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Stallion defender Simone Rota ready to continue living his Philippines dream

In an era of flashy footballers and their extravagant lifestyles, the story of Stallion and Philippines' defender Simone Rota truly warms the heart.

Born to Filipino parents in 1984, baby Simone was left to the care of Buklod Kalinga orphanage in southern Manila, from where he would be adopted by an Italian couple when he was six months old.

He spent his formative years in Milan where, as a 17-year-old, he would get a first taste of professional football with Italian Serie C side, SSD Pro Sesto.

Then, after a stint in Swiss side FC Lugano, Rota received a call from then UFL champions Stallion in late 2013, asking him to pack his bags to return to his country of birth.

"I played 10 years for the same team, Pro Sesto, before moving to Switzerland for one year. Coming back to Milan, my old team had become bankrupt. At that same time, Stallion called me to play here in the Philippines", he tells ESPN FC.

"So I decided to come here. First of all because this is my country."

In one way, making his way back to the land of his birth was not an easy decision because "I would live far from my family, and that is, for sure, the hardest thing for me."

But for football, and deep personal reasons, the move made sense.

He said: "I decided to come back to the Philippines because Stallion called me to play, and, at the same time, I wanted to visit my country, and find some reason about my personal life."

Arriving in Manila, Rota decided to stay at the same Buklod Kalinga orphanage where Sister May and Mother Flora took care of him when he was a baby.

Living in Buklod Kalinga was the logical choice for Rota so he could show his appreciation to the people who first raised him.

Philippines defender Simone Rota
Simone Rota made his Philippines international debut against Malaysia in 2014.

"It's my life here," he said. "It's like my family, and I just give something to the kids and Sister May, if they need some help."

Debuting for Stallion in January 2014 in the UFL, Rota quickly caught the eye of Azkals' manager Thomas Dooley. He made his debut for the national team in March of that year, against Malaysia.

Rota would go on to score his first international goal in the AFC Challenge Cup, and would be an integral part of the Azkals' Suzuki Cup squad where the Philippines made the semifinals.

It was a year when Rota says "everything went so fast."

He added: "It was like a dream to represent the Philippines and, and I'm still living my dream." 

Stallion would finish in a disappointing fourth place that year, and have been struggling to find consistency ever since. The team have been unable to replicate their 2013 double-winning form on a regular basis.

Coach Ernie Nierras has seen players come and go, but his commitment to developing Filipino talent is what drives Stallion. Rota is optimistic that good things for his team are just around the corner.

"Stallion is like a family. So hopefully, we are trying to get better every year, and helping most of the local players to grow up," he said.

"So just give time to the team to have a right mentality to win the UFL, and maybe to play in the AFC Cup. This is our goal."

Philippines defender Simone Rota
Simone Rota, left, played in Italy and Switzerland before pledging his football career to his nation of birth.

When talking about Buklod Kalinga, it becomes obvious very quickly that Rota has a soft spot for each and every one of the children in the orphanage.

"I understand that if I was not adopted, I would be in the same situation, so I can see myself in them. That's why I'm so close with Buklod Kalinga," he explained.

"Even some of the same nuns were here 30 years ago when they helped me and my adopted parents."

Rota is looking forward to November when the Philippines will co-host the AFF Suzuki Cup for the first time. The Azkals are grouped with defending champions Thailand, four-time winners Singapore, and Indonesia.

He hopes to make the squad, despite suffering a knee injury against JP Voltes on Aug. 20. 

"As revealed by an MRI scan, I have a partial ACL and PCL tear, and will undergo a functional and movement test in seven days time to determine if surgery is required or not," he said.

"If no surgery required, recovery will depend on my body, but I will be out for only a month and will be available for action in the Suzuki Cup."

Despite being in a tough Group A, Rota is cautiously optimistic of his side's chances.

"I know our group is really hard, but we have experience from playing in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers that nothing is impossible," he said.

"Coach [Thomas} Dooley is giving us the hard mentality. and when we go to the field, we respect the opponent, but we don't go to the field intimidated by the other team."

And if Rota can make it onto the Azkals' 2016 AFF squad, despite his injury, you can be sure that the children and staff of Buklod Kalinga will be watching closely.

Manila-based Ryan Fenix is football columnist for Sports5 Philippines and analyst for InterAksyon.com. He is also a FIFA Ballon d'Or juror.

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