By Gabriel Tan
For a long time, the Philippines, home to over 92 million inhabitants, has embraced one and one sport only - basketball. Due to the huge American presence in the archipelago in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war all the way to the end of World War Two, it became the nation's number one game and led to the Philippines being one of the best teams in the world.
In the 1950s, Team Pilipinas won three Asian Games golds and also finished third in the 1954 FIBA World Championships - the best finish by an Asian country in the history of the competition.
Then came along a Bukidnon native by the name of Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao, or 'Manny' as he's more famously known as, and his rise to the top of the boxing world not only captivated the hearts of many, but saw public interest for the sport grow tremendously.
It seemed football was never going to establish itself in the hearts of the sports-mad Filipinos, who already had basketball and boxing to devote their attentions to. The lack of any proper organisational infrastructure did little to help generate interest in the beautiful game, at least when it came to matters of the national team.
All that changed in December 2010, when a young Azkals side, having barely made it out of the qualification stages on goal difference, made it all the way to the semi-finals of the AFF Suzuki Cup, where they eventually fell to regional giants Indonesia.
In the process, the Philippines not only progressed from Group B undefeated, but recorded an impressive 1-1 draw with Singapore before shocking defending champions Vietnam 2-0.
Their performance was followed by a third-place finish at this year's AFC Challenge Cup, a clear sign that the Philippines are slowly but surely rising as a force to be reckoned with in the region.
Azkals star duo James and Phil, who were previously on the books of Barclays Premier League giants Chelsea, believe that national interest in the sport is now at an all-time high, although they hope to see more attention shifted to the country's domestic league - the UFL.
ESPNSTAR.com: Good day boys and thank you for taking the time out to have a chat with us. First up, would you care to let us know more about how two boys born in Surrey, England ended up playing for the Azkals?
JY: This was back in 2005. We were still at Chelsea at the time and our youth team team-mates told us we should try out for the Philippines because we were eligible. A couple of days later we got called into the manager's office and he said: "We just got a call from the PFF (Philippine Football Federation), would you like to try out for the national team?" It couldn't harm us to try out so we went there on vacation and tried out.
At first it was frustrating having to pick bricks off the field and having the older guys from the national team kicking us, but we saw it as an opportunity to make our mum proud. We saw there was a lot of potential to play for the Philippines but what actually kept us going were the team-mates and management, who were so nice and accommodating. They went out of their way to make life easier for me and my brother and then when we were in England, we always got excited whenever we heard there was an upcoming tournament. Really, it's the football we enjoy - we enjoy playing for the country and getting together with the fellow national team players.
PY: I think for us it was about being aware. As young kids we lived in England so we were aware of the English national team. Then we visited the Philippines and it was all about basketball, so you're not really aware there's a football national team. So for us to be inspired to be Filipino footballers at a young age, when you're not aware of it, was impossible.
As young kids only aware of the England national team, watching players like David Beckham, Alan Shearer, Teddy Sheringham and Paul Gascoigne, you end up aspiring to play for England. But obviously once we were aware there was a Philippines national team, we wanted to represent our mother's country - our country - so it's all about being aware. Had we had a national team that had been in the media all the time, constantly being marketed, then I'm sure we would have wanted to play for the Philippines all along.
ESPNSTAR.com: You two penned three-year deals with Loyola Meralco Sparks last year and are now firmly entrenched in Filipino football. Was it a difficult transition moving to Asia having spent most of your lives in the United Kingdom?
JY: It wasn't really too much of a culture shock because we visited the country every summer holiday, every chance we got. Of course, it was a really long flight but we always enjoyed it. Our mum has lots of family there - our relatives - and there's always a nice feel, something different compared to England. A lot of friends have come over to visit and said they would want to live here.
PY: Before we officially decided we wanted to live here, we were actually on a long holiday and as James said, we'd been to the Philippines every year for our holidays so it hasn't been that difficult. We had family and friends here and we were already on a long holiday before we decided to move, so the transition wasn't difficult. The thing we probably miss most about England is our friends and family there but other than that, we're very comfortable and the Philippines is our home.
ESPNSTAR.com: The both are you arguably the biggest footballing names in the country. What has it been like having to cope with being in the media spotlight on a daily basis?
JY: Phil's the one that's mostly in the media!
PY: It is probably difficult. In England, you go out and read the tabloids and believe everything you read. Now we're seeing stories and rumours made up about us, it's really shocking the things you hear. And now you're like, "I shouldn't have believed that when I was younger". It is difficult and when you are in the spotlight, people will try and bring you down but the good thing is we've had people around us to keep us grounded. We make sure we managed everything properly and as I've said, anything we do is about football. We don't forget our roots and where we've come from - everything is about football. It is difficult in terms of dealing with what people are saying about you but we always know as long as the people close to us know the truth...
JY: We have really great people around us, we work with good people. Whenever we're surrounded by our team-mates, it's just back down to earth. I think the most important thing we're proud of is that we're recognised as footballers and not as other things. That's our number one passion and who would have thought in the Philippines you could be recognised as a footballer.
PY: That's what we're most proud of - the fact that everyone knows Phil and James are footballers. Not models, not actors, not anything but footballer players, and to be able to say that in the Philippines, which is a basketball-crazy country, is one of the main things we're really proud of.
ESPNSTAR.com: On the field, how does being two of the biggest names in Filipino football add to the pressure of having to deliver week in, week out?
PY: It does add to the pressure in the UFL. People come up against us and they try to get one up on you. We noticed when teams play against us they get tighter and more aggressive and then you watch them in other games and you say "they didn't play like that against us!" It's a compliment in a way, but we know it's a team game and if me or James is marked out of the game, another player's free and we should get the ball to him. It does make things difficult on a personal level as you don't score as many goals because you're more tightly marked, but I think it definitely should be seen as a compliment.
ESPNSTAR.com: You two are now plying your trade in the UFL, a competition that is officially still 'semi-professional' but one with many professional players like yourselves. How far do you think it has come in recent years?
PY: It's still developing although the actual Filipino league has been going on since the 1990s. Since then, the money's come in and it's been taken over by new ownership - it's only been three years. It's a very, very new league but slowly everything's getting better. Right now, there are more facilities being built. In terms of players, there's been a foreign influx so slowly it's developing and getting better.
ESPNSTAR.com: What areas do you think could still do with improvement as the competition looks to take a step closer to becoming one of the more-recognised leagues in the region?
JY: I think there should be more support from the government body - the PFF. There was a big transition when the national team shot up in awareness. Before, people weren't aware there was a national football team but now they do, and they [the PFF] are still trying to figure out that balance between promoting the national team and the UFL. They're still figuring out how to schedule games so that the players playing in the UFL can also feature for the national team, but it's very hard at the moment.
PY: For me, it's the facilities at the moment. There are two turf fields being built and there are plans for more. We've had a couple of games cancelled because of heavy rain and I think with better facilities, the standard of football will improve. But also, the standard of refereeing needs to be improved, although that will come. I think the PFF are looking at bringing in a referee instructor from other football associations. For me, I think the facilities and the refereeing need to be improved but I think if the fields are more conducive for football, the refereeing will automatically get better.
ESPNSTAR.com: Do you guys think the local media have a huge part to play in helping raise awareness to the general public?
PY: In terms of the national team, we have a very strong media following. Anything we do right now, it's on the front page sometimes. But with the local league, it's still getting there and at the end of the day, money talks, so the more money the clubs can get in and the league can generate, the more marketing power the UFL can have. I think companies don't exactly want to throw all their money in right now, but football is the fastest-growing sport in the Philippines so I'm sure in the future we'll see a lot more media attention for the league.
But we try to do whatever we can to get people to take notice; we link it to entertainment, lifestyle, things like that that can get people interested. I think James and I are probably the most visible people in the Philippines, which is why we're trying to reach out and help other people. We have our soccer school in the Philippines, we have a TV show to talk about football, and we try to link everything to football. We've always said we won't do something unless it's related to football. Right now the awareness is there, but it's just about educating the Filipinos about the sport and that will take time.
JY: An example would be our first press conference for the national team back in 2006; we arrived and there were only two reporters. Now we've just opened our Chelsea Soccer School Philippines and we had to have more seats brought in, so it just shows how things have changed. Phil's right, it will take time but it's good to see now there's some sort of football presence in the Philippines and I think if we can carry on doing what we're doing, it'll just build up and there'll be much more football to see.
PY: The thing with basketball and its popularity - so much money has been invested in it and it's already reached its peak. The basketball league has been established now for years, it hasn't really gone anywhere since now the national team hasn't really improved, so how far can they go to actually improve the league? Whereas with football, there are so many things that can be done to raise the level. That's the one thing we're really excited about.
ESPNSTAR.com: Considering the huge strides the Azkals have made in recent regional tournaments, where do you think that places you guys heading into the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup?
PY: One thing we're trying to do is manage people's expectations because there's so much media hype, they think we should be beating the best teams in the world, and that's what we're trying to educate everyone about. But for us, the most important thing is Southeast Asia - we have to become regular contenders in the region before anything. Our priority is currently on making a mark in Southeast Asia and if we can regularly make the semi-finals and finals of the Suzuki Cup, then that's where we want to be.
It is a great compliment now that we're being seen as potential challengers for these tournaments but the problem is when you lose...
JY: ... you start getting all these basketball lovers jumping on your back saying: "look, they get all this money funded to them to play for the national team and yet you lose." We actually don't get paid to play for the national team, we choose to do so as an honour.