Phil Younghusband says the Philippines will enjoy the experience of competing at their first-ever Asian Cup next year – but the former Chelsea protege is adamant his side won’t be coming here simply to make up the numbers in the UAE.
The Azkals (Street Dogs) will be one of three debutants at next year’s tournament – alongside Yemen and Kyrgyzstan.
And even though Younghusband was delighted to be rubbing shoulders with football royalty like Italy icon Marcello Lippi and the highest goalscorer in international football history, Iran’s Ali Daei, at the tournament draw in Dubai on Friday, the 30-year-old striker insists it will be down to business once the tournament gets under way on January 5, 2019.
“We’re here for the experience but not just that. We want to be part of the tournament, make our mark and show Asia that the Philippines has a football team,” said Younghusband, who is both his nation’s record caps holder and scorer, with an impressive 50 goals in 97 appearances.
“Just being in this environment and being among people like Marcello Lippi (China coach), Ali Daei, that sort of company. It’s a wonderful experience and it’s something we hope to do more of in the future.
“Living in the Philippines with the lack of facilities and often lack of support, just seeing this makes you realise where the Philippines can grow to. It’s great to be here and hopefully we’ll be here a lot more often.”
#AsianCup2019 FINAL GROUPS— The Philippine Football Federation (@philfootball) 4 May 2018
A 🇦🇪 🇹🇭 🇮🇳 🇧🇭
B 🇦🇺 🇸🇾 🇵🇸 🇯🇴
C 🇰🇷 🇨🇳 🇰🇬 🇵🇭
D 🇮🇷 🇮🇶 🇻🇳 🇾🇪
E 🇸🇦 🇶🇦 🇱🇧 🇰🇵
F 🇯🇵 🇺🇿 🇴🇲🇹🇲
The Azkals, still on a high after an historic first qualification to the Asian Cup, are yet to announce whether head coach Thomas Dooley, the former United States international, will renew his contract.
He surely will return though to lead the country in the UAE. They are in a tough Group C, alongside China and two-time winners South Korea, as well as Kyrgyzstan.
But star man Younghusband is buoyed by the fact four third-placed teams from the six groups will qualify for the knockout rounds in a reformatted competition that will see a record 24 teams take part.
“Once we qualified we said we’re not just here to make up the numbers, we’re here to compete,” said the Davao Aguilas frontman.
“With the format we can qualify as one of the best third-placed sides which gives us a great chance.”
And he’s also banking on the powerhouses of Asian football underestimating his side.
“I hope so,” he added. “We’ve got a tough group but we’ve had two decent results recently (beat Tajikistan 2-1 and Fiji 3-2).
“We beat Kyrgyzstan (twice in 2016) and lost badly to China (8-1 in June 2017) but at least we’re playing against teams we’ve played before and know what to expect.
“With South Korea it’s a bit different but we’re excited for the test and it’s up to us to ensure we’re making a name for ourselves.”
One thing the Philippines can count on is the fervent support of a mammoth expat community, with around 750,000 Filipinos living in the UAE.
Younghusband, who was born in Surrey to an English father and Filipina mother, joined Chelsea’s academy aged nine and turned professional with the Stamford Bridge club in 2005 – spending three further years in West London.
It was in 2005 when his eligibility for the Philippines was discovered, with the Philippine Football Federation reportedly alerted to Younghusband by an anonymous gamer who allegedly found out about his lineage via popular computer game Football Manager.
He has since gone on to become a national hero and hopes his fellow countrymen and women will turn out in force to cheer on their team next year.
“That many? Wow,” said Younghusband when told of the Filipino population in the Emirates.
“Hopefully 10 per cent of them show up. You speak to a lot of people here and you hear they’re happy the Philippines qualified as there’s a lot of them here in the UAE who can come and support.
“We hope they do come and we have plans to go out into the communities and visit schools, rally the troops and make sure every game feels like a home game.
“I think that’s important because we’ll be going into the game at a handicap but hopefully our fans can make it more of a leveler.”
Asked if the number of Filipinos could mean the UAE becoming a future destination for Younghusband to play and live, he added: “Not right now. But who knows. If a good offer comes, no-one knows what the future is.”
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