Football Diaries: A Penalty Box of Chocolates

Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump forever made its mark on movie history when he uttered the words, “My momma always said life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”

Well Mama Gump might as well have been talking about the beautiful game.

This is what the young De La Salle University Men’s Football Team has come to learn in the UAAP that they should expect the unexpected. Especially as they faced off against two traditional title contenders that showed them that in this league, anything can happen.

New blood versus old tormentors

La Salle hasn’t beaten defending champions UP on the football pitch in over three years. It seems like a lifetime ago given majority of the current squad were all still in high school.

The odds weren’t any better this year around. UP is bannered by several mainstays of the U23 national team and had arguably the strongest program in the league.

It was these matches which rookie Shanden Vergara knew what UAAP football was all about: “What surprised me the most of playing at the seniors levels is the intensity, competitiveness, and the pride between schools.”

As expected, UP applied pressure from the opening whistle as DLSU saw little of the ball in the early goings. Goalkeeper Gab Villacin and his defense fended off wave after wave of attack including a disallowed Maroon goal.

But to everyone’s surprise it was the underdogs who struck first. Vergara curled a free kick over the wall and into the top corner in the 36th minute to give the Green and White an unexpected lead.

The halftime whistle blew and everyone expected the defending champions to turn up the pressure even more in the second half. But again to everyone’s surprise it was the young Taft-based booters who added to their tally.

Vergara received a long ball just inside UP’s final third in the 65th minute. Seeing the UP keeper off his line, he sends a lob from distance which just slides under the bar and out of the outstretched hands of the Maroon goalie.

UP would score right after but the young DLSU team did well to hold on for the 2-1 upset. Despite his individual heroics, Vergara knew it was a team effort that allowed them to hold on for the long-awaited victory.

“Every one of us should be in the same mentality which is to win every game that we are going to play because in the end, we’ll end up losing and not being able to achieve our objective,” said the DLSZ-alumnus.

An unexpected twist

If you were to tell anyone last year that veteran Alfonso Montelibano would be starting striker for the DLSU football team, they’d probably laugh out loud. Including Montelibano himself who till this offseason was a hardworking defender trying to crack the first eleven.

“Back in my grade school days, i used to play the forward role so it wasn’t completely unfamiliar territory to me. But not having played to position in more than a decade, I had to recalibrate my current playing style. I knew I had to work harder than usual, so I put in more work in the gym by hitting the weights, getting stronger, faster and more mobile. I also had to change my mindset,” said Montelibano on the position change.

But Coach Alvin Ocampo and the rest of the staff saw potential in him by playing him as a target man in the preseason tournaments as preparation for the UAAP. And against league-leading FEU, his name was called to lead the line for his squad.

There was no better time to do this coming from the morale-boosting UP win. The DLSU squad was confident they could score another big victory and give them a chance to top the table at the end of the first round.

Those aspirations quickly grew to a grinding halt when the Tams scored without a minute gone on the scoreboard. Ocampo soon made his tactical adjustments to give his wards their shot to get back in the match.

In the 22nd minute, Montelibano dribbled into the box on the left side of the FEU goal. The Tams seemed to forget what he position he played as he drove past them them to slide an equalizer into the far post.

Finally, all that hard work has paid off for the veteran. “Scoring my debut goal was definitely a momentous thing for me. Hopefully it won’t be the last and I could score more goals this season,” said Montelibano.

Despite having the lion’s share of the chances the rest of the match, the DLSU squad still fell short when a deflected FEU free kick in the 83rd minute found the back of the net. It was another unexpected twist for the young talented squad who are still finding their feet at the seniors level.

Not just another match

The Green and White now find themselves at 9 points with 3 wins and 3 losses, just outside of the coveted Final Four spots. Next up are the archrivals Ateneo Blue Eagles who have been on a tear after a slow start to the season.

Led by talisman Jarvey Gayoso, they have beaten their past 3 opponents by at least 4 goals without conceding. Ocampo knows it will take a team effort to stop their good run of form and put La Salle in a playoff spot to end the first round.

“We still have a lot to improve on yet the team is accepting the knowledge we are injecting them. We also need contribution of individual strengths to collectively become one unit,” said Ocampo on what they need to work on for the big match.

La Salle’s first round campaign has been full of surprises just like that Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. Are we in for another sweet surprise on Thursday with a victory against our bitter rivals?

But if there’s one thing that isn’t a surprise, the boys aren’t treating this as any other match. As Ocampo perfectly puts it: “It’s always the same mentality na matalo na sa ibang team, huwag lang sa Ateneo.”