PFL: Amid lost lives and sleepless nights, Cebu FC gave it all

Levi Joshua Verora Jr.

Posted at Jun 01 2023 05:07 PM

From the Cebu FC Facebook page
From the Cebu FC Facebook page

Dynamic HERB Cebu FC’s recently-concluded 2022-2023 Philippines Football League (PFL) campaign was only one of the many battles it tried to hurdle on and off the pitch throughout the year.

While competing for the crown in the country’s top-flight football competition, members of the club also had to endure the emotional and psychological effects of losing loved ones to an earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria last February.

“I really can't explain as much as I want, it was incredibly difficult, I had the worst days of my life. My best friends, my former teammates, their families and a lot of people died, my city was destroyed, our homes were destroyed,” Turkish winger Mert Altinoz said.

Born in Hatay province, the 21-year-old Altinoz could not even put into words how the tragedy back at home personally affected him and his fellow Turkish nationals on the squad.

“Even when I wanted to sleep, I couldn’t forget about what happened. We need to stay strong. Our families are there. We don’t have homes anymore. Our city, all of it is finished. We needed to stay strong,” Altinoz said.

Aside from the winger, head coach Mehmet Kakil and his assistant coach Levent Ozturk are both from Hatay too. Cebu FC owner Ugur Tasci also grew up in Turkey before he settled in Cebu to build business ventures with his family.

The club has an active partnership with Turkish top-tier league side Hatayspor, which helped Cebu to have a professional football club and develop its grassroots program.

“The first few days were really hard for the team because we could see how the boss, Baris (Tasci), Evren (Tasci), Mert, and the coaches were suffering. They lost their families and home back in Turkey,” JB Borlongan said.

According to Altinoz, Kakil lost his uncle, Ozturk lost at least three cousins, while Ugur lost his brother in the earthquake which claimed more than 59,000 lives. He personally lost his best friend and teammate growing up to the natural disaster too.

“I messaged them when I heard the news. I always gave them eye-to-eye contact and hard hugs to make sure they feel that I’m with them. All I can say is that’s the difference between all the teams in the league and us. We got each other’s backs no matter what,” midfielder Daniel Gadia added.

Back at home, Hatayspor's sporting director Taner Savut was also found dead. The club, along with Gaziantep, were withdrawn from the current season of the Turkish Super Lig.

“Before games, I don’t sleep anymore, because I keep thinking about my friend,” Altinoz shared. “When we were in Hatay, we were together all the time. I heard many of our friends passed away."

-- Staying strong --

For the locals, the least they could offer was to extend comfort and rally behind those most affected by the difficult time.

“Our coaches were not in the right mindset because of what happened to Hatay, but we’re giving everything to them,” Gadia said earlier in the year.

From the moment the tragedy struck, football served as a distraction for Altinoz, Kakil, Ozturk, and the Tascis. Wins provided them something to cheer about while having to deal with a difficult reality.

“Me, personally, I wanted to make sure to give them everything I had in all the games I played because each win gave them happiness. I made sure we could grab a win each time,” Gadia said.

“It helped us to have a why in each game we had. From the bosses and coaches’ perspective, we could feel how they tried to be composed after all what happened to Hatay. Yet, we can also feel the uneasy aura coming from their end.”

As a team, Cebu stuck to the original goal it had set at the start of the season.

“At the beginning of the league, me and the coaching staff aimed to finish at the top. We wanted to become the champions. This is not just CFC. We as Cebu want to be known as champions,” Tasci said.

The Gentle Giants managed to challenge eventual champions Kaya FC Iloilo in the leaderboard, engaging in a tight two-way race for the crown.

Cebu ultimately fell short when it drew Stallion Laguna FC at home on May 24, finishing with just 51 points in the league table to Kaya’s 52.

“Even if they were going through all the pain, they didn't make it hinder the training of the team. We kept on working hard,” Borlongan said.

“I'm proud to be part of this team and go through all the challenges together.”

For Altinoz, to even be able to put themselves in a position to compete for a title in spite of what happened was already a testament to their strength.

“The bad news coming every day destroyed us. It became very bad, but we kept our psychology strong. Our goal had always been to be the champion. We missed by a few points, but I hope our team will rise and be successful next year,” he said.

Amidst the loss of family, sleepless nights, and an insurmountable situation, there was nothing more comforting knowing that everyone at Cebu FC gave it their all.

“All the people helped me. They kept telling us we’re here for you. They helped us stay strong. In very difficult times, my teammates, my friends, everyone came together to support us. I want to thank them all,” Altinoz said.


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