Manila: With boy-band good looks, a tutelage at Chelsea and a large dose of luck—courtesy a computer game—two British-born brothers are stirring an unlikely football fever in the Philippines. The beautiful game has for the first time pinched some of the limelight from basketball, the nation’s favourite sport.
With its potent mix of skill and celebrity, the national team, nicknamed the Azkals (street dogs), has wooed patriotic Filipinos through a series of gutsy World Cup pre-qualifying games.
At the centre of Azkal-mania are the half-Filipino Younghusband brothers, 24-year-old Phil, a fleet-footed striker, and his brother James, 25, a rangy central midfielder. Their giddy rise from the fringes of the Chelsea team to the heart of a national side on the other side of the world owes a lot to an improbable source—PlayStation’s popular Championship Manager game.
A young gamer researching players is credited with spotting the pair, who have a Filipino mother.
Striker: Phil Younghusband. Photo by Wikimedia Commons
“The story goes that the kid told the PFF (Philippines Football Federation) we were Filipinos playing for Chelsea,” says Phil, who reached the Premier League giants’ first team while his brother was a reserve.
Desperate to inject top-level overseas experience into a lacklustre national side, the PFF approached Chelsea on the issue of the Younghusbands’ eligibility.
“Our manager came to us and asked if we were interested in playing for the Philippines and since we came home regularly anyway, we tried out and joined the national team in 2005,” Phil explains.
The move is looking increasingly shrewd, both on and off the pitch.
The Younghusbands have quickly become A-list stars across the island archipelago, drawing a legion of adoring fans—most of them women. Their faces adorn billboards plugging everything from mobile phones to canned tuna, while local actresses and models routinely declare their affection for the pair in gossip magazines.
Football is also on the rise here, and while it may never challenge basketball’s status, the pair is confident their adopted country has enough passion for the sport to justify the establishment of a domestic professional league.
“It took eight years for the J-League of Japan to get where it is today. Hopefully it can take half that amount here,” says James.
A professional league would also help wean the national side off its dependence on stars born or based overseas. Nearly half of the current 23-man squad play abroad, including in the US, Spain, Germany and Iceland. A glance at a team sheet, including the Younghusbands, goalkeeper Neil Etheridge and defender Robert Gier, also shows the number of mixed-race players wearing the national shirt.
Despite the brothers’ faith in the Philippine game, the obstacles ahead are daunting. The Azkals are ranked a humble 162nd by Fifa, the home-grown talent pool is narrow—many Filipinos still see football as an elite sport—while facilities and financing are patchy.
The Philippines does not have an astroturf training pitch and it was a mad scramble to widen the stands for the 13,000 crowd who flocked to Manila’s national stadium for a recent World Cup pre-qualifying match against Sri Lanka. On the day, rain cascaded down the stairwells of the only covered stand as the Azkals hammered the hapless visitors 4-0. Outside, a platoon of touts and hawkers competed with the roar of jeepneys and motorbikes to sell tickets and Azkals paraphernalia.
The Younghusbands, who played with Chelsea’s Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, say the match was further evidence that Filipinos are warming to football, if only because their diminutive frames are better suited to mazy dribbles than slam dunks. The signs so far are promising. Although the national team was knocked out of World Cup contention by Kuwait, Azkal fever has not waned.
With tournaments in Taiwan and Indonesia ahead and interest in the side widening to include, among others, Etheridge (a Fulham FC reserve), the Philippines are no longer content to play whipping boys to regional giants such as Japan, South Korea and China.
Keen to continue the momentum, the Younghusbands have established a football academy, hunting new home-grown talent and raising the profile of the game. “We can’t play football forever, and the only way to be in football is to share our knowledge and experience with our fellow Filipinos,” says James.
Team manager Dan Palami says the country is fertile ground for the sport and is aiming for a strong qualifying run for the 2018 Russia World Cup. But he strikes a note of caution over the current Azkals frenzy. “Filipinos can be fickle, they will love us while we win, but will they be with us if we stop improving?”
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