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Neil Etheridge On Carrying The Weight of the Philippine Flag

Neil Etheridge Is Championing The Nation’s Spirit

Neil Etheridge has played in the biggest league in the world, but as he tells The GAME, nothing quite compares to playing for one’s country.

On the afternoon of May 12, 2019, Neil Etheridge walked onto the pitch at Old Trafford for his last match of the Premier League season. The pressure was stacked. This would mark the conclusion of his first season competing in England’s top flight, arguably the biggest football league in the world, and on top of this, his team was coming from consecutive losses and badly needed a win to end the season on a high. To make matters more challenging, they were facing Manchester United at home.

Under the pressure, Neil delivered.

Facing 10 shots on target, the Filipino keeper — representing millions as the first Filipino to ever play in the Premier League — pulled off saves he will likely remember for the rest of his life. After all, his heroic moves granted Cardiff City a clean 2-0 victory over Manchester United to close the season.

Neil regards this match as the best football atmosphere he’s ever experienced in the UK, playing in front of a crowd of 74,457 fans at what he calls, “one of the most well-known stadiums in the world.”

Many footballers can only dream of an experience like this. And yet, for Neil, it cannot compare to how he feels whenever he walks onto the turf grass of Rizal Memorial Stadium wearing the Philippine Men’s National Team jersey.

“I’ll tell you straight,” Neil says to The GAME, “I never got as nervous playing in the Premier League as I do for my country.

“I’ve played in a sell-out Old Trafford, and whenever Old Trafford would sell out, it was like 80,000 people. We lined up, we walked out, shook everyone’s hands…It was just game time for me. But the difference between that and playing in front of Rizal when there are maybe only 7,000 to 10,000 people — when the national anthem goes, it gets me every time.”

Neil reveals that he is not normally an emotional person when he plays football. Playing in the United Kingdom, he has competed against some of the biggest clubs in the world. But, these matches don’t get to him quite so well as when he suits up for the flag.

“I get very passionate about it,” he says. “I personally get very emotional when the national anthem comes on. A lot of time there will probably be tears in my eyes, but I won’t show them. I probably start to shake a little bit.”

As the captain of the Philippine Men’s National Football Team, one can empathize with Neil. An extra weight comes with being the leader. But, as the skipper pores over the last 16 years he’s spent playing for the National Team, he recalls that he felt a deep connection to the Philippine flag from day one.

Neil Etheridge for The GAME Magazine June 2024 Cover Story
Neil Etheridge in ARAW THE LINE top and bottoms.
At first sight

Born to an English father and a Filipino mother, Neil Etheridge grew up in England, the birthplace of football, and started playing the sport at a very young age. As a boy, he played for the youth academies of Chelsea and Fulham, two Premier League clubs, exposing him to a high level of football early on.

So, when he visited the Philippines in 2008 after being invited to join the Philippine Men’s National Team, his standards were understandably high.

“[My mother and I] came out to kind of see what it was like, because as soon as you play one international game for a country, you’re tied down for the rest of your playing career,” he explains. “Obviously, me being half-English and half-Filipino, once I put on the jersey for the Philippines, I wouldn’t be able to turn back.”

Neil was only 18 at the time, so before making the commitment to play for the Philippines, he needed to see what Philippine football was all about. As he recalls, his first impressions were not great.

“I won’t even lie because I don’t need to lie. We’ve come a long way, and I’m talking a long way,” he emphasizes. “If you talk to some of the other players I was playing with, they’d be taking bottles off of fields, and the fields wouldn’t be great. We’re really talking about having 20-minute cleanup sessions, taking rubbish off the field just so we could train.”

A far cry from the football he grew up with.

But in spite of the less-than-optimal playing conditions, Neil remembers, “To be honest, I just felt something inside of me that really wanted to be a part of this team and this journey. Speaking to the coach and the people and everyone around, I knew there was a long way to go, but it just felt like something that I needed to be a part of.”

And so his journey with the Philippine Men’s National Football Team began.

The Fil-Brit joined the squad in their training camp in preparation for the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers, where he got to spend more time with his fellow players and solidify his bond with the team.

“I felt that connection when I was in the camp before the first game. For me to make that commitment, to even put on the jersey for the first game, I had to feel a connection — which I did. And then when I played my first game, I realized that it was the right decision even more so.”

Neil Etheridge for The GAME Magazine June 2024 Cover Story
Neil Etheridge finds joy in carrying the Philippine flag.

Neil made his debut for the Philippines playing against Brunei in the Challenge Cup qualifiers in 2008. He was on the pitch for all of the country’s matches and kept clean sheets across all three — a truly memorable debut. But what made it all the more special for him, having been born and raised in England, was the support he felt from the Filipino crowd.

“There were a lot of supporters,” he remembers. “It was a long time ago now, but I really enjoyed it…If you didn’t feel the love, and didn’t feel the passion, then I could have played those first three games and never come back again. But that wasn’t the case.”

Over the next 16 years, Neil continued to fly back and forth to the Philippines to compete for the flag. This is why even though he did not grow up here, and admits to speaking the language fully, he knows better than most what the journey of Philippine football has been like.

Reaching the next level

When we ask Neil to describe the growth of Philippine football, he beams with pride before he responds. It is apparent in his smile as he quietly reflects upon the last 16 years. “Extraordinary,” he says.

“There’s not a long enough time to talk about it,” he continues. “You hear stories from Chris Greatwich, the Hartmann brothers, Phil and James [Younghusband] — being in dorms, tidying up fields, then having to go and train, not having any sort of equipment or jerseys, or whatever it may be. That was probably 2005 to 2007. I joined in 2008 and it was very similar.”

But, two years later, the Philippine Men’s National Football Team (then still more well-known as the Azkals) was beginning to gain the recognition they deserved.

“In 2010, we wrote history in Hanoi.”

To this day, Filipino footballers and OG fans can’t shake the goosebumps when they talk about The Miracle of Hanoi — and understandbly so.

It was the AFF Suzuki Cup, and the Azkals were facing Vietnam, the defending champions. The Filipinos needed a win to keep them in the running for the knockout stages of the competition. They were playing in front of a crowd of 40,000 spectators on Vietnam’s turf. And they had never beaten Vietnam before.

But in the end, the Azkals prevailed. 2-0.

“[We came back] to a massive wave. We didn’t know how to handle it, if I’m honest — myself, the players, the management. I don’t think anyone expected the rise so quickly.”

All of a sudden, Philippine football was rising to fame. The Azkals were drawing sell-out crowds in Rizal Memorial Stadium and the squad’s players were reaching a new level of celebrity. This is what many celebrated as a “renaissance period” for the sport on a local level.

Neil Etheridge for The GAME Magazine June 2024 Cover Story
Neil Etheridge wearing ARAW THE LINE bottoms with his national team jersey.

But as the National Team began to gain more attention, they also became subject to more scrutiny. One of the hot-button topics that critics were quick to ride on was the fact that many of the players did not grow up in the Philippines, including the likes of Neil, Rob Gier, and Phil and James Younghusband.

Many may even forget that the word “Azkals“, which was the team’s moniker for many years, is a Filipino slang term that refers to ‘street dog’ that was meant to represent the diversity of the squad. However, this prompted a lot of criticism as many questioned why they had recruited more foreign-based players than local ones.

Neil remembers these criticisms quite vividly. “There were a few interviews I’ve had in previous years [where I was asked], ‘Are you naturalized players?’ and I’m there going, ‘No. Hold on. I need to correct you there. We’re not naturalized at all.’

“You can understand I’m getting very passionate about it…I think that’s the disrespect that we feel when people don’t want to recognize us as Filipinos because, for starters, we have decided to represent the Philippines. So it goes back to what I said before: I had the choice.”

Neil may not have grown up in the Philippines, but even so, he feels a deep connection to his heritage and, most especially, a deep connection to the flag. It is no wonder why he is quick to challenge these criticisms about how “Filipino” he is.

“When people write about it and say I’m not Filipino — how do you reckon that makes my mum feel?” he says. “But at the same time, I do believe it’s educational. I think as I’ve got older, I’ve had to take my hard hat off and speak to people and educate them to the best of my knowledge about these sort of topics…If someone were to ask me about it, I’d say, I’m rightfully a Filipino passport holder through my mum.”

Neil cannot stress it enough: he is Filipino.

Playing for millions

When Cardiff City kicked off their first match of the 2018-2019 season — following their promotion from the EFL Championship into England’s top flight — Neil Etheridge officially became the first Filipino and the first player of Southeast Asian descent to ever play in the Premier League.

It was truly memorable to see a Filipino representing millions of others around the world in one of the most cutthroat leagues in the world, playing against some of the biggest teams and players. In fact, when The GAME asked Neil to name the best striker he’s played against, he needed a moment to think about his response, because he’s had to face shots from many iconic stars.

(His answer was Sergio Agüero.)

But the gravity of being the first of his kind in the Premier League did not fully sink in for Neil, funnily enough, until he was taking a break from the pitch.

“When I traveled to Dubai on holiday, there were so many Filipinos coming up to me in restaurants, bars, and hotels, asking me, ‘Are you Neil Etheridge?’ And it was amazing for them to see that when I played in arguably the best league in the world, I had the Philippine flag next to my name,” Neil says.

“I never shied away from the fact that I am Filipino or anything like that, and it was great to enlighten people talking about our culture, talking about the cities, talking about the country. And people are intrigued about it because of the fact that I was the first. So I did enjoy being the first Filipino and people asking me those sorts of questions.”

Neil Etheridge for The GAME Magazine June 2024 Cover Story
Neil Etheridge wearing ARAW THE LINE bottoms with his national team jersey.

Upon asking Neil what makes him Filipino, he takes a moment to ponder the question. “I think it’s my passion, my loyalty, my…” he says before he is interrupted by fellow National Team player, OJ Porterria, who is sitting behind him.

“Vinegar,” OJ jokes.

Neil laughs. “OJ is saying I love vinegar and rice…But it’s so hard to put it into words. I think the best way is to say that the Philippines is home for me. And the attributes or the personality traits that come along with it that are very similar to a lot of us — very hard working, grounded, and proud to be Filipino.”

It never fails to warm the hearts of Filipinos when they see internationally successful athletes share their pride in their heritage. Yet, there may be one person in particular who feels this on an entirely different level: his mother.

“She’s so proud,” Neil says with a big smile on his face, reflecting upon how his mother felt the first time he ever competed wearing the Philippine flag.

“My mum was paving the way for herself when I was born. She was trying to get used to Western culture, coming and going to England, and a job. [There were] so many things she was concentrating on, and then she has me, but she’s still got her own life to live. So I think passion, desire, family, hard work — that sort of stuff is instilled in me.”

These are things that Neil exhibits now, perhaps more than ever, as the team captain of the Men’s National Football Team.

Uplifting the flag

Neil Etheridge was in Portugal in 2022 with his family when he found out he was going to be named the captain of the Philippine Men’s National Football Team.

“I got a phone call and it was like, ‘Right, you’re gonna be the team captain,'” Neil recalls. “I was just like wow, this is a big thing. I was delighted, my wife was delighted, we had a celebratory drink in the evening.”

With all the ups and downs Neil has been a part of, this was a culmination of his dedication to the flag. Who better to lead the National Team into the next chapter than one of the most tenured players who has lived through many chapters before?

But rather quickly, Neil realized that “captain” was far more than just a label or a reward.

Shortly after the Filipino keeper was named captain, the team competed in the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers, where the team crashed out after the third round of the tournament.

“I felt like I let the team down in my first camp because — I get emotional thinking about it — I was so desperate to qualify for the Asian Cup and we just fell short,” he admits. “I don’t feel like we should have fallen short and that weight was on my shoulders…It’s quite devastating for me.”

As the old adage goes, a captain must go down with his ship. But in a similar vein, Neil also realized then that a captain must also lead the charge to rise back up.

“I’ll be everyone’s friend off the field,” he explains. “There’s an approachability about me — my room’s always open, we play games in the evening. I like to have a good time. The team togetherness for me is crucial. I think if you look back to 2010, did we have the best players? No, we didn’t have the best players at all. Did we have a team togetherness? Yes, we did. The boys would fight on the pitch and die for each other and that’s probably what we missed for a period of time.

“But on the field, I’ve tried to lift standards. My standards are extremely high and I’ve had to tell the boys, if I don’t think something’s right, I’ll tell them. This is a training session that’s now just passed by which we’re never going to get back, and hopefully the next time, the training sessions become better and better and better.”

Neil Etheridge for The GAME Magazine June 2024 Cover Story
Neil Etheridge continues to dedicate himself to Philippine football.

With all the peaks and valleys that the Philippine Men’s National Team has seen throughout the last 16 years, Neil knows that this is the best he can do to uplift the team, as well as Philippine football as a whole.

“Let’s be honest, there was a little bit of a dip in our side,” Neil reflects, looking back to the years post-Hanoi in 2010. “A dip in performances, and a dip in probably, I’d say management dealing with us, because they wanted us to play so many games and we were never able to field our full-strength teams, and that was a problem in my opinion.

“But then we picked ourselves back up, qualifying for the Asian Cup for the first time [in 2019], which was creating history once again.”

The journey has been a rollercoaster, to say the least.

Neil found his place in the Philippines at a time when football pitches were far from the standards he was used to, and he was there to see it, slowly but surely, find its place in the Filipinos’ hearts. In the years that followed, more high-quality pitches began to take shape; many more younger players have risen to the challenge of representing the flag; and now, Rizal Memorial is starting to reach full capacity once again.

The growth of Philippine football has not been linear, but even through the lowest of moments, Neil affirms, “I’ve never looked back and I’ve never regretted the decision.

“This has been a journey that’s been going on for a long time for me, and it’s been higher than low, but just to see where it was and where it started to where it is now — it’s a privilege to be a part of.”

And the path still continues to unfold.

With the team now under new management with a new direction, the future is uncertain — Neil himself says it is like “walking into the unknown” — but for better or for worse, this captain has already proven that he is in it for the long haul.

“And so, we go again.”

Photography KIERAN PUNAY of KLIQ, Inc.
Creative Direction MARC YELLOW
Sittings Editor SID VENTURA
Shoot Coordination ANTHONY MENDOZA

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