UUntil Lionel Messi, Paulino Alcántara was the most successful goalscorer in the history of Barcelona with 357 goals. But by the time the internet came up, many had forgotten that “The Net Buster” was born in the Philippines and inspired the Asian team to their biggest win, a 15-2 win over Japan in Tokyo in 1917. The story of Alcántata is under discussion more these days in Manila and the provinces, but it is the future that is really exciting.
It’s not surprising that his exploits were somewhat overlooked, given that the Philippines was an American colony at the time and that influence still lingers in a sporting sense. Basketball and boxing are still ahead of football, but the beautiful game is catching up with potential that is unparalleled in the region, according to England 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’s not just about a population of 100 million people and a lot of ambition, but there is another, not so secret weapon: the country’s diaspora. Just as Alcántara had ties to the Philippines and Spain, there are others in a similar position. “There are many, many players around the world who qualify for us through their parents and grandparents,” said Cooper.
“We’re talking to them and we’re at it. That’s one of the reasons I’m here. I’ve been told that there are so many players who haven’t been called up yet. I actually got a text message today asking if I knew a suitable right-back who made his debut for Bayern Munich II. Cooper actually knew about Angelo Bruckner and it is possible that fans at home will one day see the teenager in the Azkals’ white jerseys as the national team is commonly known.
By the turn of the century, the Philippines had had enough of being the whipping boys in Southeast Asia, the most soccer-crazy region between India and China with 650 million people. But then came the realization that there were players like Phil and James Younghusband in the Chelsea books, goalkeeper Neil Etheridge in the championship in England and many others who were eligible.
This talent was led by Simon McMenemy, another British coach, to the semi-finals of the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup, the biennial battle royale of Southeast Asia, and defeated the defending champions Vietnam in front of 40,000 spectators in Hanoi. The success was so surprising that no stadium was ready for the semi-final home game in Manila, so that both games in Jakarta were played in front of over 160,000 spectators.
Shortly thereafter, Cooper began training at the Leicester City Academy. In 2013, he was asked with the King Power club if he would like to work with the Thai giant Buriram United, who also has ties to the duty free company. In June 2018, after five years in Thailand and an in-depth knowledge of Southeast Asian football, the Philippines received an invitation to support Terry Butcher, who has just been appointed head coach.
Sven-Goran Eriksson (second from left) and Scott Cooper (third from left) in 2019. Photo: Khaled Desouki / AFP / Getty Images
For some reason, the former English captain changed his mind within a few weeks and Cooper was appointed caretaker. The Azkals then turned to former English coach Sven-Göran Eriksson to lead them to a first appearance at the Asian Cup in January 2019 with Cooper as his assistant. “I knew him in Leicester,” says Cooper. “I was coaching an academy 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 with him. You can learn something from everyone and he was so cool and calm, and I learned that sometimes you have to sit back, watch and take your time. “
The Swede’s contract was short and Cooper was soon the most important man, determined to make the most of the overseas talent. “I started building a scouting network in Europe and North and South America. I started communicating with players who had previously been contacted once in a blue moon but could not see a vision. Then I started to share my vision and slowly but surely more players said ‘yes’. “
As the national team improves, it becomes more attractive to talented players. “Nowadays we don’t beg anymore, it’s more about how you feel about playing for the Philippines. We have to think about the opinion at home and what people think. We’re now interviewing players and finding out what they think of the culture and representation of the Philippines. ”Players like Gerrit Holtmann from Bochum or the former midfielder of FC Bayern Munich, Raphael Obermair, couldn’t get their passports in time for the June qualifiers , but are convened after a while.
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Better international results should help the local scene in terms of profile, sponsorship and everything else. There is still a long way to go, but the signs are promising as the league is set to expand from six to ten teams. “There are plans for a National Training Center and National Football Academy, and high school attendance is increasing. Football is becoming increasingly popular with young people. We climb pretty fast. “
The World Cup is of course the ultimate goal and will become more realistic after 2026 when Asia’s share is expected to double to eight. “We know we can do it, and if we had beaten China in June – and we had the chances – we would have been close to the final qualifying round for 2022.”
Maybe it was too early, but next time, who knows? “We’re still a long way from being as good as we have been in the next two years or so. I know that many teams are concerned that we will get on the rails. “