Merry bunch of nomads doing Philippine football proud

The Philippines national team – better known as the Azkals to its supporters – is no ordinary football side, as Paul Williams discovered...

With an eclectic playing squad boasting members hailing from all corners of the globe, it is appropriate that the Philippines' coach is a German-born American.

Thanks to the large Filipino diaspora, estimated at more than 10 million by the Commission of Filipinos Overseas in their 2012 report, the Azkals are more like the United Nations.

For their upcoming World Cup Qualifier against Uzbekistan, the 23-man squad contains players born in no less than 13 countries – five in Germany, two in England and Spain and one each from Austria, USA, United Arab Emirates, Australia, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Only six were born in the Philippines, but two of them – Daisuke Sato and Misagh Bahadoran – left the archipelago at a young age and were raised in Japan and Iran respectively.

Coach Thomas Dooley, appointed in February last year, explained to FourFourTwo that it was a deliberate approach to attract players who play abroad and have Filipino heritage to improve the level of the national team.

“We went out to try and find a couple more because we reached a (maximum) level of the Philippines based players,” the 53-year-old said.

“We had only a few (players) since the Suzuki Cup who were playing abroad, and they don’t play in the first and second divisions, they most likely play in the fourth and fifth division somewhere.

“It’s actually a little bit more positive that players like Iain Ramsay from Australia and Stephan Palla from Austria play in the first division. They have a better knowledge of the game and it makes it easier to explain to them how we want to play.

“What I’m trying to implement through the international players, they have more experience in terms of what it means and what it takes to be successful. So in that case discipline and preparation is something that was lacking when I came over and I know I cannot change everything at once, it takes time, but slowly and surely we are getting there.”

One of the most recent additions to the squad is Luke Woodland, who has a particularly eclectic background.

In 1989, Woodland’s mother moved from the Philippines to Abu Dhabi to work at the Intercontinental Hotel, where she would meet his father, an English expat from Liverpool who moved to the Emirate in 1994 to work at the same hotel. It was love at first sight, the couple marrying and giving birth to Luke, the first of two sons, the following year.

Woodland was only two when his parents left Abu Dhabi and moved to Liverpool.

“There has always been a Filipino influence on my life growing up for me and my brother,” Woodland told FourFourTwo. “My mother is a strong lady and her and my father have supported me massively with everything I have done. I wouldn't be where I am without them and I owe everything to them.”

Despite living close to 11,000km from Manilla, representing the Philippines was something that had always been a dream.

“When I was young, maybe 10 years old, I remember my dad showing me Phil (Younghusband), James (Younghusband), Rob (Gier), and Neil (Etheridge) online and how they all played football in England and represented the Azkals,” Woodland, a product of the Bolton Wanderers’ youth academy, said.

“Since then I have been following the national team and watching their games online. It's always something I've wanted to do.”

Javier Patino, one of two Spanish-born players in the current squad, has a similar story.

Fans cheer on the Azkals at last year's Suzuki Cup

“My mother had to leave the country very young and come to Spain to work, leaving behind most of her family,” he told FourFourTwo through a translator.

It was another Spanish-born player, defender Juan Luis Guirado, who alerted the Philippines Football Federation to Patino’s eligibility.

“When I started playing in the second division in the Spanish league, I started to speak with other players in the same situation as me,” the 27-year-old Patino said.

“They were already playing there and I felt the need to start the paperwork to play as soon as possible.”

Upon receiving his Filipino passport in January 2013, making him eligible for the Azkals, the striker told local media his mother was very emotional about his decision to play for the national team.

“My mother was very emotional,” Patino told the Philippine Daily Inquirer. “It’s always been her hope that we reconnect with family and relatives who we haven’t seen for a long time.”

Following up on that, Patino told FourFourTwo he was delighted to learn more about his ancestral history.

“I am delighted to represent (the Philippines) and be able to know a little more about my roots,” Patino, who plays in China with Henan Jianye, said.

“Thanks to the internet you can be in touch (with family) more than before and of course I am happy to see my Filipino family every time I go to play with the Azkals.

“Every time I play with the Philippines I see my family and they tell me they are very happy and proud that I represent the country.”

Woodland, who represented England at under-16, under-17 and under-18 level, was first invited to an Azkals training camp in March, after being contacted by Rob Gier towards the end of 2014. But he had to decline due to club commitments with Oldham Athletic.

He was called up again for the World Cup qualifiers in June, but having represented England at youth level, Woodland required clearance from FIFA before he could take to the field.

Frustratingly for the 19-year-old, that meant missing the opening qualifier against Bahrain. He didn’t find out until the very last moment.

“Finding out that I didn't have clearance from FIFA really did get to me,” Woodland, now a free agent and training with the New York Red Bulls, said. “Being told whilst the boys went out for the warm-up hit me hard as well.