Why your next Azkal could be coming from Australia
MANILA, Philippines - At first glance Julian Matthews and Gerald Tan look just like any of the other young trialists at Loyola Meralco Sparks training on a muggy Friday afternoon at Emperador Stadium. But both are Filipinos hailing from Australia, which could soon play a bigger role in our country's footballing aspirations.
Matthews is 21 years old, a son of a caregiver from Leyte and a barrister. He is from Australia's Gold Coast and plays for Palm Beach, which is in the National Premier Leagues system, below the top-tier A-League. The kid has lived in Hong Kong, Macau and England and even stayed in the Philippines for a year and a half 7 years ago, when he was coached at the Makati Football School.
The left back has trialed in Woking FC at the fifth tier of English Football and even at Stoke of the top level.
Tan is from the westernmost outpost of Perth, and has a mother from Pasig. The central defender is also just 21 years old and has experience playing junior college soccer in Canandaigua, upstate New York. Tan has also played at Melville City FC in Perth.
One of the key figures in getting the two kids to the Philippines is sitting in the stands that day, beside Sparks general manager Armand Del Rosario. Andrew Fletcher is a lanky 66-year old sportswear sales and marketing professional from New South Wales. Fletcher is a quintessential gregarious Aussie, with a ready smile and a willingness to lend a helping hand.
Fletcher played semi-professionally in England with Lowestoft Town many moons ago. He has been active in football for decades and has a “C” coaching license.
The connection to the Philippines comes through his wife Eden Violata Fletcher, who is from Lebak, in Sultan Kudarat. Andrew apparently loves Philippine football as much as his Filipina wife.
Fletcher and Jojo Concha, a Lebak native who learned the game in Baguio, started football in Lebak 6 years ago. There is now a local youth team that has played in regional meets, which Fletcher supports. Lebak FC recently reached the finals of the provincial championships, succumbing to the powerhouse squad from the Sultan Kudarat capital of Isulan in the championship game. But it's what Fletcher has done in his home country that perhaps has an even greater impact.
Leigh Gunn was the first Australian-Filipino to make the national team in the mid-2000s. Four years ago Gunn and Fletcher started the Azkalroos program to help young Filipino-Aussies make youth and senior national squads of the Philippines.
In case you are wondering, the term “Azkalroos” is a portmanteau of “Azkals” and “Soceroos,” the nickname of the Australian national team.
Fletcher says the program, which has access to fields and other training venues, has about 3 dozen players from the age of 12 all the way to 26 active in the program. They include Ace Garnicia and Eddie Roberto, who play senior level in the State Leagues.
Apart from training sessions, the Azkalroos have also created “Futsal sa Fiesta” mini tournaments during the Fiesta activities of the local Pinoy community in New South Wales. The Azkalroos have played against other teams of mixed ethnicity, like Nepalese and Indian teams. Here you can see them in action against the New South Wales Nepalese All-Stars.
Five Star, an Australian manufacturer of futsal balls, and remittance company Moneygram are supporting the program. Moneygram played a pivotal role in sending Matthews and Tan to Loyola for trials.
The players generally play with their schools or clubs during the season then train with the Azkalroos over the offseason.
The Azkalroos program has already started to bear fruit, with several promising young Aussie players already in the youth national team mix.
John Kanayama, a Filipino-Japanese Australian, helped Global win the UFL Charity Cup last year. The midfielder has also played for the U22 Philippine team in AFC qualifying earlier this year in Bangkok. He also has experience in senior professional ball in Australia.
Dominic Del Rosario is another youngster, just 19, who has already donned the Philippines' colors. Marlon Maro selected him for the 2015 SEA Games squad and he played at left back against Myanmar. Dominic plays club football for Kaya but was on loan to JP Voltes last season, when they earned promotion to the top tier of the UFL.
Josh Grommen met Gunn in a chance meeting through Elmer Bedia, a former Philippines national team standout who is now residing in Australia. Through that meeting and subsequent participation in the Azkalroos, Grommen, a Filipino-Australian Dutchman, latched on to Loyola for a season and played for the Philippines in the AFC U22 team in the qualifiers earlier this year. Grommen is a centerback, which makes him very valuable. He will see action in the UFL next year.
There are other Pinoy-Aussies who have played in the Philippines recently, like Luis Abadia with Kaya and Ricky Monserrat, a highly-rated young keeper who was with Loyola for a spell.
The future looks even brighter when you factor in Patrick Elhindi, a world-class talent who has played in the youth system of Spanish club Levante and is now in the U18 side of Belenenses, a fabled Portuguese club. The attacking midfielder has a Filipina mother, Iranian father, and grew up in Australia, so he may have his pick of 3 different national teams to play for when he comes of age. Hopefully he chooses the Philippines.
These young Filipino-Aussies can look up to Iain Ramsay for inspiration. Ramsey scored his first senior international goal for the Azkals against Yemen earlier in the year. The A-League veteran now plays for Tractor Sazi in Iran.
But the Azkalroos don't just want to import talent into the country. Fletcher says plans are afoot for an academy here in the Metro Manila area, although that could be some time coming. Gunn is married to a Filipina from Bukidnon and he has pitched in with goal frames and some coaching help in the town where his wife has roots.
But for now the Azkalroos is dedicated to strengthening our leagues and national teams with kids from Oz. Rudolf, Josh Grommen's father, shares his appreciation for the project that turned his son into an international footballer.
“This program has the foundations of something really good. It is a great idea.” – Rappler.com
Like the official Azkalroos Facebook page to learn more about the club.
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.