Dubai: Gulf News spoke to Philippine national team striker Phil Younghusband who arrives on camp in Dubai with the Azkals (street dogs) on Tuesday night ahead of his side's preparation for the AFC Challenge Cup in Kathmandu, Nepal, from March 8 to 19.
The 24-year-old Brit-born Filipino footballer, formerly of Chelsea, renowned for his relationship with Filipino film and television actress Angel Locsin, spoke about balancing show business distractions and the hype surrounding the team with grinding out results despite the setbacks of a nation still taking to the game.
Gulf News: Tell us how you got into the Azkals side.
Phil Younghusband: A teenager was playing Football Manager on his computer and discovered me and my brother James — who were in the Chelsea reserves — [and] were eligible [to play] for the Philippines from our mum's side. He wrote to the Philippine Football Federation to alert them and in turn they wrote to Chelsea. The academy director at Stamford Bridge asked us if we'd like to play for the Philippines. I later met the gamer at a party in Manila after we reached the 2010 Suzuki Cup semi-final and thanked him.
Do you feel more English or Filipino?
I call myself Filipino not English despite being born in England. Of course, growing up my idols were David Beckham, Alan Shearer and Paul Gascoigne and my ambition was to play for England. I supported Man United, loved Eric Cantona and David Beckham and watched my dad's team, Wimbledon. But I'm very proud to have Filipino blood and I'm proud to represent the Philippines. I feel more Filipino, but obviously I still have an English accent. But in my values and traditions I'm very much a Filipino.
Could you have played on at an English club?
My brother was released from Chelsea the year before me and I saw what he went through trying to find a club and I didn't want to go through that. Before my contract ended I had already played for the Philippines and once it ended I felt more comfortable staying in Manila. I could have looked for clubs in Europe or America, but I'm glad I made this decision.
What are the team's chances at the AFC Challenge Cup?
Since the Suzuki Cup there's been a lot of buzz around football in the Philippines. There's more pressure and we're expected to win, but there's still a long way to go. The teams in our group — North Korea, India and Tajikistan — are all past champions. We're trying to educate people about the realities of our situation. Football isn't as developed in the Philippines as it is elsewhere. With us, we need more preparation, but a lot of our players fly in from Europe at the last minute and it's difficult to gel. We're still adjusting, but whenever we've had our best players together we've competed against good teams.
The Azkals are mostly mixed heritage, but what about the locals?
In the short term, we need the European-based players or those with Filipino blood who play abroad, to have success. Grass roots development and the local league isn't yet at the standard to compete internationally. While the team is trying to be successful we're also trying to develop the footballing infrastructure and the long-term goal is to grow local talent, but this won't happen overnight.
How is your hamstring problem?
I've been playing in the local league [with Loyola Meralco Sparks] and yes, I still have hamstring issues. The Christmas break didn't help as I've come back unprepared. I'm going to use these next few weeks in Dubai to intensify training. I don't feel 100 per cent but hopefully by the time the Challenge Cup comes we'll all be ready. Results in Dubai aren't important, it's all about getting the right preparation. Doing things right in Dubai will give us a good opportunity in Nepal.
Is show-business getting in the way of your game?
Show business is bigger than sport in the Philippines and there's not [enough] money in football to be able to call it a full-time job. Players need these extra-curricular activities like modelling to support their families. It's not going to overtake the game. The management keeps us grounded and we make sure football is the priority. It's nice to be recognised for my football and now parents want their kids to play because they can see a future in the sport. I'm used to the attention now. Our fans have been so supportive and we owe them more than anything.
Hard wok, all play
Whilst here, the Azkals will play Uzbekistan U23's on February 11 and the Australian U23's on February 16. Both matches will be played at Al Nasr Club in Oud Metha, Dubai from 8pm. They will also take on Al Ahli in Doha, Qatar on Monday, February 13. Tickets for the Dubai friendlies are available at all Virgin Megastore, Giordano and Orlando Sports branches costing Dh165 for VIP, Dh75 for category A and Dh70 for category B.