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Bay Area Pinay lifts the Philippines to first-ever World Cup

ILLUSTRATION CAPTION – Illustration: Marybeth Soriano
Illustration: Marybeth Soriano

As Sarina Bolden lined up to take the penalty kick—one that would forever change Filipino sports history—her parents, Robert and Sherry, looked on anxiously from their Bay Area home, more than 8,000 miles away.

They could hardly watch.

Robert, his stomach in knots, paced in front of the television set, debating whether or not to look while his 25-year-old daughter took the biggest shot of her life. “I was a mess,” he admitted.

Sherry, though, remained focused. And saw the look on her daughter’s face.

“She’s always wanted to do something great,” she said. “By golly, she got it.”

From the limit of the penalty box, Sarina revved forward and struck hard, soaring the soccer ball beyond the rival goalkeeper’s reach and into the left corner of the net. With a single kick, Sarina—the Filipino and African American soccer sensation from the Bay Area city of Milpitas—made history by sending the archipelago nation of the Philippines to its first-ever FIFA World Cup.

“It’s very special to be a woman, to be Filipino and African American, and achieve this with my sisters. We’ve been through a lot, so to see all of that hard work pay off makes it so much sweeter,” Sarina told the Latina Latino Latinx News podcast. “I hope we continue to keep achieving and setting that bar, raising it and breaking that ceiling.”

The Philippines women’s national football team—nicknamed the Malditas—defeated Chinese Taipei during the quarter-finals of the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup in Pune, India, by a final score of 4-3 in penalty kicks, with Sarina’s kick clinching the game.

Qualifying for the World Cup as a player, team, and nation still feels like a dream, Sarina says. That dream—which will be realized next year as the Philippines take part in the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand—has been a lifetime in the making.

Showing a natural prowess for sports at a young age, Sarina dabbled in the usual youth activities of gymnastics, basketball, and softball. But it wasn’t until the age of six that Sarina took up soccer at the suggestion of a friend and the guidance of her father, who spent hours upon hours with her at practices.

“It wasn’t like, ‘You’re going to be a professional soccer player.’ It was just trying to figure out what our kids love to do,” Sherry said.

That love for soccer propelled Sarina to early success on various club teams she played for in the South Bay. She eventually pursued soccer over softball in college at Loyola Marymount University.

“I just had this deep love for the sport that I couldn’t really explain, and I wanted to explore that love for the sport,” Sarina said.

The team’s historic achievement is not only one of athletic perseverance but also of diaspora. The presence of foreign-born players who embark upon the athletic pilgrimage to their ancestral homelands to represent their national teams has become a soccer trend in recent years. Only four of the 23 athletes currently on the Philippines women’s national team were born in the Philippines.

Sarina was only 21 years old when she was named to the Philippines women’s national team in 2018. Coincidentally, that’s the same age her maternal grandfather was when he decided to emigrate to the United States.

Romualdo Mendoza Calpo, originally from Alcala, Pangasinan, relocated to San Leandro, California, with his wife and three children. Sherry, their youngest daughter, was three years old at the time. Eventually, Sherry set roots in Milpitas, where Sarina and her younger brother were raised.

Achieving soccer history hasn’t come without costs. The grind of playing Division I collegiate soccer for four consecutive years took its physical toll, and the challenges women face in professional sports—especially equal pay in soccer—have been well documented. So when the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly brought the world to a halt in 2020, Sarina found herself at a crossroads.

“This was probably the biggest obstacle I had ever faced in my career, and, at that point, I was reevaluating my life,” she said. “Is it time to switch career paths? Is it time to put my college degree to use and make something outside of soccer for myself?”

But in that reprieve, Sarina found herself and a renewed love for the sport. Before long, Sarina was playing for the Japanese women’s football club, Chifure AS Elfen Saitama. She eventually rejoined the Pinay squad in the Philippines.

Growing up in the Bay Area meant that Filipino culture was everywhere, but somehow, the feeling of not quite fitting in always lingered for Sarina.

“But going back [to the Philippines], making that decision, and joining my national team felt like that’s where I needed to be,” Sarina said. “Being a proud Filipino in the Philippines is an experience that I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.”

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