Back to Normalcy, Cebu teams shine in Bacolod

(This is my Fair Play column for SunStar Cebu’s March 21 edition)

In another lifetime that was three years ago, a trip to football hotbed Bacolod City would serve as a highlight of the year for a Cebu City age-group player. Not only do you get to visit the City of Smiles, but you also get to test your skills with some of the best in your age group.

Then, of course, Covid-19 threw a monkey wrench in all of that, and the once-bustling local football scene had to give way in the name of health safety. Though training shifted online, the experience was clearly not the same and I’ve heard coaches and parents lament about how their players have gone one or two sizes too big. But things have slowly gone back to normal and community football is slowly getting back on its feet.

CHAMPIONS AGAIN. Cebu Elite Sheba FC, with team manager Juan Zantino Soon (left) and coach Sheba Castanares (right) went undefeated in the group stage on their way to win the 16-17 Division of the 2nd Dolphins Cup.

And just like before the pandemic, Cebu teams are joining tournaments in Negros Occidental and winning. Last month, it was the Cebu United Football Club who won a title in Bayawan and just this weekend, it was the turn of the Cebu Elite Sheba FC to bring home the bacon in the 16-17 Division of the 2nd Dolphins Cup in Bacolod City.

Led by coach Sheba Castanares, manager John Zantino Soon and standout players like Misha Castanares, Maegan Alforque, eventual MVP Celina Beatrice Salazar and Jelena Soon, who got a short stint in Barcelona, the Cebu Elite went undefeated in the preliminaries with four wins and two draws and conceding only two goals while scoring 16. The semifinal was a different affair, as the squad, which also had Louiella Lyka Cueva, Rhiauna Dela Calzada, Mariamne Alburo, Gabrielle Aclan and Dianne Elijah Gaviola, had to endure a tough shoot before beating Pontevedra, 3-2. In the finals, the team was barely challenged as it barreled its way to the title with an easy 3-0 win.

Before the pandemic, Sheba was one of the best teams in the region, regularly winning the title in weekend festivals all over and it’s good that two years of no face-to-face training hasn’t dulled the players’ skills.

Next up for the squad is the even tougher Women’s Open, which has attracted an impressive 20 teams.

Don Bosco, a regular visitor of tournaments in the Visayas area, also sent a squad in the Boys U19 division and the team barely missed out on the title after losing via shootout in the finals. This team, like so many other champion teams in the other regions, would have been playing in the Palarong Pambansa if not for the pandemic.

RUNNER-UP. DBTC’s U19 squad finished second in its division after losing in the finals in a shootout.

And speaking of the Palarong Pambansa, things are slowly falling in place for the first-ever bubble tournament that will be held in Cebu. Unlike in the regular Palarong Pambansa setup, which is solely a Department of Education-led activity, the Central Visayas Regional Football Association (CVFA) is actively involved in this one.

That has also led to greater cooperation between DepEd and the CVFA, which means this won’t be the last football-related activity the two will be a part of.

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