x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Filipino footballing brothers were made in Chelsea, fashioned in Manila

The Younghusband brothers are using their experiences to drive the Philippine football scene forward, writes Gary Meenaghan.

James, and left, Philip Younghusband were on the books at Chelsea in their teenage years. The brothers grew up in England, with an English father and Filipina mother, before they moved to the Philippines and play for the national side James, and left, Philip Younghusband were on the books at Chelsea in their teenage years. The brothers grew up in England, with an English father and Filipina mother, before they moved to the Philippines and play for the national side.
James, and left, Philip Younghusband were on the books at Chelsea in their teenage years. The brothers grew up in England, with an English father and Filipina mother, before they moved to the Philippines and play for the national side James, and left, Philip Younghusband were on the books at Chelsea in their teenage years. The brothers grew up in England, with an English father and Filipina mother, before they moved to the Philippines and play for the national side.

It is not without reason that James and Philip Younghusband believe their lives would make a very watchable movie. The story of the Filipino brothers has everything a great film requires: success, adversity, heart-break, photogenic protagonists, picturesque locations, dalliances with famous faces, and - most importantly - a moral.

Fade in: maternity ward in Surrey, near London.

A baby cries. A newspaper lying near the hospital bed shows the date: August 4, 1987. A Filipina named Susan Placer and an Englishman named Philip Younghusband Sr are welcoming their second son into the world. It is 11 months since the birth of James, the couple's first born.

Growing up in Staines, south London, the two brothers become inseparable; the family travels to the Philippines for a holiday every year; and with their birthdays being so close, when they start attending Catholic primary school they are placed in the same grade.

As pre-teens, they play football for the same Sunday League sides and when their school puts them forward for county trials they are both approached by scouts of Arsenal, Chelsea, West Ham United and Watford.

After training with all four clubs, they sign on with Chelsea's Under 10s, and they remain at the club for 11 years.

"We were there during the transition from before and after [Roman] Abramovich," Phil, now a dimple-cheeked 24 year old, told The National this week in Dubai.

"We joined Chelsea when Gianluca Vialli was in charge. To go to the training ground and see the first-team players was always special, but once Abramovich came in, we started to see new faces every week. Then when Jose [Mourinho] came in everything changed completely."

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Cut to: Cobham training centre, Chelsea.

A 20-year-old Filipino, dressed in a blue training kit, sits in the club's plush changing rooms. Next to him is an older man with greying hair and the initials JM on his tracksuit. The two figures, leaning forward and readying themselves for a day's work, are deep in conversation.

Mourinho joined Chelsea in 2004 and set about changing the mentality and ethic of Chelsea Football Club. In his first season, he secured the Londoners a first league title in 50 years. In the same year, Phil Younghusband finished top scorer for Chelsea's youth team and was included in Mourinho's squad during the 2005 pre-season.

"Phil was a talented player with potential who worked hard in search of a dream," Mourinho said recently. "In part, I helped him reach that dream by giving him his debut with the Chelsea first team."

While James remained with the reserve team, Phil played two pre-season friendlies under Mourinho, most memorably against Wycombe Wanderers in 2005 where he came off a bench that included Frank Lampard and Arjen Robben to replace Joe Cole. He called it "an experience I will always remember and cherish".

"To hear those words from Jose is amazing," he said. "Whenever we were doing our boots up together or sitting having a talk, he would always ask about the Philippines and the interest in football there. He is very people friendly and it was great to see.

"He paid incredible attention to detail, even the youngest kid in the Under Nines, he would know their name. Before games, we used to receive a booklet about a hundred pages thick about the opposition. That's how detailed he was and I feel very proud to be able to boast that I worked with him."

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Cut to: an upscale photography studio, Manila.

A dapper looking James Younghusband, having left Chelsea in 2006, is working as a model. Through the window, the sun is shining. Life appears relaxed. He stops to take a telephone call and his brother informs him Chelseawill not be renewing his contract either, so he will follow him to the Philippines.

Both brothers describe their time at Stamford Bridge in positive terms; a place where everybody looked out for each other and former players are welcomed back like family. John Terry, the London side's controversial captain, even paid for James's driving lessons. "He's that nice of a guy," he said. "A real role model for leaders."

Having spent two seasons flitting around the English lower leagues, James moved to the Philippines in 2008, where he flirted with magazine modelling and show business before re-lacing his boots and registering to play in the Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup. Phil, soon after having learnt he would not remain on the books at Stamford Bridge, joined his brother on the national team roster.

"It was difficult because coming from Chelsea you are sort of spoilt," James said. "If you don't make it at Chelsea, going into the real world is tough. But you can look at in two ways: the negative whereby you wanted to make it in England or the positive where you go out and make the most of the increased opportunities available to you."

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Cut to: Alabang Country Club, Muntinlupa City, Manila.

Phil Younghusband, dressed in a white training shirt and black shorts, watches as Filipino children chase a ball around a rutted pitch. He looks toward the sidelines hoping for more youngsters to appear, but all he sees is a banner reading "Younghusband Football Academy".

Phil has launched his own football school aimed at developing national talent in his mother's homeland. Registration numbers remained small, however, as football fought with the country's more popular sports, as well as other favoured pastimes.

"Showbiz is popular in the Philippines, as is modelling, basketball and boxing, but football was not, so it was difficult for me," Phil said.

"I wanted to be in the Philippines, but I also wanted to stay involved in football. When I started the academy, the interest was low, we only had about 60 kids and it was hard to find sponsors."

The Philippines national football team was reinvented as "The Azkals" in 2006 and, undoubtedly helped by the team reaching the semi-finals of the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Suzuki Cup in 2010 and the local league going professional, support for football is rapidly on the rise.

Phil and James, with their modelling backgrounds and English accents, have become the poster boys of Filipino football and their academy now has, according to Phil, "hundreds of kids wanting to play".

"You could make it into a movie the way football was before and what it is now in the Philippines," James said. "In the space of a year and a half, it has changed drastically. It's been a transition from one extreme to the other.

"Last year, before the success, we would be sitting in the mall with nothing to do, trying to decide what film to watch, now we only have one day off each week and it's hard to find time for anything."

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Cut to: Al Maktoum Stadium, Dubai.

The Azkals, cheered on by a small but vocal throng of passionate Filipino expatriates, are playing the Uzbekistan Under 23s.

They are losing 3-0, but still the crowd cheer.

As the referee blows for full time, the Younghusbands walk towards the fans to show their appreciation.

A high-pitched wolf-whistle rings out. The brothers smile.

James and Phil are part of the Azkals squad that have this month been using the Middle East as a base during their preparations for the upcoming AFC Challenge Cup in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Placed in a group with India, North Korea and Tajikistan, all three of whom are previous winners of the tournament, the team's chances of success are slim.

"We need to educate the people in the Philippines, so they understand and appreciate that we can't win every time," Phil said. "We're not Manny Pacquiao."

And therein lies the moral. Both players are happy, delighted in fact, just to be playing the game they love for a country that has welcomed them so warmly.

Now when they walk the streets in Manila, they are recognised as professional footballers, rather than for being a pretty face or for modelling on billboards.

"For that to happen in the Philippines is amazing," Phil said. "That makes us more happy than anything."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae