Cesar Iñigo Castro is only 16 years old, and already, he has represented the Philippines in three major international tournaments—in the last three months alone. THE GAME luckily got to catch up with him in between his travels.
From July to August, Iñigo competed as the starting goalkeeper in the AFF U16 Men’s Championships in Indonesia. In September, he was called up to play for the U20 squad in the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers in Oman. And just this month, he traveled to Jordan for the AFC U17 Asian Cup Qualifiers.
Iñigo is a high school student who studies in the United States. Coming home to Manila for his summer break, he essentially spent all his time in four-week training camps, flying to foreign cities, and competing against some of the best players in Asia. In fact, just after flying back from their last tournament in Jordan, he spent one day in Manila. The following day he was on a flight back to Utah.
It sounds grueling. Yet, when asked about his demanding schedule, Iñigo simply shrugged and said, “It’s pretty fun.”
And such is the attitude of one of the Philippines’ most promising young players.
He’s a keeper!
Iñigo Castro has roots in Negros Occidental and comes from a line of athletes. His mother, Katrina Alonso, was a former softball player for the UP Maroons and her side of the family also played football. With athleticism in his blood, he started kicking footballs at the age of five. And by the time he was seven years old, he found himself trying to catch them with his hands instead.
Though he doesn’t remember how he ended up as a goalkeeper, it’s the position he has dedicated himself to from a young age. “There’s something about it,” he tells us. “I have fun diving, I have fun making saves. There’s like a thrill to it.”
Apart from the thrill, he also demonstrates skill in front of the net, evidenced by his performances on the field. In the U16 AFF Championships in Indonesia, it was the first time the Philippines had beaten higher-ranked Singapore. And on top of the win, Iñigo was regarded as a “tough goalkeeper” by the title-winning team, Indonesia.
In the U20 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers in Oman last month, Iñigo was also a key member of the team. Only 16 years old, he admitted he didn’t expect to play in the tournament, given the older age group. Going up against and training alongside players several years older, he acknowledged, “It’s obviously a high standard, and you’re playing with better and more experienced players.”
But even so, when he was asked to start for the team, he was ready to meet the standard. The youngster ended up playing in two of the team’s three games in the tournament, where they even beat Afghanistan with a clean sheet.
“I was also surprised, but I knew I could do it,” he shares.
Iñigo certainly always keeps a level head under any circumstances. In the U17 Asian Cup Qualifiers in Jordan, he wasn’t able to play. When asked about the situation, he simply said, “It’s the coach’s decision and I respect it. You can’t do anything about those things. You still have to enjoy it—the experience and everything.”
Embracing the responsibility
Iñigo Castro definitely has the confidence it takes to be competitive. But just like any athlete, he isn’t immune to pre-game jitters. “I feel so much pressure before the game, the day before the game, and the day of the game,” he admits. “But once I am on the field, I really just forget about it and try to have fun no matter what.”
The way that Iñigo views competing is admirable, especially given the unique role of his position.
While it may be easy to view the goalkeeper as the last line of defense, they are actually often the first. Apart from flying to stop balls, they are usually the ones on the field dictating defensive plays and changing formations. And Iñigo is always up to the task. (Even when it means getting kicked in the face).
As humble and timid as he may seem talking to him, a fire comes out. Watching one of his matches, you’ll likely find him commanding his teammates, scripting plays, and making sure, in whatever way he can, that the defense is solid.
Sometimes, you can even hear him clearly in the stands. And it makes sense—after all, as keeper, all eyes are on you. The pressure is on you. But even though his intensity comes out in these moments, it isn’t pressure that he feels.
“It’s not really pressure. I just know that I have a responsibility to my team,” he says.
And it’s a responsibility he willingly accepts—along with the other responsibilities he has on his plate.
New school, new team, new demands
In 2021, Iñigo Castro made the courageous decision to move to the United States to finish his high school education. In studying abroad, he hoped to continue face-to-face classes and experience a new level of football. Both, he was able to do.
Iñigo studies at Layton Christian Academy in Utah and as a sophomore, he already plays for the Senior Varsity Team. And he shares that based on his experiences, the new level of playing has helped him as an athlete.
“It’s a really different experience,” he recounts. “You get to train with higher level coaches, the way they train is different, and the coaching is different—it’s a lot more work. Higher demands.”
The young keeper also shared that his teammates play at a very high level. With players coming from countries where football is a whole lifestyle, such as Brazil and Spain, he not only learns from them and plays alongside them—he is also pushed to meet their standards.
But, from the big demands came big results. The school’s team, LCA Soccer, won all the major trophies in the state in 2022 and was even named ‘Team of the Year.’ On top of the three major championships LCA Soccer won, Iñigo Castro was also named co-MVP of the regional title match.
If all these athletic achievements aren’t enough for his first year abroad, Iñigo also takes his academics very seriously. In fact, he is a part of the National Honors Society.
“I just manage my time the best way I can,” he tells us, matter-of-factly. “I try to do my homework during class so when I get home, I don’t really have to do much except study.”
Iñigo’s attitude shows us that even in seemingly challenging situations as a young student athlete living far from home, often, things really can be quite simple.
The price of a dream
After nearly three months of just living and breathing football, competing in three major international tournaments, Iñigo Castro is back in Utah for his junior year of high school. “I feel more comfortable going into this school year. I know the setup, I know the coaches, I know my teammates, I’m looking forward to it,” he affirms.
Although he is ready for another year of school abroad, he admits that moving to the United States to finish high school has been the biggest sacrifice he has had to make. But, it’s one that he’s willing to make in pursuit of his own aspirations.
“My goal is of course to go pro and play at the highest level possible,” he states. And, he is committed to staying on track to meet this goal.
Spending his summer break on the field, with teammates and friends he pretty much grew up with, representing the Philippines, he has gained invaluable experiences in a short amount of time—experiences that he feels helped him build his confidence even more.
“It’s [been] an amazing experience. So many people dream about it and I’m just grateful to have been a part of it. You really learn a lot from the tournaments and it’s great to represent your country. It’s also nice because I get to be with my friends.”
Of course, Iñigo Castro still makes sure to go back to his foundation when he talks about his recent experiences and opportunities to play. Throughout our entire conversation with him, he repeated several times over, that to him, playing is something he thoroughly enjoys.
But apart from learning from his experiences, he also acknowledges the role of those around him who have helped him to where his today. He recognizes his teammates, his coaches, his friends, and of course, his family in his journey.
To his mom Katrina and dad CJ, he wishes to give them credit for all the sacrifices they, too, have had to make, “I just want to say thank you so much because I wouldn’t be in the position I am in now without you and your support.”
Keeping it fun
In learning about Iñigo Castro’s successes as a player, his attitude and drive on the pitch, and his achievements at such a young age, it’s been a pleasant surprise to listen to him talk about football with nothing but sheer passion.
And even on the days he wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, or the fire simply isn’t as strong, he tells us that either way, he always gravitates back to his passion for the game.
But make no mistake—he is not naive to the challenges that come with wanting to go pro. He knows it is a long journey with obstacles that will get in the way. But he is willing to make sacrifices and he definitely has what it takes to get there. After all, at the end of the day, “There’s no point in doing it if you’re not having fun.”