Starting September, when most kids his age are in school, 9-year-old Sandro Reyes will be leaving the comforts of home in Manila to pursue his dream of football greatness in the school run by one of the biggest—and most successful—clubs in the world, FC Barcelona in Spain.
It will be a long journey for him to become the player he dreams to be, but at the rate things have gone for the fourth grader at Southridge, the possibilities seem endless. “I’m excited,” Sandro told the Inquirer after news broke of him going to FCB Escola—the Barcelona football school. “I want to play for FC Barcelona someday.”
Known for producing Spain’s finest talents, Barcelona, popularly known as “Barca,” is one of the most accomplished teams in club football history. The members of the club currently form the core of Spain’s World Cup and European Cup winning squad.
The long list of greats include Paulino Alcantara, a player born in Iloilo to Spanish parents, who is still the club’s all-time leading scorer, Dutch master Johan Cruyff, Brazilian sensations Ronaldinho and Ronaldo, and currently, Lionel Messi, the Argentine superstar whom Sandro aims to emulate.
Road less traveled
Sandro, standing 4 feet tall, is taking a road less traveled by homegrown Filipino players, and although a significant amount of money was needed to open the opportunity for him, there was little doubt of his immense potential.
Until two years ago, when its national team reached the semifinals of the Asean Football Championship, the Philippines barely created a ripple in international football and it is still ranked in the lower quarter of the International Football Federation (Fifa) rankings at 152. And the fact that Sandro will be getting top football education in the world’s top footballing nation makes his move to Spain even more compelling.
Described by a coach as a “complete player,” Sandro has been dominating football festivals in Manila since he was 7. Observers took notice of the boy in a youth tournament in the football hotbed of Barotac Nuevo in Iloilo a year ago and created a stir in tournaments in Singapore and Portland, Oregon.
But the turning point came in March when he attended a Barcelona camp in Singapore, where he emerged as the most outstanding player. The performance in the camp led to an invitation for a trial in Spain.
“We wanted to gauge his skill with the rest of the world,” said Sandro’s father, Edmundo Reyes. “It was a one-day trial and whatever happened, it’s one day he would never forget for the rest of his life. Never mind being accepted. Getting invited is already a big achievement.”
Like American Idol audition
Although he had been with his son for most of the tournaments, none could have prepared the elder Reyes for what he would see in Cataluña—the world-class facilities as well as the hordes of players and their parents hoping to see their sons get a slot in Escola.
“It was like an American Idol audition,” said Edmundo, a former three-term Marinduque congressman, referring to the long lines and the frenzy that usually attend auditions to the popular television talent show.
There were 400 kids trying out in Sandro’s age-category and although he was just three weeks removed from an ankle injury, he did well enough to get an invitation to another trial in June.
“We had zero expectations because he was injured,” said the father. “But they (Escola coaches) were not only assessing the skills, but also the height, trainability and even the muscles. They were scoring the kids while they were just standing up. They were looking for a player to fit their philosophy.”
Barcelona is known for its tiki-taka style of play predicated on one-touch passing and movement. Most of their players are not known for their physical strength but more for their technical ability on the ball and their reading of the game.
Down to 32
When Sandro returned to Barcelona, there was none of the frenzy that marked their April visit. Only 32 players were recalled for a trial and the kids were divided into two groups of 16. From his own count, Sandro— true to form—scored four goals and dished out five assists in a scrimmage of his group.
A five-minute video of highlights from Sandro’s stints in tournaments in Manila and overseas was proof of his nimble feet. There was a penalty kick that found the top corner, countless through balls for teammates for a score and dribbling skills to beat defenders in small-sided games.
Neco Lambey, who got on board as Sandro’s coach before the Barcelona tryouts, sees big things for the 9-year-old.
“I see him more as a conductor on the field—a creative midfielder who can distribute the ball and feed the strikers. He’s equally deadly with both feet,” said Lambey.
Lambey, a Belize national who has coached in different international schools in Thailand and Indonesia, said Sandro also stood out for his passion for the game.
Hunger for the game
“He would watch Barcelona games on television live at 2 a.m. and would discuss the game with you in the morning,” said Lambey. “He’s a fan of the game and he studies the game.”
Lambey added: “I see the hunger, I see the fight to be one of the best that he could be. He’s a hard worker and so everything that you teach him, he takes it home and he studies it.”
The e-mail from FCB Escola about Sandro’s entry to the school came on Monday night. Sandro’s mother, Camille, relayed the news to him.
“We told him that he got in and asked if he was ready to move to Spain. He just said OK,” said the father. “I would have been celebrating.”
Not Sandro, though. He was sitting at the backseat of the car. “It’s seems he’s focused on something bigger,” said Edmundo, whose three other children are also into sports. “It’s an easier decision to move to Spain because he knows where he’s going.”
Sandro will be accompanied by Camille when he starts studying in Escola, where his education is subsidized by the club.
“We can always come back if he doesn’t want to be there, but right now we want to help him achieve his dream,” said Edmundo. “He is guaranteed a slot in Escola for the next three years.” After Escola, the next step for Sandro would be getting a slot at La Masia, the fabled academy of the club, which has produced World Cup winners Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique of Spain.