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Until Lionel Messi, Paulino Alcántara was the top scorer in Barcelona’s history with 357 goals. But until the advent of the internet, many had forgotten that “The Net Buster” had been born in the Philippines and inspired the Asian team to their biggest win, a 15-2 thrashing of Japan in Tokyo in 1917. Alcántata’s history is talked about more these days in Manila and the provinces but it is the future that is really starting to excite.
It is not that surprising that his exploits were somewhat overlooked given the fact that the Philippines was an American colony at the time and that influence remains in a sporting sense. Basketball and boxing are still ahead of football but the beautiful game is catching up with a potential that is unparalleled in the region according to the national team’s English coach, Scott Cooper. “We can be competitive in Asia but we don’t know how far we can go and we are very excited.”
It is not just about a population of 100 million people and plenty of ambition but there is another not so secret weapon: the country’s diaspora. Just as Alcántara had connections with the Philippines and Spain, there are others in a similar position. “There are many, many players around the world who qualify to play for us, through parents and grandparents,” said Cooper.
“We are chatting to them and we are in the process right now. That is one of the reasons I am here. I was told that there are so many players that haven’t been called up yet. I actually got a text today asking me if I knew of an eligible right-back who made his debut for Bayern Munich II.” Cooper did indeed know about Angelo Bruckner and, it is possible that fans back home will see the teenager one day in the white shirts of the Azkals, as the national team are widely known.
At the turn of the century the Philippines had had enough of being the whipping boys in south-east Asia, the region of 650 million people between India and China that is the most football-crazy on the continent. But then came the realisation that there were players such as Phil and James Younghusband on the books of Chelsea, the goalkeeper Neil Etheridge in the Championship in England and many more besides, who were eligible.
Such talent was led by Simon McMenemy, another British coach, to the semi-finals of the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup, south-east Asia’s biennial battle royale, defeating the defending champions Vietnam in front of 40,000 in Hanoi. The success was such a surprise that there was no stadium ready in Manila for the home leg of the semi-final meaning both games were played in Jakarta in front of a combined attendance of more than 160,000.
Soon after that Cooper started coaching at Leicester City’s academy. In 2013, with the club owned by King Power, he was asked if he wanted to work with the Thai giants Buriram United which also has links to the duty-free company. In June 2018, after five years in Thailand and a deep knowledge of south-east Asian football, there came an invitation from the Philippines to assist Terry Butcher who had just been appointed as head coach.
For some reason, the former England captain changed his mind within weeks and Cooper was named caretaker. The Azkals then turned to the former England coach Sven-Göran Eriksson to lead them into a first appearance at the Asian Cup in January 2019 with Cooper as his assistant. “I’d known him at Leicester,” says Cooper. “I was an academy coach and he spent time coming to games and talking to us but I was surprised he remembered me. We had a good relationship and he brought his wisdom and knowledge. You can learn things from everyone and he was so cool and calm, and I learnt that sometimes you have to sit back, observe and take your time.”
The Swede’s contract was a short one and soon Cooper was the main man and determined to make the most of the overseas-based talent. “I started putting together a scouting network in Europe as well as North and South America. I started to communicate with players who had been contacted once in a blue moon before but couldn’t see a vision. Then I started to share my vision and slowly but surely we got more players saying ‘yes’.”
As the national team improve then it becomes a more attractive proposition for talented players. “These days we are not begging, it is more about how they feel about playing for the Philippines. We have to think about the opinion at home and what people think. We interview players now and find out how they feel about the culture and representing the Philippines.” Players such as Gerrit Holtmann of Bochum and the former Bayern Munich midfielder Raphael Obermair could not quite get their passports in time to play in the June qualifiers but, when international travel settles down, they will be called up.
Better results internationally should help the domestic scene in terms of profile, sponsorship and all the rest. There is still some way to go but the signs are promising as the league is poised to expand from six to 10 teams. “There are plans for a National Training Centre and a National Football Academy and high school participation is growing. Football is getting more popular with young people. We are climbing pretty fast.”
The World Cup is the ultimate goal of course and becomes more realistic after 2026 when Asia’s allocation is expected to double to eight. “We know we can get there and if we’d beaten China in June – and we had the chances – then we would have been close to the last round of qualification for 2022.”
That may have been too soon but next time, who knows? “We are nowhere near as good now as we are going to be in the next two years or so. I know that a lot of teams are concerned about us coming up on the rails.”