Excitement, surprise and disbelief filled the Rizal room of the Philippine embassy in London last January 17. On that day, Pinoy football received a boost when the embassy pledged to support Philippine United, the first ever Filipino football team in the UK.
More than 50 people attended the groundbreaking event, which was attended by current members of the Philippine national football squad, hopefuls, supporters, press and enthusiasts.
The architect of Philippine United is Leo Jensen, a self-confessed Danish football fanatic whose aim is to promote and improve the level of football in the Philippines. Leo, who runs PFAUK or Philippine Football Agency UK, lives in Bolton with his Filipina wife. He has been pursuing the chance to create a British-based team for over eight years.
He said he came up with the idea during a trip to the Philippines, where he was saddened to find the national team underperforming in competitions. Rather than a shortage of ability, he attributed it to lack of unity, good training facilities and investment.
Back in the UK, Leo found it tough organizing a team without any financial support. Coupled with that, he had problems locating and mobilizing British born Pinoys with a passion for football. Then, things changed. They found him.
Philippine Generations, a charity run by second generation British Filipinos, discovered what Leo was trying to achieve and linked him to a network of football mad British Filipinos, including members of a Facebook group that brings Pinoys together for an occasional kick-about in Regents Park, London. From that, the foundations of Philippine United were formed.
Helping national team
Philippine United aims to provide Pinoys the opportunity to train and play competitive matches in a UK league. If things go to plan, the UK-based footballers would get the chance to go to the Philippines and play against teams there, while players from the Philippines could, in turn, come to the UK and train with their British-born counterparts.
Other than providing a venue where Filipino footballers can hone their skills, Philippine United would also function as a feeder club to the national side. Anyone in the team who excels could get the chance to try out for the Philippine national team, also known as the Azkals, which is a Tagalog colloquial term for street dogs.
There was a general feeling of shock among the players that attended the meeting at the embassy. After the team’s first trial held in Manchester last summer, none of them expected Leo’s vision to develop so soon. But half a year later, the players are once again dreaming of playing alongside other Filipinos in the national team.
Renee Banao, a defender, is one of those who attended the trial and is raring to go.
He said: “I’ve been playing football all my life. It’s a dream to play for my country, and today, you can see it’s getting somewhere. And hopefully, we can gather the guys up, play for the national team, and win some trophies”.
Many of the players feel the creation of a British-based Filipino football team was long overdue. When the current captain of Philippine United was asked what he thought, Renan Ramos said:
“Surprised is the right word. Football has never been a big sport in the Philippines, and it’s about time it’s recognized. It’s a major sport everywhere else in the world, why can’t it be in the Philippines? And the fact that everyone is surprised [about Philippine United] is because of that reason.
He added: “If you were at the trial, you’d see how passionate some of the players were, how hungry they are to succeed. At the moment, that’s what we’re lacking, a bit of hunger for success, and I think we’ve got the right ingredients here by moving forward with Philippine United.”
The Philippines has one of the oldest histories when it comes to football in Asia, but despite that it has not enjoyed any significant success on the international stage. However, things are changing with the national team taking huge strides in recent years.
The Azkals, which is currently placed 162nd in FIFA rankings, have been improving steadily ever since the inclusion of foreign-born Filipinos such as Neil Etheridge, Chad Gould, Phil and James Younghusband, and the Greatwich brothers – Philip, Chris and Simon.
Neil Etheridge, who plies his trade with English Premier League side Fulham FC, is the first-choice goalkeeper for the Azkals.
When asked about the current state of the national team he said: “It’s developing really well. Chris Greatwich is in the team. He has been playing for 5 years, and he says it has consistently been improving, and I can see that as well. So hopefully it will carry on in the near future.”
Norm Parkin, an agent and coach, who played for English football side Sheffield Wednesday, will be training Philippine United. He is optimistic about the future of Philippine football but highlights the need for more support.
He said: “I’ve been coaching there for nine years on-and-off for different colleges and academies. There’s a lot of good raw talent in the Philippines …but they need help, especially the street kids. I love working with the street kids, but there’s no-one to take it that step further.”
Parkin added: “Filipino kids are hungry for it. You give them a ball, they want to learn but then nothing happens until we go around maybe a year after, which is not enough. They need regular coaching. It kind of upsets me a little bit.”
Sponsors and trial
With the ball rolling, the Philippine embassy in London will now help the team search for sponsors and help to coordinate them with the PFF or Philippine Football Federation in Manila. PFF President Jose Mari Martinez is reportedly excited over the developments and is eager to see the project in full swing.
Another trial, which is open to anyone of Filipino descent, is scheduled for January 31 and will take place just outside London in Watford, Hertfordshire. Eventually, Leo says Philippine United will consist of 22-25 players.
At the beginning of the meeting, Philippine Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Reynaldo Catapang jokingly commented Philippine United will “render Manchester United history”. Also, while introducing himself, one player said, “I am a midfielder and I wish to be the next Zinedine Zidane."
Both statements, although incredibly lofty and unlikely to materialize, are examples of the ambition and belief behind this initiative to get more Filipinos playing "the beautiful game."
For those in the UK who think they have what it takes, the trial on January 31 will be held at: QUEENS SCHOOL, ALDENHAM ROAD, WATFORD, WD23 2TY