Philippine football

Younghusbands leave lasting legacy

Although already retired, Phil and James Younghusband will never be forgotten for sparking Filipino interest in football

Their 15-year international careers began when they learned of their eligibility to play for the Philippines from Football Manager, a football simulation game. They ended them with a historic debut in the AFC Asian Cup.

While Phil and James Younghusbands are now both retired from competitive football, they will never be forgotten for sparking Filipino interest in the beautiful game with their memorable performances for the Philippine Azkals.

Phil, 32, is a striker known best for his goal-scoring prowess, having retired as the all-time leading goal scorer for the Philippines in international competitions with 52 goals, as well as the leader for most appearances with 108. 

James, a right winger, attacking midfielder, and occasional striker, has 12 goals in 97 caps for the Azkals.

Retired since November, Phil admitted that he stepped off the pitch for good because he wanted to prioritize his family. His wife, Margarett Hall, gave birth in June.  

Being with the national team meant that the Younghusbands were doing a lot of traveling, making it difficult for the players to be with their families. 

“I wanted to be around my family as much as possible,” the 32-year-old former striker told One Sports show Sports Page. “I didn’t want to do the traveling [anymore].”

Phil also said that the folding of his parent club, the Davao Aguilas, in 2018 contributed to his decision to retire.

James, on the other hand, decided that it was the right time to retire, especially with the uncertainty that the coronavirus pandemic has brought towards Philippine sports. He announced his retirement in June.

“It gave me a lot of time to self-evaluate and move forward,” the former midfielder added. “I felt it was now time to give younger players the opportunity to get more game time as well.”

Did the two most recognizable faces of Philippine football for the past 15 years have any regrets with how their careers turned out?

James admitted that he had managed to reflect on what he wished he would have done after he was cut from the lineup in 2015 for the World Cup qualifiers.

“That was an eye-opener for me,” he said. “I needed to focus more on my performance and I would like to say I did. I got back to the national team [in 2016].”

Phil, meanwhile, said that in 2008, he had a choice to either go to Iloilo to compete for the Philippines in the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers or go to England to be on loan for a League One club.

“Had I gone to the League One then my career probably would have kept me in English football at that time,” he said. “If you ask me now, I still would have played for the Philippines.”

Phil and James shared the same sentiments – both are pleased with how their careers in the Philippines transpired.

“We make the best decisions for ourselves and our family at the time. And we’ve been rewarded by everything Philippine football has given us,” Phil added.

However, adjusting to the Philippines’ warm climate proved to be quite difficult for the two when they first arrived.

“I remember our first training session in 2005 in Ultra (now known as the PhilSports Arena). I was arrogant at the time, I thought it was gonna be quite easy. We come from Chelsea! And I remember after doing a possession drill, I couldn’t breathe. I had my hands on my knees and was breathing heavily,” James shared. 

“It took me a while to get used to the humidity, getting used to the traffic.”

Phil shared his brother’s sentiments, even though the two actually visited the Philippines every summer since they were born.

“I never used to drink a lot of water when I was younger. But when I started playing in the Philippines, that was all I could drink, because I was sweating so much,” Phil recounted.

However, Phil said that as soon as the two of them started living in the Philippines, they loved the experience despite going through major adjustments.

“Sports people, when they do come to the Philippines, they end up staying. They don’t want to leave because they’ve fallen in love with the country,” Phil explained.

One of Phil’s favorite moments playing for the Philippines was when he first played in the 2005 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in the Philippines for the under-23 squad.

“Playing in Panaad stadium and seeing the full stadium, witnessing people climbing trees just to watch the games. That was our first memorable moment with the Philippine national team,” he recounted.

In their second game during the 2005 SEA Games against Cambodia, James scored his first goal for the Philippines.

“It was an okay goal,” James laughed. 

What skyrocketed the popularity of Philippine football within the country, besides the commercial appeal of the Younghusband brothers, was the Miracle of Hanoi in 2010 when the Azkals beat defending AFF Suzuki Cup champion Vietnam, 2-0, against a hostile crowd at the My Dinh National Stadium.

This led to the Azkals’ first ever semifinals appearance in AFF Suzuki Cup history.

The Philippines’ all-time leading goal scorer admitted that he couldn’t sleep the night before the match, not because of jitters, but because of a bad case of diarrhea.

“I didn’t sleep the whole night because I was literally on my knees, with my face planted on the toilet, wretching and vomiting,” Phil described. 

After Vietnam trashed Myanmar, 7-1, in its first game and the Philippines settled for a 1-1 draw with Singapore off a Chris Greatwich equalizer in the 93rd minute, the Vietnamese supporters expected more of the same from their home team.

“What got me through [the pain] was the excitement and the adrenaline going into the game, seeing all the Vietnamese supporters,” he added.

After Greatwich opened the scoring with a thumping header at the 38th minute, Phil sealed the historic win at the 79th minute after cutting inside from right wing and shooting with his weaker left foot.

“Once I scored my goal, I started rubbing my tummy,” he said, gesturing to coach Simon McMenemy to be taken out of the game. “Even in the changing room, I wanted to be part of the celebration but I was still in the toilet, vomiting.”

“I don’t think I could do that again.”

Despite being retired, they may not be done making their mark on the Filipino football scene just yet.

What started as the brothers’ long-term plan to set up football academies and grow the sport in the Philippines was achieved within a year.

“We started the academy in 2009,” Phil said. “We made a powerpoint on how we can build football [in the country]. We had a long-term plan. We actually had a 50-year plan! But then the success in 2010, boom!”

“Ahead of schedule!” James exclaimed.

Now, the Younghusbands said the next target for the Azkals should be winning the AFF Suzuki Cup and rule the Southeast Asian region.

Phil then added that the biggest hindrance to this is the lack of a stable domestic league, while the pandemic has done the players no favors in terms of their progression.

“By the time the players are back in shape to where they were before the pandemic, the players are a year older. Time isn’t on our side,” Phil said. “But I think we’ve got the quality in the squad right now to do that (win the AFF Suzuki Cup) without me and James.”

Phil added that winning would take the Philippine national football program to greater heights.

“We had success in 2010 and that’s what brought Philippine football to the attention of our kababayans,” Phil said. “I think our next goal should be to win, to really push and have a plan to win the Suzuki Cup.”

The former Azkals captain also bared that after the Philippines made its debut in the AFC Asian Cup last year, a World Cup appearance could be the team’s next target. However, he warned that the road ahead to making the World Cup is a long one.  

“The steps to get there may be a longer process,” Phil said.

James said that their goal now is to help sustain the team’s progress, which means that the brothers’ futures might involve working with the national team off the pitch.

“It’s something [me and Phil] always wanted to do, especially from a young age,” James said. “If there’s any way to be part of the coaching staff, and learn from other guys as well, you never know. We’d like to have an opportunity in some way.”

Even though the brothers have retired, they think the Azkals are in good hands with goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, the lone remaining player from the iconic 2010 squad, as well as the likes of Stephan Schrock, Javier Patiño, and Patrick Reichelt.

“The future is just bright for Philippine football. We’re not worried. Me and Phil are just excited to watch, admire and be fans of the boys,” James said. –