelona’s football academy.
History plays no sides
While historical records have helped his story eventually gain relevance within the nation, they also allow the prolific goalscorer to be seen for who he is. His actions, whether good or bad, are able to properly influence his legacy and prevent him from being venerated blindly. The objective nature of history shows that while he was a generational talent, he was not without his flaws.
Alcántara’s legacy on the pitch is without any doubt legendary, but the Iloilo native had his fair share of controversy outside of the pitch. After his retirement, he notably supported the facist movement in Spain during the 1930s, as chief of dictator Francisco Franco’s facist political party. Because of his problematic political alignment, it is difficult for Alcántara to be written down as the perfect role model for Filipino footballers.
Bedic comments, “We are only humans, and sometimes we do unnecessary things that can change our lives permanently.” The Kaya FC-Iloilo captain also mentioned that he believes that Alcántara’s legacy should still be preserved because the FC Barcelona legend proved that Filipinos are capable of becoming world-class football players.
Villacin acknowles Alcántara’s feats as a player but emphasizes the importance of integrity among athletes. She says, “Regarding the controversies Alcántara has done, I think it is important that it goes down in history because, at the end of the day, despite having the skills and the achievements that not a lot of people have, I believe that you will always be remembered [for] the attitude and the character you show.”
One for the books
While Alcántara’s story is not perfect, there are still many lessons to be learned, especially for athletes who are judged beyond their performance on the pitch. Villacin expresses, “Regardless of where you play or where you are, you should always be mindful of the things you do and show to people.”
Despite his shortcomings, Alcántara still holds value in Philippine history for proving that Filipinos are capable of competing with the world’s best, all to which we have archiving to thank. Lujan notes, “If not for these surviving records, we would have not known that once upon a time, these men and women have lived and have helped shape the history of their respective localities or their respective countries.” He further emphasizes the importance of ”skilled and dedicated researchers” who study archives and “will eventually give justice to the contributions of these unsung heroes.”
While Alcántara’s legacy has been brought to life within the archipelago, there is still much to be learned about the Iloilo-born maestro and his background. Lujan posits, “I believe more is to be done to uncover his Filipino ancestry. While it was said that his mother was Filipina, nothing more is mentioned. I suggest more genealogical research should be done…”
The local football scene still has a long way to go before being up to par with the rest of the world. However, hope is not lost at all. With the recent successes of the Men’s and Women’s National Football Teams and the legacy of Alcántara, there is good reason for one to hope that the Philippines one day becomes the powerhouse that its history and potential could allow it to be.