So, what makes a Filipina athlete different from everybody else?
Inna Palacios considered for a while what to say, seemingly at a loss for words.
The 25-year-old Manila native has enjoyed a long and illustrious career as the goalkeeper for De La Salle University and the Philippine Women’s National Football Team. However, her love affair with football started way before that.
“In grade school, a teacher went inside our room asking for people who wanted to play it. I just knew then it was a sport that you have to kick a ball,” she recalled.
Before long, she was playing for the national team, as coaches recognized her talent right away. She was only thirteen when she received the call for the Under-16 team. Then in the same year, she was promoted to the senior team as part of the reserves for an invitational tournament in Hong Kong.
“Officially though, I’ve been playing for the senior team since 2011. What makes playing for the national team different is the quality of play that we get outside. It’s so much harder but you grow.”
Palacios had compared playing internationally to the local game where she has plenty of fond memories, particularly the championship UAAP season with the Lady Booters of DLSU two years ago.
“Sa lahat it’s my favorite achievement, kasi yun na yun eh.”
Their success in the UAAP has seeped into other tournaments, as they won the inaugural PFF Women’s League, then triumphantly defended it a year later despite many key players graduating – including Palacios herself. To this day, the DLSU women’s football team have never been defeated, and she is a big part of why.
“Leaving the team with the twenty-two-game win streak is quite overwhelming because I never imagined it to happen. Before, I just wanted to play, but I never wanted to settle. I guess it pushed me to shape up as a better player and a better person, which eventually led me to where I am right now.”
Things weren’t always rosy for Palacios and her teammates, however. Prior seasons had seen the Lady Archers often at the bottom half of the standings.
“I almost quit playing football.
“Sometime after my rookie year, I was losing my passion for the sport. It’s just… I don’t know. I felt really drained, and I felt I was getting tired playing. Parang ano kasi, I couldn’t give anything else and I wasn’t having fun,” she disclosed.
Soon after, her grandmother, to whom she was very close, passed away while she was on national team duty. To make matters worse, her shoulder started to fail her, and she had to contend with a problematic injury that was difficult to rehabilitate.
At that point, she was losing it and gave in to careless mistakes detrimental to her team. Fortunately, Palacios had DLSU coach Hans-Peter Smit to steer her back on track.
“I was scared to tell him what was happening. I was lost and confused. But I will never forget what he said to me: ‘Why are scared? I’m not going to eat you. I can be your father, your second father’.”
Eventually, Palacios realized that her coach, the one who fought hard to recruit her, still trusted her, and that he had asked her to trust him back. Smit gave her time to recover physically and emotionally. From there, the four-time UAAP Best Goalkeeper honoree rediscovered her game, and the rest is history.
“I promised myself na wherever I’m going to college, I’m going to win a UAAP championship no matter what,” said the former La Sallian stalwart, who almost played for rivals Ateneo. Palacios confirmed that she had almost signed up for the Blue and White after conspiring with long-time national teammate and former Lady Eagle standout Camille Rodriguez to bring a championship to Katipunan. But a series of peculiar events led Palacios to make a u-turn for Taft instead.
Now that she has checked off winning a collegiate championship off her list of dreams, Palacios turns her focus on the national team, a privilege she has always relished.
“Hearing the national anthem before every game is my favorite part. Parang nothing else matters and at that moment, it’s like there’s no one else representing the country in that sport but you. It’s a lot to hold, so you really want to be able to give everything – and I mean everything – on that field for the country,” she expressed.
“It’s a nice feeling, a very humbling experience every time.”
Palacios is consistent member of the PWNFT, with 31 caps and nine clean sheets to her name since 2011. She has barely missed a tournament, and this has earned her the No.1 goalkeeper status on the team.
“Each tournament, each campaign is special in their own different ways,” she admitted. “I get to meet new people, new teammates almost every time, and it’s fun going back to see the familiar faces again. It’s a challenge, though, because you’re dealing with experienced people who know what to do and you try to keep everyone on the same page with the little time you have together.”
The national custodian considers qualifying for the AFC Women’s Asian Cup the highest point of her Philippine team career, as it also serves as a FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifier, the premier event in women’s football.
Palacios was in goal for the 2017 qualifier match against Bahrain which ended in a 1-all draw. But the single point from the game was enough for the Philippines to secure a historic place in the top event in Asia against the seven other best teams in the region.
“It didn’t register at first what we accomplished because I was disappointed with how I performed. When we started getting messages and Tweets, it started to sink in.”
Palacios got very emotional with teammate and co-captain Patrice Impelido, the only other active member who has served the team longer.
“All our years playing for the national team, it was what we’ve been waiting for. We’ve seen the team struggle talaga and we’ve been sticking with the team ever since.”
They and the team felt like rockstars with a welcoming party at the airport upon their return, strewn with media appearances that lasted until the team left for Jordan in the summer of 2018 to compete in the biggest tournament of their lives.
Yet the high was starting to recede, and soon Palacios would face another painful setback again. The Philippine Football Federation installed a new head coach in the run-up to the tournament, someone who wasn’t familiar with Palacios’ style or aware of her wealthy international experience.
The coach chose to overlook that and reduced Palacios to a benchwarmer in favor of someone new. Thus Palacios watched the prestigious Asian football tournament from the bench. She looked on helplessly as the World Cup dream started to fade away with one defeat after another.
“That time was very frustrating to watch without playing, knowing that you’ve worked hard to get there. Kudos to the others that played, they showed great character and they played good. But seeing it just slip away it felt like it would be the last time for me.”
Palacios can sense that she is in the twilight of her football career, especially in terms of international football. Yet she also knows much still needs to be done in order for Philippine women’s football to prosper the way it should, and she is determined to keep going while she can.
“For now, we hope to keep qualifying to the next round. I’m still trying to gain all my confidence back, it’s a long process. It was really tough, and for many of us, we’re still recovering in a way.”
The experience in Jordan took a heavy toll, according to Palacios. It crippled not only her but also other teammates.
“Some of us didn’t want to play back again, but we fought through it,, and we stayed because of the people we have in the team. And we believe that we can still reach something great with what we have. And for that, we’ll always be thankful for the things that we experienced even though it was some hard times. We know that at the end of the day, we’re stronger that we surpassed that moment,” she shared.
Palacios wants to move on and keep moving forward, and to try to achieve new things with the team. New things could come in the shape of the Olympic Games, where the team passed the first round of their qualifiers with flying colors.
The Philippines only lost once in that round, dominating the rest of their opponents. In the second round, which starts in a few days (April 4-10), they will meet the team that beat them. This time, though, they will have to win against them if they want to keep their Olympic dreams alive.
“It’s every athlete’s dream to be an Olympian. Being there, I can’t even imagine. But maybe when we do get there it would be the best day of our lives. It’s the biggest sporting event in the world for all sports.”
For someone who puts a prime on representing flag and country, the national team goalkeeper couldn’t answer right away when asked what makes Filipina athletes stand out from the rest.
After struggling with her thoughts for a while, she began to say: “It’s… Hindi basta nagpapatalo nang walang laban. Resilient, yeah.
“There’s no limit for them that they can also do great things through the things that they love.”
Little did she notice that she was describing herself.