Six European-born players have made history at the 2019 Asian Cup in a multicultural team that has its roots in the football management video game
Stephan Schrock on the left wing, John-Patrick Strauss and Kevin Ingresso in the middle, Patrick Reichelt in attack – what sounds like the backbone of a German second-division side is actually the foundation of the Philippines national team.
It is with this formation that the Azkals, home to 105 million inhabitants and led by captain Schrock last Friday in the Asian Cup against China, will hope to continue to write their recent success story.
Having never before qualified for a major tournament, there are now six Germans who are hopeful of becoming a figure of hope for their national team.
“Nothing is normal with us,” says Schrock in an interview with Goal and SPOX. It’s a statement that can be confirmed with just a quick scan of the 23-man squad the Philippines have taken to the Asian Cup. It’s an ostensibly multicultural side that includes players from 12 different countries of origin – with just four who were born in the South East Asian nation.
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More unusual than a Filipino squad comprising of footballers who have grown up all over the globe is the story behind the nature of their unique squad composition. It has its origins in one of the unlikeliest of sources: the video game Football Manager.
In a 2005 edition of the game, two brothers from the Chelsea youth team emerged as standout talents. Both Phil (then 18) and James Younghusband (then 19) featured for the Blues’ reserve team. What was remarkable about the duo was not so much their skill, but their nationality – as they represented the Philippines in the game. News about the players spread to the Asian nation and officials of the football association (FA) then contacted the brothers.
Enthusiastic about the prospect of representing their mother’s home nation on the big stage, the duo – who are native Englishmen through their father – accepted the invitation from the FA to play for the Philippines. After a few trials in the national Under-23 side, they both celebrated their debut for the Azkals in 2006.
Although their careers never hit stratospheric heights at Chelsea, the pair stood out as top talents in a country not famed for its footballers. They had never before qualified for the Asian Cup or World Cup finals, but 13 years later the pioneering Younghusband brothers would help them make their debuts in UAE.
“The FA officials wanted to bring football forward even then and knew that the players in Europe have enjoyed a much better education than someone who was born in [capital city] Manila,” explains Schrock. “Why not look for half-Filipinos in Europe?”
In Germany, Alfons Schunk took on this task. Through his job as a field worker at various confectionery companies, he was a regular visitor to to the continent and had organised advertising for the Asian Championships.
After marrying a Filipina woman, he became acquainted with the president of the Azkals through a series of chance meetings and set himself the job of promoting the national team – through scouting for talent in his native Germany.
He organised a training camp in Germany in which he invited about 20 players from the Bavarian league to the Bundesliga who had dual Filipino citizenship. “Kevin Ingresso, Mike Ott, Patrick Reichelt, me and a few others made it on to the shortlist,” recalls the now 32-year-old Schrock, who was then plying his trade at Greuther Furth in the second Bundesliga tier. “In the end, after Manuel Ott, I was the second to make his debut.”
While Schrock was already known as a former Germany youth player, the same could not be said for Reichelt, Ingresso and the Ott brothers. When they made their debut for the Azkals, they were under contract at TSG Neustrelitz, FC Nuremberg II, FC Ingolstadt II and VfR Neumunster. “For us it is of course a great thing that we have so many German-speaking players in the team,” says Schrock.
In addition to getting used to a foreign country and a new culture, the German Filipinos had to get used to the hype that was tangible in their country around the national team at the time of their respective debuts. “When I was there for the first time in 2011, we were treated like pop stars,” recalls Schrock. “No matter where we were, we were beset by fans.”
In the Philippines, where the average monthly income is less than €200, a former top German youth talent like Schrock suddenly became a star. “It was indescribable – once, we were in Starbucks as a team, and we had to use the emergency exit so we could somehow get out of the store!”
During that time, Azkals games were sold-out events “and there were still thousands of fans without a ticket in front of the stadium” reports Schrock. But after a few months, the way football was treated across South East Asia changed. “I don’t know what it was all about. After about six months out of action, the national team was suddenly not interesting for anyone. Instead of 20,000 people, six months later only 150 people attended our games.”
The players still don’t know the reasons for this sudden, strange development. “The political conditions in the country are difficult,” said the international, without going into too much detail. “The ticket prices massively increased, and the media marketing completely stopped overnight.”
It was only with the South East Asia Cup at the end of 2018 that the media hype surrounding the national team returned. Reaching the semi-finals and qualifying for the Asian Cup for the first time reignited the country’s enthusiasm for football. It didn’t matter to the fans where the 23 national players were actually born, as long as they wear the white and blue jersey with pride.
But not everywhere has treatment of the multicultural Filipino team been well-received. A game against Indonesia in the group stage of the South East Asia Cup provoked plenty of discussion after the Indonesian coach accused the Filipinos of distorting the competition. “He complained and said that we are ‘hybrids’ and have physical advantages. He assumed that we are all naturalised,” explains Schrock. “But I think you should not judge anyone because of their ethnic background.”
Of course, Schrock, Ott, Reichelt and Co. were not born and raised in the Philippines, but they all have at least one parent native to the Asian country. “Either you have Filipino blood or not. We would just like to be called Filipinos,” clarified the national team captain.
Statements like these show the pride that Schrock and his team-mates feel, no matter the country they were born in. Not only do the six German players now play for the Azkals, but they also all live on the island of Negros and compete as professionals for Filipino football side Ceres-Negros in the Bacolod City.
Filipino football fans feel the same pride when they see their Akzals at the Asian Cup against the big continental football powers. Despite the two defeats against title favourites South Korea (0-1) and regional superpower China (0-3), the Filipinos hope to contend for a finish in the last eight of the competition with a win over Kyrgyzstan by claiming a best-placed third place spot in the groups.
Having just a week to prepare for reaching the knockout round of largest tournament in the history of the AFC would be a small football miracle indeed. The hopes of the Philippines rest not only on the shoulders of the adopted Filipinos, however, but also on those of coach Sven-Goran Eriksson. The former England coach took on the role shortly before the start of the tournament and the Swede is already the fifth manager in charge of the Azkals in a turbulent 12 months.
“What is normal with us?” Schrock responds when asked about the managerial situation. “With him, we’ve got a name that everyone around the world knows, and with his experience he can help us a lot in a big tournament, even off the pitch.”
Nothing seems impossible for this most unlikely of national teams – despite two defeats at the start of the group stage. Just being involved is a huge achievement. And perhaps the presence of the German-Filipino ‘hybrids’ in the crucial game against Kyrgyzstan could tip the scales.