Forget the likes of David Beckham and local myriad pop stars, in the Philippines it is a pair of English-born brothers with a curious surname that enjoy huge popularity. Unlike most players in south-east Asia, the popularity of the Younghusband brothers is not just confined to the rapidly growing football fraternity, but also in the wider community where James, and younger brother Philip, are celebrities in their own right.
However, the duo could hardly be accused of being all style and no substance. Indeed, the pair have been front and centre as the Philippines have enjoyed a constant upward trajectory in recent years culminating in a new all-time high of 143 on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Now the brothers are seeking to help push Filipino football to fresh heights at the AFF Suzuki Cup over the coming month. The Azkals will open their campaign on Saturday with a visit to Bangkok to face regional giants Thailand, before further group matches against 2008 champions Vietnam and Myanmar.
The Younghusband’s passion for the game doesn’t merely extend to what happens on the pitch over 90 minutes. They have set up, and actively participate in, an Academy based around skills enhancement, with the long term goal of helping grow the game across the bustling nation of nearly 100 million inhabitants.
The long way around
Born and bred in suburban London, the pair spent their some of their formative football years in Chelsea's youth teams, before plying their trade for a succession of lower league clubs. Their destiny made a swift about-face in 2005 when a phone call out of the blue resulted in the brothers, whose mother is Filipino, making a trip to the capital Manilla to experience the local football and, indeed, culture. The blend proved to be a perfect one as the Younghusband brothers impressed for the Philippines youth team, before quickly progressing to the senior side.
“It took a while (to settle),” James Younghusband told FIFA.com. “Though once you get to know the people and country more, it makes you want to stay and represent the national team.”
Phil settled permanently in 2008 and James did so a year later. The pair quickly became celebrities almost overnight, amid a succession of TV programme appearances. “It (celebrity status) helps us achieve what we want to do in promoting football,” says James with an endearing mix of frankness and humility, “and we are very thankful for that.”
With football some way behind basketball in terms of popularity, the Younghusband brothers’ passion and devotion for the game means they effectively play the part of missionaries for the beautiful game, setting them apart from the average player. And it is a role that they are more than happy to fulfil, with the pair featuring in TV adverts across the Philippines that are designed to show that the game can be played anywhere with just a ball and a couple of friends.
“We want to pass on the message that football is a team sport and show the benefits,” said James. “Of course football is not a sport for the elite, it is a sport for the masses.”
Even the unlikely figure of colourful Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho has indirectly played a role in the establishment of the Younghusband Academy, with James saying the former Chelsea boss “inspired us with his passion for coaching” during their time at Stamford Bridge. "We want to help develop football, we love all aspects of being involved and we love even talking about it."
Hunt for regional glory
Two years ago the Philippines secured a breakthrough showing at the Suzuki Cup, the hugely popular biannual eight-nation tournament, by reaching the last four for the first time. There followed another semi-final appearance at this year’s AFC Challenge Cup for the continent’s designated second-tier nations, with striker Phil finishing the tournament as top goalscorer.
Now the Younghusbands, and their fellow Azkal team-mates, are determined to prove that Filipino football is on the march. "We want to reach the semi-finals, if not get to the final and be champions,” says James. “We have to set our standards high given what happened at the last Suzuki Cup.
"We believe we have the hardest of the two groups, and I think we have to be very cautious when we play all our games. I think there is a lot of pressure because this is the tournament that made the name for the Azkals.
“We said before 2010, we needed a big tournament showing to open everyone’s eyes, but we didn’t think it would happen so quickly. Since 2010 there is a lot more interest in the sport and people wanting to get involved in terms of media, sponsors, everything. But we are playing catch-up compared to other countries in terms of facilities so it will take time, but things have definitely improved a lot.”