Happyland: Football and Poverty

A movie review of Jim Libiran’s Happyland

Jim Libiran’s Happyland depicts a group of teenagers from who discover football or Futkal (Football sa kalye/street) through the local youth center in the larger impoverished section of Tondo, Manila. Through Fr. Jose, head of the center hailing from an axis of the football world, Barcelona, football becomes an opportunity, something more than a past time building something “more than just a club.” Fr. Jose’s passion spawns from one of FC Barcelona’s favorite sons Paulino Alcantara who happens to be Filipino. Scoring 357 goals in 357 games, Alcantara shattered records and literally even the net at one point though was denied acclaim on the level of a national team since there was barely a Filipino National team to speak of then. Emerging from a poor background Alcantara’s achievements inspire the kids to play. Coming back to Tondo for the film, Libiran’s Happyland is an attempt to explain poverty and the basic rights that are withheld from this condition as well as the perception of what the impoverished “cannot” have, like football. It features real life Futkaleros and the initiators of the movement playing similar roles to their lives in relation to Futkal.

Larong Mayaman (rich man’s game)

As explained by Brother Pedro who teaches the kids how to play, Futkal may be played on the streets of their community but it is symbolic of bringing football to everyone as they eventually play against teams on the University of Makati grounds.  This is an important point which I think is present in the movie and should be present in our understanding of football as a metaphor for democratic rights. Football is for everyone, throughout the film it is depicted as “larong mayaman” with reluctance from the locals to appreciate it. How has this come to pass? With basic cable you can only watch the English Premiere League and not even all of the matches, and a few Champions League matches, never mind Asian football. I’m sorry I just don’t understand how channels can regularly play table tennis, equestrian sports among others while leaving out the most watched game on the planet. Before the Azkals you probably had to be Angelica and Derek and fly off to South Africa to watch the 2010 World Cup. Of course most glaring is the state of affairs in our domestic league which paradoxically has no money in it. This universality is congruent in how many people view certain privileges as forever being privileges or facets of life that will always be absent from theirs such as education, good health services, business, legal help and fare wage; subsequently football.

Take the power back

Throughout the film there is an ongoing contradiction between the rich and the poor. During games fans of the opposing team (seen as rich kids) would throw loose change on the field as an attempt to distract, insult and “prove” their superiority against the Tondo team who hardly had any shoes or proper uniform. Clad in shirts with numbers painted on them one opponent depicted as the “British team” would not even get off their bus in the Tondo home court, irrationally fearing a  literal beating from the locals.  These economic divisions are demonstrated in cultural animosity towards the poor in what is perceived to be “our” game. If Futkal is an attempt to promote access to football as a metaphor for life, conversely the mentality of many is still the status quo which may support the Azkals but still adheres to the obstacles of the norm.

The players experience real problems of the impoverished Filipino youth, team captain Ishmail is faced with an uncertain future in which he wants to be able to study in college, Ramil is forced into a life of crime, others are tied to providing for what little their families have; even attempting to prevent a cold in the family is a big obstacle for not having enough money to buy simple medicines. Drugs, crime, among others, what is common is the bleak understanding that they do not have a future, the opposing understanding of the status quo through football reinforces this. Football by no means solves their problems, football is no revolution. At some points though it may feel  that way, yet in the end the embrace of football merely teaches them of what can be theirs. Hard work may get you some cash but what man really needs is to challenge society and change what is taken from us, to me this was exemplified in Ramil quitting his life of snatching/ theft despite the additional financial burden it brings. What is his stealing compared to the condemnation of a society of the poor to a life of stealing?

Ultimately the undertaking of developing football, albeit just about anything in society is based on the masses as a motive force. Football does not change society but in Happyland it becomes a representation of taking what is right into the hands of the underdeveloped who in turn become pioneers, awakened the masses are a messiah.

Note: Today the Philippine Azkals have yet to play Mongolia in the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers, this may not be the semi-finals of the tournament but it resounds enormous importance in football’s continued existence in the country.  Phil Younghusband’s cameo in Happyland as a supporter of football’s development is a welcome yet cheesy addition to the film; however his real performance will be on the pitch. With it are the stakes of raising football to greater relevance locally as did Happyland.

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