Everyone loves Rocky. Everyone loves the Karate Kid and the Mighty Ducks. In short, everyone loves an underdog. They’re all feel good stories of a person or team starting from the bottom and struggling against all odds to rise to the top. The triumphant underdog is perhaps the most glorious of all stories.
In Payatas we work with underdogs every day. People who were dealt a bad lot in life and struggle hard even for the most basic of things. Food. A home. Security. People who start from the absolute bottom and are struggling to rise up just one rung on the ladder.
Now we can celebrate another underdog story in the making as Althea, one of our players from Payatas Football Club, has been selected as part of the National Youth Team Training Pool. Getting this far means she’s part of the best 20 players in the National Capital Region of the Philippines for her age group. And soon we’ll find out if she makes it further as she trains twice a week this March with the National U15 Girls Team.
Born in one of the poorest places in the country, Althea plays a sport that only existed in Payatas since 2011. Payatas Football Club, to our knowledge, is the first football team in the history of Payatas.
Like most people in Payatas, Althea lives with her family in a rundown house along the backstreets. Everyone in her family works hard, and has worked from an early age, to make sure they have enough to eat. It’s always been a challenge. Her mother admits sometimes going hungry so her kids can eat. Both parents have worked in the garbage industry and her mother is trying to improve her job prospects but long-term jobs are difficult to find when you’re from Payatas.
A Normal Girl
When you first meet Althea you don’t notice much different. She is a normal 13 year old girl. She’s taller than most kids her age in Payatas, taller than her older sisters already, though that’s just because of a recent growth spurt. Althea is shy with people she doesn’t know and clings to the people she does. She is the baby of her family, the youngest of 6 siblings, and it shows on her face and mannerisms. She’s constantly watching everyone’s reactions around her to gauge the situation and how to respond. Growing up around violence in a community like Payatas, many people learn this trick.
But when she gets a ball at her feet you notice something different. When one AFC B License Coach saw Althea play he immediately declared: ‘Roy, if she doesn’t make the National Team you’ve failed as a Coach’. Her potential is that clear.
Althea joined Payatas FC at 7 years old after seeing her older sister and friends play. With fewer young players at the time she was always part of the younger age groups in tournaments, and being present at every available training session (though this was just once or twice per week back then) including a girls only session against the older girls, she had more playing time than most.
In 2015, Althea captained Payatas FC’s U12 boys team as an 11 year old and finished the long-running league as the top scorer of the entire league with twice as many goals as anyone else – mostly playing in midfield. Now 13 years old, she more than holds her own against U14 boys and will also join the U16 boys team, along with her older sister, in an upcoming league.
Althea has just been selected for Manila’s training pool for the Philippines’ U15 Girls National Team. This is the first step in the selection process before 30 girls are selected for the Training Camp, which will whittle the girls down to 18 for the squad to compete in the AFF U15 Women’s Championship.
Althea isn’t the first player from Payatas FC to get this far. She’s not even the first in her family to do so. Her older sister Regine played for the U14s then the U16 National Team in the last two years, scoring for both. Before Regine, their neighbour Angelica was selected for the U14’s Training Camp but left because she was homesick (the Asian Football Confederation recently upped the female age groups from U14 and U16 to U15 and U17).
We don’t know if Althea will make the final squad for this team. But what is clear is that she is competing at the top of her age group with the best girls in the country, as well as many who grew up in the United States with access to the best facilities and support you could ask for (girls who also work hard and deserve their chance too of course).
Anyone who understands development of any sport, music, or art, will have spotted some of the reasons why Althea has developed so far. Talents like Althea’s aren’t born, they are made, and they are made with a lot of practice and constant challenge. Anders Ericsson, perhaps the world’s leading scholar on talent development, calls this deliberate practice; constantly challenging yourself just outside of your comfort zone in training and competition. Playing against older kids, older girls, against stronger and more physical boys, was a constant challenge for Althea. She was constantly playing up and couldn’t rely on her physical strength, she had to figure out a pass or a feint to get past others.
This pattern is the same that gave rise to legends like Pele, Maradona, Rivaldo, Ronaldo (the original), and so many other players born and raised in slums. It’s often said that the secret to Brazil’s success is how every favela has a futsal court, places where kids can rack up 10,000 hours in a challenging way. South America in general has become a production line of talented footballers. Daniel Coyle, in The Talent Code, notes how talent hotbeds around the world are never the glitziest or most glamorous places. They are usually rundown areas where kids can rack up hours and hours of training.
When we understand this we realise the underdog was actually the favourite all along. It is for this reason that poor areas are usually the true heart of grassroots development. Fans and journalists often credit football academies with creating players, but football academies choose players because they’re good, they select for the best players in an area already and then develop them. The best Academies in the world can be excellent at developing talent, but they are still choosing players who were already talented for their age group. They don’t know nearly as much about creating talent from scratch. They’ve never had to.
And that’s the advantage that community teams and slums have.
Payatas Can Become a Talent Hotbed
So this is our goal for Payatas Football Club; to bring out the limitations and weaknesses of being a poor community and turn them into strengths. We want the Payatas Sports Center to become a talent hotbed like the futsal courts in favelas, like small tennis courts in Russia, and dusty athletics tracks in Jamaica (see the Talent Code for more on those). With three of our girls now being selected in the National Team Training Camps, some of the best in the entire country for their age, we’re having some success.
So if you want to support the Payatas Sports Center’s dream of becoming a Talent Hotbed you can donate here. Like our other Faces of Payatas features Althea is one example representing the experiences of so many others in Payatas, there are so many kids who deserve the opportunity to develop and grow.
The Payatas Sports Center will never be the most glamorous facility, it will never be the biggest or most expensive. It will never even be an 11 aside field. But it doesn’t need to be. A basic facility is necessary for a talent hotbed, but after that you just need a place the kids can play a lot, through deliberate practice, and support for them on and off the pitch.
Althea is another underdog who is rising to the top. Her story is still being written and we’re excited to see the next chapter. Join us in helping to write this story!