When Emelio “Chieffy” Caligdong was 9, he received his first pair of football boots-two sizes bigger-from older brother, Roberto, in their hometown, Barotac Nuevo, Iloilo.
“I had to wear three layers of socks so that the shoes would fit,” Caligdong recalled of the boots that would kick off what would eventually become a flourishing career.
These days, the popular Filipino footballer has no problem fitting the boots provided him. Just 5’5”, Caligdong’s size belies his giant stature in the game that has recently put the Philippines in the global spotlight.
But while the national team is filled with players who got their football experience—and even part of their lineage—in Europe and other parts of the world where the sport is a religion, Caligdong is strictly homegrown.
Philippine football had been in the doldrums for quite some time until Caligdong and the Philippine national football team, the Azkals, turned it all around two years ago at the Suzuki Cup in Vietnam.
Caligdong had played a peripheral role in that campaign because of injury but just when everyone thought he was finished, he came back to score against Mongolia and boosted his stock dramatically.
The Ilonggo player, who has close to 26,000 followers on the social networking site Twitter, became suddenly famous, with almost everyone calling him by his first name, Chieffy, a nickname he owes to his grandfather being the chief of police in Barotac Nuevo.
There’s something about Caligdong that has every Filipino football fan pumped up each time he’s on the pitch. Perhaps it’s his ability to carve out a scoring opportunity out of nothing. Or just the sight of him playing—and doing well—against players almost twice his size. The man is a sight to behold on the pitch.
Caligdong provides so many poignant moments even when he did not intend for them to be so. At Bangkok’s imposing Rajamangala Stadium on Nov. 22, he led the Azkals as their skipper for the first match of the AFF Suzuki Cup against Thailand.
Standing still and stiff, Caligdong made a snappy salute as the Philippine flag was being hoisted and the national anthem sung. For this enlisted member of the Philippine Air Force, the salute is mandatory.
But that might be the last time he is seen doing the salute at the start of the game. Caligdong requested and was granted a discharge from military service starting Dec. 1.
“I may no [longer] be a military man but I will keep serving the country by playing my heart out for the national team,” the 30-year-old player vowed.
Last November 26, Caligdong delivered his most memorable performance yet for the national team when he struck the game-winning goal in the 1-0 win over powerhouse Vietnam in the regional tournament. He admitted that getting relegated to the bench served as motivation for him to make an impact even in a cameo role.
People who know him would say that that’s typical Chieffy-always driven and determined, always trying to prove himself. “He has always been an important player for us. The thing with Caligdong is that he always comes up with these important goals,” said teammate Rob Gier.
Such play also reflects the never-say-die spirit of the team that has earned it a reputation for pulling off upsets.
“I want to show that even if I’m the smallest, I can be a big factor in the team,” Caligdong said, after jacking up his international goal count to 16, the second highest among active players. The guy’s ability to rise above injuries, one of the many challenges an athlete faces, has also earned him admiration from teammates and coaches alike.
On the eve of his military discharge, Caligdong led the Azkals to a second semi-final appearance in the Suzuki Cup, after a 2-0 win over Myanmar.
The Azkals would eventually lose in the semi-finals to Singapore, but Caligdong left a lasting impression after coming in at halftime, since his terrific work helped the Azkals dominate the second half. Unfortunately, the team fell short in the end.
The man’s hunger for success was nurtured for years in the country’s football hotbed, Barotac Nuevo. Whether it was in the town plaza where young boys like him played barefoot, or in the rice fields in the outskirts of town, the boys regarded the game as an obsession.
“I started playing when I was five because of my older brother, Roberto,” Caligdong recounted.
Roberto Caligdong played for the University of Santo Tomas in the 1990s and represented the country at the international level. The younger Caligdong recalled how he played with an improvised goal-making do with bamboo branches as posts-in a barrio just outside town.
He hardly ever refused an offer to play and would often end up with blisters on his feet because he had no spikes. It was in those years that his football skills were honed and his panache developed.
“My hometown has given me so much,” Caligdong said. “Just to grow up there, enjoying the culture of football… I wouldn’t have achieved all the things I’ve done with the national team [without it].”
As a gesture of gratitude, he returns to his hometown every year to hold a football festival for kids in the hope that someday, he would find more homegrown players who can eventually represent the country.
Early this year, some 1,200 kids participated in the festival that Caligdong has put up with help from teammates Ian Araneta, Roel Gener and Nestorio Margarse, national players who also grew up in Barotac Nuevo.
Leaving the Air Force, which Caligdong helped lead to numerous national football titles, has placed a cloud of uncertainty over his future in the country.
With the Suzuki Cup over and done with, football for Caligdong has taken a backseat as he focuses on his two sons, Miles and Andrei, and his wife, Nene. They’re the main reason behind his request to be discharged from the Air Force.
“I enjoyed my time at the Air Force but my focus right now is my family,” he said.
With his wife recently receiving an offer to work as a nurse in Texas, Caligdong is caught in a dilemma. Should he stay in the Philippines or eventually move to the United States?
“I have some offers from Manila clubs, and if I can support my family [with that], it would be better [to stay here rather than be apart,” he said. It’s a good opportunity for him, he said, but the offer to his wife is a good opportunity for her, as well.
“[We’ll choose] whatever is better for the family,” he told reporters in Bangkok.
Whatever decision Caligdong makes, one thing is certain: his place in Philippine football lore is safe and secure.