There is this story — in fact, it feels like it is some urban legend — in which James and Phil Younghusband were discovered by some video game player playing FIFA football.
It isn’t exactly a myth there were these brothers playing for world-renowned club Chelsea, because they did play in the London club’s youth system (along with later Azkals teammate Neil Etheridge).
However, reality never looked so good as the Younghusband brothers found their football lives and careers — in more ways than one must say — in the country of their mother’s birth some 10,778 kilometers away.
James and Phil Younghusband were born 11 months apart and retired seven months apart; one cannot mention one without adding the other.
The brothers were like a nasty one-two punch on the football field. Collectively for club, they scored close to 180 goals. On national team duty, they struck for a total of 69 goals spread over 215 caps.
And they were teammates from their time in Chelsea to San Beda FC to Loyola Meralco to the Davao Aguilas.
They gave faces to the game of football and spearheaded a revival of the “beautiful game” in the land where basketball is king. They were a part of every memorable campaign or event in the past 15 years that has seen the Azkals morph from that cliché-ish minnows of Southeast Asian football to a powerhouse in the making.
And yet, it wasn’t only on the pitch where they had an impact.
If one wishes to put it in simple terms — across that major thoroughfare known as EDSA — at one point, the Younghusbands battled Manny Pacquiao and Kris Aquino for the most number of billboards they had strewn across that avenue.
From sports energy drinks to telecommunications, from shampoos, sneakers and casual wear to automobiles and food and beverage, they were pitchmen in more ways than one.
And, yes, the brothers were royalty. The stars of cinema and TV came out to watch them play. Phil did some hosting on a noontime show and tried his hand at acting. Furthermore, he once dated Angel Locsin so he along with James made more than the sports pages.
The brothers, along with a few others such as goalkeeper Neil Etheridge and midfielders Chieffy Caligdong and Misagh Bahadoran, crossed over into mainstream and commercial appeal. But when the bright lights came on, their impact on the game of football not only in the Philippines but in Asia was undeniable.
Every opponent knew James and Phil and rightfully prepared for them.
Said noted Singapore striker Aleksandar Duric to this writer: “What do I say? They are legendary. Both of them did so much for Philippine football. They put the Philippines on the world football map.”
“For myself, it was a pleasure to play against them,” Duric said.
“They are true professionals and I hope they stay in football. We need people like them to give back to the game. And to teach new Filipino stars. I wish them the best in the rest of their lives.”
In fact, their old boss at Chelsea Football Club, Jose Mourinho, knows them by name. When Chelsea looked to open their football school in Asia, they came calling on some of their former wards.
Does one think their time in Chelsea was anonymous?
Clarified The Younghusband Football Academy coach Jojo Durian, who accompanied the brothers to London several years ago to work on the school’s opening in Manila: “The staff there, even the drivers knew the brothers by name.”
“Phil and James became the face of not only Philippine football but also the Azkals,” said Durian.
“Even non-sports fans knew them. In fact, when we were on a relief mission after Typhoon Yolanda, the kids in the barrios would go, ‘Younghusbands! Azkals!’ They became household names.”
Today, the Azkals are in great shape. Local football might have lost some of its shine to the emergence of volleyball, but it isn’t going down. The only place for them to go is up in the FIFA rankings and win a tournament or two, or three. Or more. The team and the local league are poised to make some serious headway soon.
With the retirement of James from football on Thursday, it brings an end to an era where two young lads with a goal and a mission to elevate Philippine football in their mother’s homeland succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
Along with Etheridge, Bahadoran, Ian Araneta, Aly Borromeo, Anton del Rosario, Roel Gener, Chris Greatwich, Angel Guirado, Ray Jonsson, Manny Ott, Patrick Reichelt, and Stephan Schrock and others, they are the Philippines’ Golden Generation.
And they will shine forever.
Rick Olivares was the former media officer for the Azkals, the Loyola Meralco Sparks, the United Football League, and Pachanga FC.