UAAP Season 80 men's football preview: Nano Amita's last stand
MANILA, Philippines – January 31, 2016. "Hindi ko makalimutan ang araw na yan, (I can't forget that day)” says Arnel “Nano” Amita of the moment when it all went south for him.
The FEU Tamaraw, who was also on the books of the Loyola Meralco Sparks, was playing in a tune up game for Loyola, then his club, against Stallion in Biñan, Laguna. He burst into a sprint after contacting Jordan Mintah. Then he felt something pop in his right knee.
February 17, 2016. Surgery under the knife of Dr Castro in Makati Medical Center. Damage to the ACL, MCL, PCL and meniscus. The kid from Maco, Compostela Valley gets a pair of screws in his knee. His UAAP Season was over just as the Tams were poised to defend their back-to-back titles.
Amita was on top of his game just before the injury. Apart from the UAAP titles he had represented the country in the U23 national team in the SEA Games and shone for Loyola and Manila Jeepney in the UFL.
“This Amita is not bad, not bad at all,” said Singapore-based football commentator Paul Masefield to me via private message after witnessing him run rings around international defenders with his slick dribbling moves.
Things were looking up, until that fateful final day in January.
But Amita rehabbed hard, and after a few months, he felt he was ready to go.
“Feeling ko okay na. Pwede na kase ako mag-long-ball sa training,” said Amita.
“Pero hindi pa pala.”
(I feel that I'm okay already. I could already do long balls in the training. But apparently, I was not yet allowed.)
October 2016. A preseason Ang Liga match between FEU and College of St. Benilde in the San Beda pitch. Amita is playing despite warnings that he needs more time for his knee to heal.
Off a corner kick he makes an attempt on a shot and is tackled. A familiar pain shoots through his knee.
Amita rests for months and is a scratch for a second UAAP season. The pain persists. An MRI exposes a full ACL tear. In July of 2017 Dr Molo performs a second surgery. Another set of screws goes into the knee.
“Dapat patient ka sa rehab,” admits Amita, who by now is a full-blown cautionary tale for young athletes in any sport.
“Parang nawala ang pag-asa,” admits Amita of his low point. “Parang hanggang dito na lang ako.” (I lost hope. Like this is all I will be able to achieve.)
But Amita soldiers on. He concentrates on earning his degree in Sports Management. He picks up billiards to soothe the frustration. He moves to Kaya, a club that recognizes his upside and supports his current rehab. And perhaps now he might be ready for a final shot at UAAP glory.
Amita is currently on the FEU roster for what will be his last year in gold-and-green. While he likely won't be suiting up for the first few matches starting this Sunday, team doctors could give him the go-signal for play midway through the season.
His former team mates Pao Bugas, Eric Giganto, Jhan Jhan Melliza have all turned pro. But FEU has 2017 SEA Games veteran Arjay Joyel between the sticks, and the hulking Audie Menzi in central defense. Speedster Rico Andes gives plenty of pace in attack as well. This just might be the year when Far Eastern returns to the winners circle after falling 1-0 in last year's final to the Blue Eagles.
But no doubt champs Ateneo are the team to beat. Jordan Jarvis, the rookie of the year last season, is gone after a one-and-done UAAP career. He will suit up for Global-Cebu FC in the PFL. But talisman Jarvey Gayoso remains for a 3rd season. After a two-goal, one-assist campaign in the SEA Games, he will be brimming with confidence.
Ateneo are solid at the back with AJ Arcilla at goalkeeper and the tandem of William Grierson and Jayrah Rocha in defense. Xavi Alcuaz, another towering centerback, was set to return after taking last year off, but an injury means he misses out.
This UAAP season promises parity, as this league often does. The other schools have also beefed up.
DLSU wants to make up for a disappointing 2017 season when it missed the final 4. Coach Hans Smit says his side is in much better shape this year as evidenced by a recent friendly draw against PFL team Stallion Laguna. Sophomore striker Mathew Custodio looks to rebound from a goalless rookie season. The form of Yoshiharu Koizumi, a very creative Filipino-Japanese central mid, will be crucial. Ditto for Jed Diamante.
UP is another team that will have plenty of quality. Coach Anto Gonzales has youth NT Players Christian Lapas and JB Borlongan, who played in the SEA Games. Both are wonderfully gifted players who can command the center of the park. Up front will be Kintaro Miyagi, who scored on his full senior debut for the Azkals against Laos in December.
The Maroons are always going to be a title contender despite not having their own pitch to train on. At the moment their artificial field is still under construction.
UST is also looking to gun for a title. Like FEU, they are welcoming back a key player from knee trouble in Steven Anotado, a striker of great potential from M'lang, North Cotabato. He will partner with his town mate AJ Pasion up top, while Japanese-bred midfielder Marvin Bricenio will supply service from the center of the pitch. Bricenio will be motivated to bounce back after an injury-marred Season 79.
UE is a dark horse to crash the Final 4 party. They did finish seventh last season but were the only team to beat both FEU and ADMU, the finalists. Mar Diano, former U19 NT player, is a prolific goalscorer, while Bon Opena is a very decent midfielder. The Red Warriors are also blessed with a talented goalie in Frank Rieza, who kept his side in plenty of matches last season.
There will be one rookie in this team, Fitch Hanz Cosmos Arboleda. His older brother, Fitch Peter Florence Arboleda, is the head coach, assisted by another brother, Stallion Laguna striker Fitch Johnson Daviz Arboleda. Fitch Hanz Cosmos can play either left back or left wing.
National University has a new Cameroonian striker with Bulldog pedigree in Francis Mbei, who is a brother of former Bulldogs cager Sean Mbe. (Francis spells his last name differently from Sean on Facebook.) The 6'1” forward hopes to make the kind of impact in Sampaloc that kuya Sean did on the court.
Adamson is sticking with pretty much the same lineup it had since they reentered the league. The Jumo twins, Bless Brian 1 and Bless Brian 2, will provide leadership while CJ Viray looks likely to be one of the busier netminders in the league. Coach Nolan Manito is undeterred. He says they can improve “basta maging smart sila.” (As long as they become smart)
While this season's champion cannot yet be known, one thing is certain: Arnel Amita is not giving up. He says he has leaned heavily on the support of his girlfriend Eilane and his family during his absence, and he just wants to give back.
“Ang motivation ko talaga is tulungan ang pamilya ko,” says Amita. (My motivation is to help my family.)
Amita's father Arnulfo suffered debilitating injuries from a motorcycle accident and can no longer do construction work. Since Arnel is one of 11 siblings, that is a real challenge. Nano helps out with what he can. His two sisters Analou and Jenelyn, both former FEU women's players who are now enlisted in the Air Force and play for their women's team, also pitch in. A younger brother, Ace, plays for the FEU juniors team.
Nano says his knee is getting stronger every day. If it matches the strength of his will, this UAAP season could be glorious for him.
Upcoming UAAP Football schedules:
*Thursday matches be aired live on Liga SD and HD
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