Aug 20, 2023
'Mabuhay Pilipinas,' Philippines 1st Women's World Cup diary
This summer saw the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup expand for the first time from 24 teams to 32 teams, and as part of that growth, eight nations made their debuts at the tournament -- including the
This summer saw the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup expand for the first time from 24 teams to 32 teams, and as part of that growth, eight nations made their debuts at the tournament -- including the Philippines, who were confirmed as participants in January 2022 after defeating Chinese Taipei on penalties.
Reina Bonta, 24, is a defender who made the 23-player squad for that first World Cup. She joined Brazilian side Santos back in May 2023 and has made 11 appearances for the Philippines national team, with her debut coming in September 2022 against World Cup hosts New Zealand.
The Philippines lost games against Switzerland and Norway in Group A, but a 1-0 victory over New Zealand marked another major milestone for the team. Throughout the tournament, Bonta kept a diary of her World Cup. This is what she and her teammates experienced.
SURREALISM IS A STRANGE WAY to describe one of the most lived human experiences. Being competitive is, and has always been, a part of our nature; it defines us. But right now, this drive to compete feels much stronger and the competition itself, the FIFA Women's World Cup, feels bigger than what can possibly be real.
I arrive at the Philippine women's national team's World Cup "pre-camp" in Australia after a 35-hour journey from my club in Santos, Brazil. I spend the first leg sleeping for seven hours straight, kiss Doha, Qatar, during a short and sweet layover, and spend the final leg with my mind and body in the clouds, wrapping my head around what lies ahead. Our coaches use words like "life and death" and "the hardest weeks of your life" to describe this pre-camp. It is, at its core, a boot camp, meant to separate the in-form players from the not, like oil and water.
On a personal level of human connection, this process of making the grade can feel coarse to the touch. Over the past two years, since winning our country the opportunity to raise our flag at the World Cup for the first time in history, we have convened nearly two weeks of each month to prepare. We fly in, emerging from our various nooks and crannies around the globe, and meet on the football pitch to train and play. I've been able to call Costa Rica, Chile, Australia, Spain, Tajikistan and Cambodia "home," living out of a suitcase that feels more expertly organized with every coming month. And each time the studs of our boots graze the grass of a foreign pitch in a new corner of the world for the first time, the faces around us are never guaranteed to be the same.
We live in a floating state of subdued insecurity, without ever truly knowing who will appear at our next camp. We live in a quiet pact with the reality that the pool of national team players is ever-shifting; players are not asked to return, new players are invited, and we welcome that fact with a smile and a silent prayer that we will read our names at the top of an invitation letter in our email inboxes each month.
"Dear Reina Gabriela Bonta ..." sigh.
Where I play in Brazil, there's a Portuguese saying for this kind of acceptance, a phrase used like an outstretched hand, meant to offer comfort and warmth during a difficult time. Faz parte. "It's part of it." We chose this life, are grateful for this life, and thus embrace the physical and mental hurdles that are sewn into the fabric of international football. Faz parte. But now, in Australia, players new and old are all brought together once again.
Here, in this moment, our boots strike the same balls, we wake up to the same sun, and one singular thought lurches through our minds on loop: What can I do today to be 1 of 23?
Structurally, our days consist of hotel buffet meals, tactical team meetings, training and recovery. There is a sort of comfort to the cadence of it all -- a relief found in the reliability. The way we arrange our white hotel towels down on the floor as makeshift yoga mats in a spare conference room for recovery sessions, the smell of the aloe lotion in the treatment room where we beg our bodies to heal with quickness, the checklist of boots-socks-heart rate monitor that we flick through in our minds when packing our bags for training, the claustrophobic feeling of squishing into the elevator like sardines as we return back to our rooms after team meetings. These moments become familiar parts of our existence; they are markers of time.
I'm one of a few players who are still in-season with their professional clubs in the days leading up to the World Cup break, and I arrive five days before the final roster is announced.
When I greet the team, I'm met with a thick and suffocating air. Instead of pumping 2010 throwback hits from a speaker, holding invisible microphones to each other's mouths as we make our way to the field, the bus is silent. During the few hours of downtime that we do get, we hear and declare mutual feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty. We affirm the physical toll our bodies have been enduring as we walk across the street to treat ourselves to smoothies, doing what we can to disrupt some of the tension and liberate our minds.
On July 9, the day the list is due to FIFA, the final 23 is announced. It's an out-of-body experience. For some reason, I expect something like the archetypal high school coming-of-age movie scene, where the drama teacher posts the school play cast on a corkboard, and the protagonist elbows through a sea of pimpled 15-year-olds huddled around a piece of paper, as they yelp and whisper and cry and find or avoid each other's eyes. And the protagonist's pointer finger runs the line from top to bottom, her eyes dashing madly from left to right, until she recognizes a string of familiar letters as the final name on the list.
It doesn't quite happen like this. That afternoon, we play an intersquad scrimmage. The tension is palpable; everyone on the field pushes their bodies to the limit trying to leave a good taste in our coaches' mouths. After lunch, we are asked to return to our rooms, and stay there until otherwise informed. One by one, we receive a text from our team coordinator, asking us to come down to the meeting room.
When I enter, our head coach sits at the front, flanked by our assistant coach and team coordinator. They appear stoic, and, to no avail, I search their faces for any sign of what's to come. The words that flow from my coach's mouth next, leading up to the punchline, feel wonky and distorted in my memory, like my mind wrapped them in bubble wrap. Then two words wash over me like a tidal wave: "You're in." A beat. "Really?" I ask, in near disbelief. The coaches chuckle as we all rise to our feet. I feel hot tears of relief knocking on the door behind my eyes. We embrace, one by one, swapping "congratulations" and sniffly "thank yous." As I walk out, the assistant coach jokes that they are having a competition to see who can keep from crying, and that I lost the game about 10 seconds in -- a new record.
I return to my room where my roommate and I, after a moment of hesitation, rush to each other. We jump up and down, innocently and erratically, like two children whose parents have just agreed to let them have a sleepover. We discuss what this moment means for our families. For women's football in the Philippines. I recall the magical feeling I had watching the WWC final in Canada in 2015, almost unable to wrap my head around the fact that we will be the players on the pitch this time. We paint pictures of our first moments representing the Philippines, and how long ago that seems now.
For so long, we've been playing as individuals, clawing for a spot, a name hot-ironed in bold letters onto the back of a jersey, a confirmation that a lifelong dream will soon be realized. But today, dizzy after a roller-coaster ride of tumultuous emotions, we tumble clumsily through a routine of mental gymnastics, attempting to emerge on the other side with a different frame of mind entirely. Today, we are no longer individuals, but rather a unit. There is no "me versus you." There is only accountability and mutual respect. We stand at the crossroads of a critical moment, where the question on loop in our minds has transformed from "What can I do today to be 1 of 23?" to "What can I do today to make our 23 appear as 1?"
And as we swirl that thought around in our minds, we board our plane to New Zealand at 5:30 a.m., setting our sights on what could possibly be the most significant weeks of our lives at the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup. Yes, it still feels surreal.
The day before our opening World Cup match versus Switzerland, an indescribable feeling settled inside each of us. It was as if we had spent the past 18 months climbing the steep incline of a roller coaster, rusty gears shifting in suspense below our feet, and now we teetered, hearts thumping, on the peak of a metal hill -- on the edge of the equally terrifying and exhilarating unknown.
That afternoon, we had a walk-through of the stadium we'd soon be calling a battlefield. The grass was slick, massive lights that illuminated every nook of the stadium loomed high above us, and a dome overhead separated us from the sky, creating an echo chamber that would multiply every cheer or sigh from the crowd tenfold. We were alone in the stadium -- staff included, not even enough to fill a complete row of seats -- but a restless, tactile electricity still buzzed in the air.
When we returned to our rooms in the evening, I took a shower and hummed our national anthem to myself. I smiled sweetly, remembering my lola (the Tagalog word for grandmother), who helped raise me. She would put me in the bath as a child and sing to me a Filipino nursery rhyme called "bahay kubo" about a one-room house, made of nipa leaves and bamboo, around which an abundance of vegetables grew. Something about the warm water in the shower and the tune of the anthem elicited that memory.
In the morning, I received a voice message from her. It was three minutes long, speaking to the pride she had for me, being able to represent our country on the world's biggest stage, and her high hopes for the team during the tournament. Her voice was soothing and cheerful, like it always was, and I had thought she was speaking spontaneously until I heard the unmistakable rustle of a page turning halfway through her message. The fact that she had written a love letter to me with ink and paper, perhaps to organize her many thoughts, or perhaps to keep her voice from trembling, changed the significance of her message in a nuanced but entirely important manner for me.
My phone buzzed again, and someone I had played with on my first competitive youth football team, but hadn't spoken to in years, had sent me a message as well. She wrote, "You're carrying all of our dreams with you today." My mind lurched towards the many talented and dedicated players I had shared the pitch with throughout the years, who hung up their boots before they made it to the international level to pursue other parts of themselves. The outpouring of support that continued to roll in fueled me; I held my family and friends delicately in my mind as we departed.
On the way to the stadium, we retreated into our own worlds, performing our own routines and rituals necessary to tap into the most focused, yet free, versions of ourselves. We put our hands to the window as we saw Filipino fans waving excitedly at us from the street, drinking in the magic of the moment without losing sight of the battle ahead.
As soon as we set foot in the locker room, our blue jerseys perfectly steamed and neatly hung in a symmetrical row of lockers before us, I was reminded that everything we experienced today would be a first. For the first time in history, a team from the Philippines put on armor, lacing up our boots and pulling our socks up over our shin guards to march to war at the World Cup. For the first time, the Philippine flag was raised on the world's biggest stage, and our national anthem was echoed lovingly back to us by a roaring crowd, salty tears watering the grass below our feet.
We experienced our first kickoff, crying out "Laban!" -- the Filipino word for "fight" -- in our team huddle, the whistle blowing and the ball rolling to start the clock. We tallied our first offsides goal, our first penalty call, our first result. And for the first time, but not the last, we fought to the bitter end at a World Cup match.
Although the match ended in a narrow 2-0 loss against Switzerland, we headed into the locker room with our heads high, having made history for our country. We were hopeful and hungry; we felt both inspiring and inspired. And in four days' time, we turned around to do it all again; this time, against the host country New Zealand.
The stadium in Wellington was a completely different beast. We were playing on New Zealand's home turf. The stands were bursting with some 33,000 loyal fans, and nearly 30,000 of them were Kiwis. When the match began, they overrode our "Fi-li-pi-nas" chant, keeping the tune but converting the words to "Go-New-Zea-land." Coming off a loss, without any goals of our own in the back of the net, the elements seemed to be working against us, and our underdog identity felt actualized to the fullest.
The first 15 minutes of the match were as much a battle against New Zealand as they were against our own nerves. We were diving haphazardly into tackles, getting shrugged off the ball, not finding much joy in connecting passes. But regardless, we sacrificed our bodies and perhaps were blessed with a dash of luck, to ensure the ball never crossed our own goal line.
In the 24th minute, something magical happened. Resulting from a set piece, a lofted second-phase ball found its way to the center of the six-yard box. Sarina Bolden, the same player who converted the final penalty kick to qualify us for the World Cup, leapt up, elbows flailing and fending off New Zealand defenders on either side of her. The ball hung in the air for what felt like an eternity, struck her head, and then cracked against the back of the net.
Our outnumbered fans erupted into chaos, screaming with the strength of Goliath and stealing our chant back. The entire arena was filled with the most incredible, cacophonous roar. Sarina sprinted to the bench, leaving a trail of our players following in her wake. She jumped into my arms, and all I yelled in her ear (barring a few justified expletives), "You just made history. You did. You just made history." A dogpile formed atop us. In a matter of seconds, we had turned the game on its head, quieted hundreds of thousands of Kiwis near and far, and made it known that underdogs bite too. It was the stuff of storybooks.
We contained New Zealand through 96 minutes of play. Our goalkeeper -- and later named Visa Player of the Match, Olivia McDaniel -- dove and protected until the last tenth of a second to keep us alive. The final whistle blew like music to our ears, our cue for the bench and staff to storm the field. Some players crumpled to the floor in blissful exhaustion; others opened their arms wide to receive embraces. I found my teammate Jessika Cowart, who I grew up playing with on one of my first-ever youth clubs. Over a decade later, I know her well enough to know she doesn't cry easily, but was unsurprised to feel her quiet sobs on my shoulder. I took her hand in mine, and all 23 of us threaded together in a line, facing the stands, lifting our clasped hands up above us, and took a rightfully earned bow.
As we posed for a group photo, it was the first time we had been momentarily still for what felt like hours. Alicia Keys' voice enveloped the stadium, and the rhythm paused as her verse melted into the chorus. The quiet hung in the air for a beat, until we heard the cosmically fitting lyrics, "This girl is on fire," just as the camera flashed. We leapt onto each other again, shaking each other's shoulders and jumping up and down. The synchronicity left me in awe.
We took a lap around the stadium, thanking our fans who had traveled far and wide to cheer us on, making our unbridled appreciation for them known, signing autographs, extending our arms for selfies. I stopped to speak with one family of two; the father told me that his wife played for the Philippine Women's National Team 20 years ago. And now, sitting on a chair in the stands, her legs swinging and unable to reach the floor below her, was their young daughter, with bright eyes, experiencing our first World Cup win in history. Perhaps she would be suiting up for the next one.
One of my favorite things to say about that day is that we, on a random Tuesday, decided to pick up a pen and write Filipino history. We were never complacent with simply existing as a debutant nation at the World Cup. Instead, we created, shattered and created again ambitious and evolving goals. Instead of just playing at the World Cup, we held our own; instead of just holding our own, we scored a goal; instead of just scoring a goal, we won a match. Points at this tournament are not doled out to anyone. It's infamously taken countries decades to rightfully earn them. And today, we headed back to the hotel with three points tucked in our back pocket.
Our World Cup journey ended five days later after a shock-to-the-system 6-0 loss to Norway. When the match ended, sealing our fate that we would not be making it out of the group, the heaviness of the moment hit us like a truck. But, as a family, we packed up our things, celebrated our accomplishments and made a vow to return in four years' time.
The following evening, I left on a flight to the Philippines with my father and lola, three generations of proud Pinoys. Images from the tournament flashed in my mind as the clouds trotted along below us on the other side of the window. Until this World Cup, I had never seen such a startling number of Filipinos in one place outside of the Philippines. I had never heard the national anthem sung so resoundingly that I couldn't hear the lyrics coming from my own mouth. I had never felt such a penetrating pride in and optimism for the future of football in the Philippines.
We landed in Dumaguete, the city where my lola spent most, and the happiest, years of her life.
The airport is quaint. You walk out of the airplane directly onto the tarmac, and the entire baggage claim area is one room with a single carousel. The heat that greeted us was sticky and comforting. When I stepped out onto the curb, I was met by a swarm of young girls. They proudly donned their football jerseys from local clubs in the Philippines, and held up hand-painted signs, celebrating me and the national team.
Exhausted and still processing the past several weeks, their beautiful energy infused new life in me. They are who we play for.
We gathered for a group photo. I held a bouquet of sunflowers in one hand and waved a miniature Filipino flag with the other. I was smiling so hard that my lips started to quiver. And in unison, we yelled "Mabuhay!" -- a Filipino greeting that carries various meanings, one among them being "long live." And, very fittingly, I wholeheartedly believe that the future of Philippine women's football does, indeed, have much life left to live.