A beautiful (and not so beautiful) Filipino fairy tale

Philippines are the surprise package in the Asian qualifiers. Condemned during years to the nether regions of the football in the continent, the Azkals have lived an astonishing ascent, that has placed them third in a tough group that includes also Uzbekistan, North Korea, Bahrain and Yemen.

After their merited nil-nil draw in Pyongyang, the Filipino team will face Bahrain next Tuesday knowing that a victory could propel them to the second place in their group, a completely unexpected development only a few years ago.

What is the reason for their unprecedented success? To find out, I interviewed Miguel David, a friend of mine who has been a longtime local and international football administrator in the country. I planned to edit the interview but the content is so good that I decided to leave it as it is. Hope you enjoy it.

In the early 2000s, the president (Mr. Juan Miguel Romualdez) and immediate past president (Mr. Rene Adad) of the federation met with me to discuss what they thought of the future. It was after we successfully hosted our first ever World Cup Qualifier Match for the 2002 World Cup against Laos, which we drew. They basically felt that for Football in the Philippines to take off, all the team needed was a string of results.

As a consequence of that meeting and because of the Internet, in the early to mid 2000s, we started finding Filipino players with Australian, British and American Lineage. It was the birth of the Azkals program. As developing Football in our country was extremely difficult given that funds from FIFA were limited and we are an archipelago of 7,100 islands, it was the one hope for a quick fix.

The first ones we discovered were the Younghusband brothers from the Chelsea Academy and Neil Etheridge at Fulham, a former England Youth International. But those were not the only ones. Due to the poverty in my country during the time of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos onwards, millions of people forced to migrate to find better lives, mainly to the developed nations where our social skills, work rate and ability to speak English ensured that our locals were quickly assimilated. Given that the FIFA rule is that we can play a player of up to the grandparents land of birth, it worked to our advantage, as most of these players are all first generation children of the original migration wave, we have not even gone to the second generation yet. The Philippines has 10 million migrants registered abroad out of a population of 100 million today.

The program started to give results, but it was quickly abandoned because of the corrupt practices of the late FA president. By 2010, the Azkals program was stopped dead in the water, almost. Then, the miracle happened, a ragtag team of players, composed by the original Filipino-foreigners from England and the US, together with a core of players from the Military and the Philippine Air Force, embarked on a journey that would change everything, all for free with no promises of anything in exchange.

The team was prepared extremely well by an Englishman who just happened to be living in the Philippines, Des Bulpin. His methods galvanized the group and because of our low standing in the FIFA rankings, we were able to play in tournaments that went from the easiest to the hardest. First, we had the Long Teng Cup hosted in Macau, where we played Chinese Taipei, Macau and Hong Kong. We finished decently as we really did have good players, but the real purpose of that tournament was that it was an opportunity to mould the team (We don't and cannot afford to play home and away).

Immediately after that, was the ASEAN Championship Qualifiers, with 5 minor ASEAN countries, we blew everyone away and our ragtag team started to gel alongside all the benefits of the preparations of Des Bulpin who was now gone because he had to return to England on personal matters. The team was now managed by another young Englishman, Simon McMenemy. By the time we reached the Suzuki Cup, a month after, which features the top 6 ASEAN nations plus 2 from the qualifiers, we were a well drilled and oiled machine. In that tournament, the grit of our players was the most important aspect, we surprised Vietnam and Singapore and made it to the semifinals, the furthest our country has ever reached, and that got the country to actually believe in the team.

Curiously, a very important reason of that rise in popularity was that most of our players who were of mixed race and quite good looking, so most new fans were actually female. It became fashionable to support the national football team.

We ended that tournament in the semis with Indonesia beating us over two legs 1-0 a piece. But the euphoria had started and the corrupt president was overthrown. Tons of sponsors came in and a lot of overseas-based players with Filipino roots started to be interested in playing with the National Team. Wanna be an instant star? Join the Azkals program. It ushered a new uncharted era in my country and optimism started to build over the undiscovered potential. Suddenly, players that needed money to buy socks were thrust into the limelight and started signing significant endorsement deals as they were the new darlings of the country.

Then, things started to move fast, McMenemy was let go as he did not have the appropriate licenses, he was really just an amateur coach, and could not sit on the bench in AFC competitions. In came Michael Weiss of Germany together with the German FA support and also a previously unknown asset, Filipino German Players, led by Stefan Schrock. That, combined with the Filipino Spanish Players, Filipino American and Filipino Australian players, meant that we now had an assortment of riches.

Moving forward, we got a lot of decent results, but that was also because of our rivals usually didn’t know anything about us. Every few months we added new players we found thanks to Youtube, email, and Facebook. However, because of the lack of tournament experience, we would always fall at the final hurdle such as semifinals of the ASEAN Championship and AFC Challenge Cup, among other tournaments.

Eventually Michael Weiss was let go because of conflicts and Thomas Dooley came in. He was the perfect coach for us. He was German and American, which meant he understood our culture better, he was relatively affordable because he had extremely limited experience, and he was hungry to prove something.

Locally though, trouble was brewing. Though, yes, the Azkals were popular, local Football was dying. Barely any local players were coming up through the system because of the vast superiority of the Filipinos that grew up abroad. The league was also collapsing due to mismanagement and imbalances in competition. As we were being flashed by the cash, the fundamentals went out the window.

At the same time, the National team was not progressing because we could only attract players of a certain level, but not enough to actually compete with the big boys. The fans were disappointed and the sponsors were restless. At that point, everything seemed to be about to collapse, and then we got a struck of luck.

During the time of then president Mohammad Bin Hammam, Asia was divided into two. The weak countries played the weak countries, and the strong developed countries only played amongst themselves. Nobody almost never played beyond their usual quality level. And, as our team got stronger, we were the big fish in the little pond, beating the teams that our FIFA ranking allowed us to face but not enabling us to get more so we could play better teams.

But last year it all changed. Now all countries must face each other regardless of big or small. So, as our team started to fade and the local football development continued to implode, a window of opportunity happened. Suddenly we were guaranteed to play in X number of World Cup qualifiers, which meant that there was a chance for our players to be seen on TV all over the world. That tipped the balance. A lot of the strong players that didn’t want to play for us, saw an opportunity and switched allegiances as that would put them in the shop window for the world leagues.

With that strong injection of new Filipino players from abroad, we had a rejuvenated squad with more powerful players, which led to those upset results in the World Cup qualifiers, and there are more to come. The good results renewed interest in the national team once more with money coming back, and more players are being found.

Right now there are a few who have been identified in Italy and some more in other parts of Europe. There is an immense amount of players with Filipino descent, Jonathan de Guzman is one, David Alaba another. Obviously, those ones are already out of the books, but that talks about the enormity of the talent that could be at our disposal. There’s another one we cannot get, but who could be a game-changer, he’s Alphonse Areola, the future French #1 keeper. He is a current youth world champion and is part of the generation of Paul Pogba, currently with Villarreal.

He is also unique, as both his parents, mother and father were Filipino immigrants, unlike all the others who share bloodlines with foreigners, but he will not choose us. He is the future French #1 after Lloris.

But anyway, a lot of the more powerful players changed allegiance to us because the 8 guaranteed World Cup qualifiers enable them to have better career possibilities. For them, signing with a rich Asian team would be much better than playing in the third division of Germany or Belgium.

And well, that’s why, all of a sudden, our team is performing. But the downside of this is that our local football is in shambles, and most children won’t even have a chance. There’s no development happening as a lot of the politicians are just happy to see the national team do well but don’t care about our local programs. If you see the results of our youth teams, they are really awful. We don’t have a national league and the regional league is fast collapsing because of debt.

And most people don't care, the national team is basically pop culture. Most people that follow it are not really football fans in the purist sense. For the football people, we only hope that sense kicks and we can do something actually sustainable, but it will be hard given the difficulty in our country because of an almost nonexistent sports program and legislation. So we can only hope…

And that is the story of my country, for now..."