This is an article I wrote for Pinoyfootball.com
NEW ZEALAND — DEEP inside all of us, we have a hidden ambition we choose to bury believing that the odds are too high to overcome and transform it into a reality.
Santiago Muñez in the film Goal, was a mere part-time mechanic and busboy who dreamed of playing football in the big leagues someday. In spite of being discovered by an agent for Newcastle United F.C., poverty made it impossible for him to fly to England for a trial.
Nonetheless, he overcame the odds and we all know what happened in the end. Santiago is a product of fiction though. However, the world of sports is no stranger to real Cinderella stories. From Lance Armstrong overcoming testicular cancer to race himself to fame in the world of cycling, to our very own Manny Pacquiao rising up from poverty to become the world’s pound-for-pound king. We all love hearing these stories.
Just on the opposite coast as Santiago, a young man dreamt of playing football not only at the highest level but also for his motherland.
Nathaniel Burkey first got involved with the beautiful game at age four, inspired by an older brother who also had passion for the game. But aside from sibling influence, Nate’s mom was also a big factor to her son’s footballing career.
“When my dad died when I was only two and a half years old, my mom used football to bring my family together,” shared the young striker who was born in Washington D.C..
Nate grew up in Alexandria, Virginia which is just outside the capital. He then got his first taste of competitive football playing for the T.C. Williams High School Titans, playing as a midfielder. He then went on to play for Louisburg College and the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams. Nate then set his sights on playing internationally for the Philippine national football team, the Azkals, as he slowly builds a career in football.
“I first learned of National team in 2005 from my Englishman college coach Dave Sexton who told me about the team. He also told me about an English-Filipino Azkal Chris Greatwhich.” Nate added.
The ambition of playing international football for the Philippines, for which he qualifies since his mother has Filipino roots, became a prime motivator for Burkey to step up his game. “When I learned of the team’s existence I immediately became interested and made it my goal for the next five years. It didn’t matter to me at that time if they were among the lowest-ranked teams in the world, just the thought of playing for something you belong to is incentive in itself, ” he added.
Despite spending his entire life in the U.S., Burkey said it wasn’t hard to acknowledge the Filipino in him. He shared that his mom and her sister were part of a Filipino organization in the States, not to mention a huge number of kababayans living in their area who they befriended.
In fact, his family put in a lot of effort to make Nate’s dream of playing for the Azkals a reality someday. Although, as Nate explained, it was hard to get in touch with the Philippine Football Federation (PFF) or any coordinator of the national team, his family moved mountains and did everything they could to finally give Nate a try-out.
“Well it was kind of tough to get in touch with the Federation at that time. I just googled the PFF and would send them emails to whoever. It was not an easy process. I was very anxious to get the ball rolling and wanted to get involved as soon as possible,” Burkey explained.
It was only when he got in touch with fellow Fil-Ams Aly Borromeo and Anton del Rosario did his dream finally took a step forward. All thanks to the world of social networking, and through e-mails.
Nate soon joined the try-outs for Philippine club Kaya F.C., where he was also spotted by the national team’s coaching staff and was invited to try-out with them.“I was excited to try-out. It felt like, after all these years, I could finally represent my country in football,” he said.
And Nate’s ascension to the national team was like a movie cliché, where the kid who dreams becomes the hero and saves the day.
On July 2011, in the country’ first World Cup Qualifying game in many years, Nate Burkey went into the game as a sub in a match where the Philippines was down 1-0 with a few minutes remaining. And just like the movies, he scored the goal that sent the nation into euphoria.
“Scoring on my debut for the Philippines itself was unforgettable but the fact that it was a World Cup Qualifying made it even that much more special,” he said.
Burkey also lamented on the number of years he had waited for the moment. “Taking nearly six years to get in the team that I have been dreaming about and finally it all happened and actually scoring on my debut was a dream come true. I was full of emotions as you can see in some of the photos. I was savouring the moment,” he added.
Equally making him proud was the fact that a number of his family and close friends from the U.S. were watching the game. “I had some family and close friends watching the game online and on TV so it was great to share the moment with them, a moment I will never forget.”
Among other memories he said he would never forget playing for the Azkals was when he visited what Nate called the “football capital of the Philippines”, Bacolod, as well as the Los Angeles Galaxy game at Rizal Memorial Stadium.
“I really won’t forget the reception we [the Azkals] enjoyed in Bacolod. The people were very supportive of us and everywhere we went people were going crazy for us. It truly is the football capital of the Philippines,” he added.
Recently, Nate Burkey has swapped his life in the United States for the busy life of Manila which is playing for Kaya F.C., an opportunity he called “unbelievable”. “To be able to play football full-time is incredible,” he said.
“The experiences of both Kaya FC and the Azkals have been unbelievable. It really is just a dream come true and still so surreal that it all happened so fast and the way it has happened. I always dreamed of football being my life but now I can honestly say that it is. I am very happy with the way things have turned out and I just hope for more blessings and success in the future,” he added.
Asked if he missed the life in the States and if he learned to cope with Manila, Burkey explained “I do miss my family and friends in US but I know that this is the sacrifice I have to make and I am living out my dream so I wouldn’t have it any other way. I feel as though I am coping with Manila life well. You really only have to get used to the heat and the traffic and I am really used to it by now. I am happy and comfortable here.”
He also spoke highly of his teammates and of the coaching staff, and adding that he sees the popularity of Philippine football going nowhere but up in future years.
“I see only good and positive things coming for Philippine football in the next five years. I already see a strong influence in the youth everywhere and a very strong response from the Filipinos everywhere. Hopefully with the right structure and organisation, football will be the number one sport here and the most popular sport both watched and being played amongst Filipinos,” he said.
However, Burkey acknowledged that the program require time and effort before the effects could be felt. “I do think we are on the right track in improving football but like anything it is a process. We can’t expect over night change. It starts with grass roots programs and getting the youth involved as much as possible. We should also make the game easily accessible for them and anyone who wants to play,” he explained.
As did Santiago Muñez, Manny Pacquiao and Lance Armstrong, Nate Burkey followed his dreams and persevered to make them a reality, and he was rewarded for it. Although on a scale not on the same wave length as Santiago, Nate achieved his true ambition; one which he thought was not possible six years ago, and he has no plans of stopping just yet. As Nate and so many more athletes have proven throughout history, as long as you set your heart to it, it is possible to live your dreams. LE