MANILA - Filipina volleyball star Jaja Santiago has become such a valuable player for Japan side Saitama Ageo Medics that the club is willing to facilitate her naturalization.
Santiago dropped the bombshell in a conversation with Anton Roxas on "Volleyball DNA," where she explained her decision to remain with Ageo Medics despite offers from other teams -- and other leagues.
The 25-year-old middle blocker revealed that she had opportunities to sign with clubs from Turkey and China, but opted not to take the risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Three other V.League teams -- the Kurobe AquaFairies, the PFU BlueCats, and the Toray Arrows -- also gave her offers.
"But then, 'yung dalawa, nasa ibaba namin (sa rankings)," she said. "Mas, kumbaga angat kami sa rank sa kanila. 'Yung Toray ilang taon na rin sila nasa Final 4, but then last season, wala sila."
"So, gusto ko kunin 'yung opportunity na maglaro sa mataas na team and sa Japan. Pero hindi ko, ayaw ko naman ding iwan 'yung opportunity na binibigay sa akin ng Brazilian coach ko sa Ageo," she added.
Brazil's Antônio Marcos Lerbach came on last year to replace Toshiaki Yoshida as head coach of Ageo Medics.
He steered the club to fifth place in the V.League tournament, as well as a championship in the inaugural Division 1 V.Cup just last week. Ageo's triumph made Santiago the first Filipino to win a volleyball championship in an international league.
It also underscored her importance to the club, as Santiago was one of the most efficient players in the tournament as well as one of the team's top blockers. According to the Filipina veteran, her coach assured that she has a place in the team's future.
"Nasabi niya sa akin na may magandang plano siya para sa akin. So, kailangan ko mag-stay," said Santiago.
"Kalagitnaan lang ng liga, kinakausap na nila ako na sana mag-stay pa ako ng maraming taon. Gusto nilang palitan 'yung nationality ko, actually," she added. "Gusto nila akong mag-stay pa doon, tapos gusto nila akong tulungan palitan 'yung nationality ko."
Naturalizing Santiago will allow her to play for Ageo Medics as a local.
Santiago, a mainstay of the Philippine national volleyball team, admits that the option was a tempting one give Japan's status in world volleyball.
"Well, may dream ako maglaro ng Olympics," she noted. Japan has regularly competed in the Olympic Games, winning bronze in the 2012 Summer Games in London.
"Pero siyempre, may pride pa din naman ako. Pilipino pa din naman ako. Gusto kong tulungan 'yung bansa natin," said Santiago. "Doon sa goal ko na 'yun, gusto ko kasama ko 'yung mga kapwa Pilipino ko, 'di ba."
But even as she reiterated her commitment to the Philippines, Santiago said the possibility of switching federations is something that will stay at the back of her mind.
"Kung wala talagang chance, why not, why not, 'di ba? Pero it's on the back of my mind na, pwede, pwede ako mag-change ng nationality," she said.
For the meantime, Santiago's focus will be on Chery Tiggo's campaign in the Premier Volleyball League.
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