The Philippines' Imported National Soccer Team
The Azkals have a shot at qualifying for their first ever Asia Cup. If they do, they would have the diaspora to thank.
The Filipino diaspora has produced one half of the Neptunes, one quarter of Metallica, two sixths of the Avalanches, a Black Eyed Pea and "the Louis Armstrong of scratching." But Pinoys in soccer? Well, not so much.
The Azkals have never qualified for an Asian Cup, much less come close to making a World Cup. That could all be about to change though, thanks to an American-German coach and a team whose most recent line-up included players born in Switzerland, Spain, Denmark, Germany, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, Austria, London and Surrey. A young striker from Orange County sat on the bench. From Neil Etheridge in goal to Philip Younghusband (both UK born) up front, the Philippine Football Federation has assembled what can only be called one of the most international soccer teams the game has ever seen. Nine of the 11 players in the team's starting lineup in their previous World Cup qualifying match were born outside of the Philippines.
But there's no Timorese-style player laundering scandal going on here. What is going on is some administrative genius, which has involved scouring the globe for talented players of Filipino heritage.
"Of course there are a few that will question some of the squad players not being full blooded Filipino," Australian-Filipino midfielder Iain Ramsay told VICE Sports. "But whether it's a half, a quarter, three-quarters: we consider ourselves Filipino, and we are honoured to represent the country."
Having just assembled in North Korea for Thursday's World Cup qualifier against the host nation, the Azkals have inadvertently become a trojan horse depositing westerners into the heart of the Hermit Kingdom. (While Pyongyang has opened its borders to tourists, it gets a fraction of the visitors that Antarctica does.)
"I don't really have any idea how it will be in Korea," said Ramsay's Bavarian-Filipino team-mate, Stephan Schröck, as the players were preparing to take off. "But I'm sure the people will be friendly. We are guests, and we'll respect their different politics, and try best to fit in."
"I know they are strict on any type of devices you have at the airport," Ramsay added. "Everywhere we go we will have a tour guide."
Schröck — whose mother is Filipina and father is German — currently plays in Germany's second division with SpVgg Greuther Fürth, which makes him the biggest name in the squad.
He has been with the Azkals since 2011, though he began his international career with Germany' under 18, 19 and 20s teams. His decision to switch to the Azkals caused some complications until FIFA relaxed its criteria on international eligibility late last decade.
The Azkals coach knows all about dual allegiances. Thomas Dooley — the former U.S. international — was born and raised in West Germany, and played as a sweeper for Bundesliga giants like Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke during the mid 90s. (His father was an American soldier who served in Germany at the height of the Cold War.)
Dooley believes the Philippines has a huge amount of untapped potential at home. "We could have a place like Argentina where we can develop many good players," he recently told ESPN FC.
Schröck agrees. "There is a big US influence, basketball and hip-hop and all that," he says. "But football is coming, and one day football will be the number one sport in the Philippines, I'm quite sure about it."
There's a long way to go though. The Philippines' U23 side recently returned from the South East Asian Games without picking up a single point.
The weather and infrastructure on the archipelago present a big challenge for players. "With all the typhoons and heavy rainfall, it's near impossible to maintain good quality, natural grass fields," says striker Kenshiro Daniels. The 20-year-old from Irvine, California (whose dad was a Hollywood action fighter) now plays professionally in Manila.
"When I first arrived, my first few games were on natural caribou grass, and when it rained everything was just a mess," Daniels said. "There was no way there could be quality games or training going on. But since then, there have been artificial turf pitches showing up, which has helped immensely and the sport has already grown since I arrived three years ago."
Daniels is one of four North Americans on the books at Kaya FC, who just finished fourth in the Philippines' ten-team United Premier League. Each team features around two local players for every imported one. But it's a competition that's dwarfed by leagues like Japan's and Qatar's. Also, its winning team does not get a spot in Asia's Champions League.
An Azkals win in Pyongyang would help grow the game back home. It could elevate the side to the top spot in their group, or at least get them a little closer to a debut Asian Cup (these matches double as qualifiers for both tournaments).
But, while the Philippines did win their first two matches, they were spanked 5-1 at home by Uzbekistan last month.
Still, an Asian Cup berth would be fair reward for a decade of gradual improvements. The Philippines have risen from the low of a 191st FIFA ranking to 134th at last count. After a decade trending upward, some small success seems inevitable, or at least deserved.
"This generation can make a lot of things possible," says Schröck "We can make football very, very popular. But it depends on our achievements. The boys and I always try our best to bring pride for the country. That's what we can promise.
"How far we can go, only God knows!"