FOOTBALL in the Philippines is still at that stage where most people only know it as “soccer”, but judging by what has been going on over the last few years, that’s all about to change real soon.
Just like in Malaysia, support for the Philippines’ national football team is at an all-time high, especially after their semi-final appearance at the AFF Suzuki Cup (which, of course, we eventually won).
The difference between our national team and theirs is that while we’re called the Harimau (or the Tigers), their team has had to live with the slightly unfancied nickname of the “Azkals” aka the stray dogs, or to put it even more bluntly, the pariahs.
It’s bad enough being constantly seen as the underdogs, but being called stray dogs, in a Third World country where many live in poverty-stricken rural villages, and where dog meat is still served as a delicacy (it’s technically prohibited, but you can still get some if you know where to ask)? That’s just harsh.
As you could tell from the name, the Azkals have always been total outsiders. Filipinos have never been into “soccer”. You’ll find basketball courts – or at least a hoop – and Manny Pacquiao advertisements on literally every other street in the Philippines, but nothing on football.
So, for probably the first time in their history, the Philippines national football team is being celebrated, and in quite some style too.
I was at Baguio City in the Philippines last week when the Azkals happened to be there undergoing high-altitude training for the on-going AFC Challenge Cup; and the support they get now is just ridiculous.
They travel around like VIPs on a pimped-out team bus, in a huge motorcade with police escorts, and they’re mobbed, literally, by screaming fans everywhere they go. Frankly speaking, all they did was get past the group stage of the Suzuki Cup – not exactly the Champions League. Though to be fair, we Malaysians did get a public holiday for winning the tournament …
Things could’ve been better if they had a decent stadium. The Azkals do not have a home venue good enough to meet FIFA’s stadium requirements for the Suzuki Cup semi-finals. So, they played both legs away at Indonesia’s Gelora Bung Karno stadium instead, losing both 1-0.
Imagine them playing one of those games at home, in front of their crazy fans in Manila – I wouldn’t have bet on them losing.
In spite of that loss, the Filipinos are still right behind their Azkals.
The history of the Harimau and the Azkals couldn’t be more different. While our Tigers live in the shadow of past glories and former heroes like Datuk Soh Chin Aun and Mokhtar Dahari, the Azkals have struggled to even have their existence acknowledged.
Our national footballers have been subject to widespread ridicule over the last couple of decades for their failure to live up to expectations; the Azkals have shot to fame in a matter a years, on what is – at the moment at least – rather limited success on a background of low expectations.
But perhaps the biggest factor in the Azkals’ current success and popularity is something that Malaysia has yet to try – using players of mixed nationality. Or at least we never really had the chance to.
The Azkals are able to call on a large number of half-Filipino footballers from abroad, led by the Younghusband (yes, that’s their name) brothers James and Phil, both of whom are now celebrities in the Philippines thanks to their model good looks.
The former Chelsea youth and reserve players were born in England to a British father and Filipina mother, and according to some accounts, the Philippine Football Federation came to know about their eligibility to represent the Azkals in 2005 thanks to a gamer who noticed they were half-Filipino while playing Football Manager.
The current Azkals squad selected for the AFC Challenge Cup, which features Asian countries with “emerging” football associations, includes English-Filipino goalkeeper Neil Etheridge (Fulham’s third-choice keeper), American-born captain Aly Borromeo, Dutch-Filipino midfielder Jason de Jong, Icelandic-Filipino left-back Ray Anthony Jónsson, English-Filipino midfielder Simon Greatwich, and English-Filipino defender Rob Gier. None of them were born in the Philippines.
There is a rather unhealthy stereotype of Filipinos that would explain this new development, but let’s not get into that.
Malaysia could very well do the same, but our options somehow appear more limited. Australian-born Sydney FC midfielder Brendan Gan’s expressed interest to play for the Harimau, possibly due to his Malaysian parentage, has been well-received by the Football Association of Malaysia.
Fifteen-year-old Malaysian Tam Sheang Tsung, currently training with English Championship side Cardiff City, also appears to be still eligible for the Harimau. Sheang Tsung grew up in Tokyo, Japan, where his parents have been running a Malaysian restaurant for the last 16 years, and had built a promising career for himself in the local leagues there.
The question for a lot people would be whether these players should be considered “azkals”, because let’s face it – they’re not from Malaysia. But if you asked me, as long as they’re Tigers at heart, I wouldn’t mind having them in our team.