Philippine Sports History: When Efren ‘Bata’ Reyes wove his magic in Cardiff for the world to see

Published July 26, 2020, 1:21 PM

by Jonas Terrado

efren bata reyes
In this file photo, Efren ‘Bata’ Reyes of Philippines takes his turn against Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Nai in men’s carom (1-cushion) semifinal at the Tent City of Manila Hotel in the 2019 Southeast Asian Games last December. (MB File Photo / Ali Vicoy)

Efren “Bata” Reyes was asked what he’ll do with the cash prize that served as one of the rewards for winning the World Pool Championship in Cardiff, Wales on this day in 1999.

Reyes had just beaten Taiwan’s Chang Hao-Ping on July 26, 1999 to win the coveted title plus $60,000 (equivalent to P2.52 million at that time), and most would think that the man known as “The Magician” would think of lavish ways to spend the money.

But ever the unassuming person that endured him to millions of sports fans in this archipelago and beyond, Reyes responded by saying that he plans to give her wife a simple car instead of a fancy ride.

“I will buy her a Honda CR-V,” Reyes, then 45 years old, said.

The tournament that got him a chance to purchase the affordable SUV cemented Reyes as one of the greatest Filipino athletes who ever lived while raising the interest of a sport that is mostly known as a pastime.

Reyes won three matches in the preliminary round of the competition, earning him a spot in the 64-player knockout stage. He beat South Korean Young-Hwa Jeong 9-6 before facing the prospect of going home in the round-of-32 against England’s Jimmy White.

White is a legend in his own right. The man they call “The Whirlwind” has won multiple titles as a snooker player, but a win over Reyes would be considered an upset.

Reyes endured White’s fierce challenge, even making some combination shots to force the race-to-9 affair to a hill-hill 8-all tie.

But Reyes wound up topping White in the final rack behind a pair of tough shots to stay in the title hunt. He beat Germany’s Ralf Souquet (11-7) and Japan’s Akikumo Toshikawa (11-9) to arrange an all-Filipino semifinal duel with rival and good friend Francisco “Django” Bustamante.

Reyes took command and beat Bustamante 11-4 to face Chang in a race-to-17 final that was witnessed by Filipinos back home who either stayed up late or woke up early through the luxury of a cable subscription.

The final proved to be a mismatch as Reyes prevailed 17-8 to secure arguably the biggest win of his career. Reyes returned home a few days later to a hero’s welcome, prompting him to shed tears at the overwhelming response.

Reyes later said things changed after that 1999 win.

“Nung bata pa ako, ang mga taga-hanga ko lang mga taga-bukid, mga bata,” Reyes once told broadcast journalist Cheche Lazaro. “(Pero) Iba yung nangyari nung 1999, buong mundo na.”

Now 65, Reyes is far from the one who weaved his magic in Cardiff 21 years ago. Talks of retirement kept swirling amid poor eyesight, nagging ailments and the failure to earn a medal at the carom event of last year’s Southeast Asian Games.

Reyes, however, remains noncommittal if he’ll fade out of the limelight at the soonest possible time and let the new generation and their predecessors searching for the good old days enjoy YouTube clips showcasing his greatness.

“Mawawala na ba si ‘Bata’ sa eksena? Hindi ko ito masagot,” he said after receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award last March at the Philippine Sportswriters Association Awards Night.