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Sep 30, 2012

The rise of the Philippines

John Lennon called the Philippines a 'nuthouse'. The Beatles played their second biggest ever concert at the Rizal Football Stadium in Manila in 1966 during a 48-hour visit that is supposed to have put one of the final nails in the coffin of the group's touring career. The Fab Four supposedly, and unwittingly, snubbed influential First Lady Imelda Marcos. Death threats followed and, at the airport, Ringo Starr was punched in the face and also suffered a sprained ankle.

If John, Paul, George and Ringo had problems almost half a century ago, then Neil, James, Phil and Chris are faring much better these days. Neil Etheridge, James and Phil Younghusband and Chris Greatwich are some of the stars of the country's national team, nicknamed the Azkals. These English-born players are helping the national team and football all across the archipelago reach new levels.

These days, the majority of the strongest eleven would be made up of such players sometimes called 'Fil-foreigns' - born and raised overseas but with a Filipino parent. It will be some time before you see the team at a World Cup but now, at least, they are becoming a force in south-east ", the most passionate football region in the world's largest continent.

After decades of basketball, billiards and boxing, this former American colony went football crazy during the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup, the region's biennial meet and a very big deal. Seven previous attempts had seen six first round exits and, in 2008, failure to even qualify.

That all changed two years ago as the team reached the semi-final on the back of draws against Singapore and Myanmar and, best of the lot, a 2-0 victory over defending champions Vietnam in front of 40,000 fans in Hanoi.

Led by 32 year-old Englishman Simon McMenemy, at the time the youngest coach of any national team, the Azkals may even have gone further if the Rizal Stadium had been ready but such was the surprise at the team's exploits, no preparations had been made for the home leg of the semi-final. The Philippines had to play both games in front of 80,000 Indonesians at the imposing Gelora Bung Karno Stadium. Both were lost 1-0.

Regardless, it was a big step. Over the years, there had been attempts to establish a league structure in the country only for it to fail. The success of the national team has helped the latest version, the UFL, achieve some traction. The competition is semi-professional but has attracted sponsors and with the Younghusbands leaving England to play there, the future looks solid.

Many of the new generation of stars play overseas such as Fulham goalkeeper Neil Etheridge and, perhaps the best of the lot, Stephan Schrock. With a German father and Filipina mother, he represented the European country at various youth levels but in 2011, the Hoffenheim player became an Azkal.

Not all have welcomed this new-look national team. A famous television personality Arnold Clavio said earlier this year that the players are "not real Filipinos, just pretending to be brown-skinned".

His comments caused an uproar. Etheridge, recently loaned out to Bristol Rovers, replied on Twitter. "So let me get this straight... Are people trying to say that my mum's not Filipino? So I shouldn't play? Thought WE were a proud country?"

Ernest Nierras, the coach of the Philippine national women's football team and a former manager of the Azkals, dispelled any notion that these players were Qatari-style naturalizations. "I can attest that all the players participating in the AFC Challenge cup are all Filipinos by blood. They have their Philippine passport and Filipino parent to prove that! Filipino citizenship is by blood and not birth. Once a Filipino, always a Filipino."

Less controversial, though still novel, were taunts from regional rivals. In a June friendly at home to Indonesia, visiting fans shouted "You are not Filipino" at the opposition. This was slightly ironic as one of their goalscorers in the 2-2 draw, Irfan Bachdim, was born in the Netherlands to a Dutch mother and Indonesian father. Elsewhere in south-east, Singapore field a number of players who were born overseas and Anthony Ampaipitakwong, born in the United States to a Thai father and American mother, was called up by Thailand earlier this month.

The ultimate aim is to have as many homegrown players in the team as possible as this will mean that the UFL is capable of producing and developing talent that can hold its own against those that come through the ranks of teams in the big European leagues - the Younghusbands were youth players at Chelsea. It is going to take time so while the domestic league improves; the fact that there are players overseas with access to the best facilities and coaching available is a real benefit for the national team.

It is important that the momentum is sustained at November's 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup. Philippines have been drawn with Thailand, Vietnam and a yet-to-be-confirmed qualifier. Preparations have been mixed. An impressive 2-0 win in Singapore earlier this month - the first since 1972 - was followed by a loss in Laos (a game that was struck from the records as it turned out the officials were not FIFA-approved). The Younghusbands missed that defeat, returning to Manila for the first anniversary of their mother's death.

That seems to have contributed to the pair being dropped for this week's Philippine Peace Cup, a mini-tournament with Macau, Guam and Taiwan. German coach Michael Weiss controversially did the deed by text message. "James sorry for not being able to talk to you personally... so I have to inform you per text that Phil and you are not included in the list for the Peace Cup... anything else after remains to be seen... take care and all the best! MW" wrote Weiss.

"There are certain economic and non-economic demands which we cannot meet," was the enigmatic explanation from PFF communications head Ebong Joson according to InterAksyon. The pair have become the face of Philippine football with the commercial and advertising commitments that comes with such a status. It could be that coach Weiss is looking to send a message before the big tournament in November and/or assert his authority. It would be a major shock if the pair did not make the AFF Suzuki Cup.

The players said they would play for free and if their commitment is in doubt then former coach McMenemy was quick to come to their defence. "(They are the) driving force behind the rise of football both on the field and off," he tweeted. "If you knew what state Phil was in before the Vietnam game in 2010, his loyalty to the Philippines would never be questioned. Phil had food poisoning 24 hours before, didn't sleep, couldn't eat, couldn't stop vomiting. Couldn't celebrate after as [he was] vomiting. You can see it in his face in the highlights as he was subbed... nothing left to give. Hero."

That is what the likes of the Younghusbands, Greatwich and Schrock have given fans for the first time in decades - heroes. The new interest in the game may never match Beatlemania pre-1966 but it is there. The Philippines is slowly becoming a football country.

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