The Football Coach who escaped Marawi

PLAYING FOR PEACE. The coach believes that football can be a tool for peace in Mindanao. Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

PLAYING FOR PEACE. The coach believes that football can be a tool for peace in Mindanao.

Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – The date was Tuesday, May 23. It was a gorgeous afternoon in the football pitch of the Mindanao State University Marawi campus. A light rain had been falling on the freshly mown pitch and the mercury had dropped to 16 degrees Celsius, common in the high altitude of the Lanao del Sur capital.

Aquilino “Ake” Pastoral, one of about 20-25 AFC “A” License football coaches in the country, was running a football coaching course. It was part of a program of the Philippine Sports Commission and the Philippine Sports Institute to bring sports education to young people in Muslim-majority areas of Mindanao, mostly from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). With Pastoral were badminton, sepak takraw, softball, and table tennis coaches.

There were 23 participants in the football clinic, some of whom had traveled from as far away as Tawi-tawi, Sulu, and Basilan to further their knowledge of the game. This was day 2 of a planned 3-day seminar. Pastoral, who is also the head football coach in Malayan College in Laguna, noted that the footballers were attentive and enthusiastic in the lectures and practical sessions on the pitch.

And then, at 3:50 pm, the group heard gunshots.

Sabi ng ibang mga bata, natural lang 'yan (The kids said it was just natural),” said Pastoral.  Perhaps the local kids had grown accustomed to gunfire in the strife-torn areas as part of everyday life.

So the group continued the training. But the gunfire did not stop, and then they heard a loud explosion. Word filtered in that an armed group was trying to get into the university. (READ: Marawi Clash; Special coverage)

The footballers repaired to the safety of the grandstand. The coaches then took refuge in their boarding house inside the campus. The gunfire grew louder. Reports of homes being burned in Marawi came in. The gunshots continued unabated.

As the night wore on, the cell phone signal grew weak. The electricity went out 15 minutes past 10. Pastoral at times considered peeking outside the window of his room but decided against it, for fear that a stray bullet might strike him. He estimates that the gun battles was a mere 350 meters away.

It was a fitful night of rest for the coaches as the battle between the Maute terror group and security forces raged into the night.

With the coaching seminar canceled, all of the PSC-PSI coaches were set to depart at first light the next day for Iligan City. But before they left, the coach witnessed a convoy of 20 military trucks and at least one tank pass right in front of their quarters.

The group only got clearance to leave shortly before 10 am in their vans. There were 3 checkpoints along the way, but thankfully the military had been told about their vans and waved them on.

But the hordes of Marawi natives fleeing on foot and in vehicles clogged up the Iligan-Marawi road. The 37-kilometer route that usually takes around an hour was completed in 7. From there, the exhausted bunch took another van to Davao and then flew home to Manila on the 25th.

Pastoral says he has no information about the football clinic participants and whether they are safe.

Despite his ordeal, Pastoral appears to have warm feelings about Marawi City and its small but active football community and their gracious hospitality.

“They are happy to have visitors. They are glad to know you took the risk to go there,” he says.

Despite hearing the gunshots, Pastoral never actually feared for his life, since he believed that he would be safe as long as he was in the MSU campus.

Pastoral says there is a thriving football community in the MSU campus in Marawi and that they have some pretty intense intramural matches. There are two C License coaches in the city helping mentor the players, Bingay Paran and Jialil Cozhary. (READ: How football teaches kids from conflict areas to dream)

The coach also sensed no animosity or ill will between Muslims and Christians in the city. The participants came from both faiths and mixed freely during the coaching clinic. And one young girl stood out.

Pastoral forgets her name, but she wore the traditional Muslim headscarf, as well as a long-sleeved top and long pants. She joined the sessions with tremendous gusto, even practicing headers and chest traps.

The coach believes that football can be a tool for peace in the region. 

Ang mga bata mada-divert ang attention nilamababawasan ang trauma 'pag maglalaro sila ng football (The kids' attention will be diverted [from the violence] and their trauma will be reduced when they play football)," he says.

This is actually Coach Ake's second trip to Marawi City. He also conducted a PFF clinic there in 2014. Will he even consider a third trip?

“Yes, I would definitely want to come back,” he says without any hesitation.

Kaming mga coaches, higit pa sa natakot, mas nanghihinayang na hindi natapos ang course. Gusto kong bumalik at tapusin yung (For us coaches, more than fear, we will regret it more if the course is not completed. I want to return to finish the) clinic and help start competitions there and donate equipment," he says.

War is temporary, but the love of football is forever. –