When Football Manager helped The Azkals renaissance

Phil and James Younghusband Azkals Football Manager

This is a tale of how two brothers, who were in Chelsea’s youth setup, became a part of the Philippine Azkals and have become two of the biggest icons in the Philippine national football team’s rise back to international football significance all because of Football Manager and its anonymous gamer.

It’s quite rare that a computer game affects real-life scenarios, but that’s just what happened with regards to Football Manager that became an indirect tool for the Philippine Football Federation (PFF) to tap the Younghusbands, Phil and James, to play for the Philippines.

It was the years around the mid-2000’s. The Philippines technically were still in the doldrums and depths of insignificance and resignation when it comes to competing in international football.

With the interest of most Filipinos centred on other team and individual sports, not much attention is given to football – a situation which is a far cry from the level of passion, love and support most other countries have for “The beautiful game”.

Such indifference and, maybe to an extent, neglect that the sport suffered (surely unintentional and a product of the modern history of the country) led to a lack of talent development and financial support that has put the federation and the national team in a dire situation in terms of keeping abreast with the rest of the other footballing nations in terms of competitiveness.

The realisation on the bleakness of being able to churn out results and aiming for lofty heights led to scrapping plans to compete in the 2006 and 2010 World Cup qualifiers, focusing instead on rebuilding and taking small steps to gradually, and hopefully, establish a level of competitiveness in the regional front, starting in Southeast Asia.

So the process began with the Philippine Football Federation scouring talents locally and internationally. On the local front, prized finds included the likes of forwards Emelio “Chieffy” Caligdong and Ian Araneta, and goalkeeper Louie Michael Casas, to name a few who eventually became legends and heroes of the game.

On the international front, footballers based overseas with Filipino parentage and/or citizenship were being scouted. Players such as defenders Anton del Rosario, Alexander “Aly” Borromeo, and brothers Phil, Simon and Chris Greatwich had been part of the national team program who made significant contributions to the national team’s cause.

But at around year 2005, definitely one of the biggest coups for the team, then known as “The Philippine Booters”, had been the successful call-ups of Phil and James Younghusband who were then part of Chelsea FC’s youth squad. The tool that triggered it? Football Manager.

The highly immersive game, not to mention addictive, for hardcore football fans is not your typical action football titles that the likes of FIFA or Pro Evolution soccer was during those years. Football Manager is a statistics and detail-driven franchise where gamers manage and build teams with the aim of getting them to the glorious summit of the virtual footballing world.

Even then, the player data that Football Manager possessed were a cut above the rest, so much so that even the player eligibility in terms of national teams that they could represent can be discovered.

One such eagle-eyed and definitely resourceful gamer had the presence of mind of notifying the Philippine Football Federation that two Chelsea youths could play for the national squad. On the part of the federation, since the info was from a reputable product (even if it’s a just a game), they gambled to pursue the lead they were able to acquire.

And as if fate has transpired to let the first crucial step come into fruition, the Younghusbands, after establishing contacts with the PFF provided a positive response to commit to the Philippines. Then the rest, as they always say, was history.

Though their addition to the national football team program did not immediately provided the results, their impact in adding quality to the already improving lineup became evident and was further boosted, particularly up front.

 

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Midfielder James Younghusband, who is the older of the two, is a towering colossus of a midfielder who is effective at both ends of the pitch and is a threat when it comes to set pieces. And throughout these years, his contributions and services to the Philippines’ rise to prominence as a competitive squad in international football cannot be denied.

Forward and striker Phil Younghusband, meanwhile, had been instrumental in many matches through his goalscoring ability. And as of this writing, he is the captain of the team and the undisputed top-goalscorer for the Philippines at 51 goals (and counting), now talk about one of the best call-ups all because of… a football management simulator!

Proof that their involvement to the squad has not been instant magic but more of a process, a rapid one though, was it would take another five years before the team (eventually came to be known as The Azkals) reached the heights as serious contenders when they reached the semifinals of the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup.

But aside from the direct on-pitch contributions that the Younghusbands have provided, off the pitch and from a management viewpoint, it provided creative and resourceful ways for The Azkals and PFF in scouting overseas-based Filipino prospects.

Fast forward to the present time, with The Philippine Azkals having reached three-straight semifinals in the AFF Suzuki Cup (2010, 2012, 2014) and qualifying for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, it is quite hard to believe that just a few years before the squad became a threatening force once again in international football, the Philippines were considered minnows and also-rans.

What’s harder to imagine is that two big contributors to the rise of this Southeast Asian nation, where football is not the number one team sport, have been discovered eligible to play for the country via a video game.

Finally, to add to the “urban legend” status of this story – with all the impact that this discovery of the two brothers has provided to the history and annals of football in the Philippines – that particular gamer who provided the information to the Philippine Football Federation remains to be “anonymous”.

All the more that makes this tale quite remarkable.

Photo credit: Philippine Football Federation

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