Neil Etheridge

Neil Etheridge’s Dream For Philippine Football

Our longtime national team goalkeeper, Neil Etheridge, shares his wishlist for the sport — from the grassroots to the national team.

The Philippine Men’s National Football Team had a rough campaign earlier this month that saw them lose to fellow Southeast Asian countries Vietnam and Indonesia to officially bow out of the Asian Qualifiers for the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

To be honest, though, the past five years have been rough for the Philippine men’s football program. From 2019, no less than eight individuals have been appointed head coach of the national team. The country has also seen its FIFA ranking gradually slide from a high of 114 in November 2018 to the latest ranking of 141 released in April. That number is almost sure to slide further following the twin losses days ago.

While there is now more stability with the election of a new set of officers for the Philippine Football Federation and the appointment of Tom Saintfiet to a long-term contract, much work still needs to be done.

For team captain Neil Etheridge, the changes are a step in the right direction, which he hopes will bear fruit sooner rather than later.

“I’m looking at now, under the new presidency and new management and new coach, I’m trying to look more into the future in the next couple of years,” he tells The GAME. “Building blocks, that the old saying Rome wasn’t built in a day. I’m very enthusiastic in the way that the new management has come, with the backing of the president, the backing of the team management, a lot of changes have been made and the players have adapted extremely well to it.”

Upon his appointment in March, Saintfiet has moved quickly to recruit players from the vast Filipino diaspora in Europe and the United States. Six of them got call-ups for the most recent FIFA window, with five starting. There are reportedly more in the pipeline.

“I feel like it’s definitely moving in a positive direction, and it’s not taking anything away from what was previously in the previous regime,” Etheridge says. “I think the team management of now put everything in place where the players don’t really have an excuse and I know that we’re obviously looking at bringing in new people to strengthen the squad, and I think that will happen in the next couple of years.”

Neil Etheridge representing the Philippines in the Asian Qualifiers for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. (Photo credit: PMNFT on Facebook)

“From what I’ve seen so far — obviously, I’ve been kept in the loop a little bit as team captain — I do feel that these are the right people now in place to take us to the next step and I hope that it continues in this direction. I’m glad that I’m still involved with the national team to see it happen.”

Indeed, Neil has been a regular fixture on the national team for 16 years. He was there between the sticks for the Miracle in Hanoi, when the team, then known as the Azkals, upset defending AFF champions Vietnam on their home field.

Neil’s wishlist

That loss actually sent Vietnam into a bit of a tailspin, as two years later, they lost again to the Philippines in the AFF Cup. But, from those setbacks rose a new Vietnamese football program that turned them back into a regional powerhouse by the end of the decade.

It is this blueprint that Neil Etheridge hopes the PFF follows.

“I just want to go back to 2010 as a good example,” he explains. “2010, when we beat Vietnam, Vietnam were the holders of the (AFF) Suzuki Cup at the time. They then redevelop everything. Vietnam were not the best for a couple of years they took a step back and they developed, redeveloped, and they built an infrastructure to where they are now.

“So the league is better, the organization is better, the federation is a lot better. They’re now probably one of the best teams in Southeast Asia, to be honest. That’s just a fact. So that’s what I think will happen now, but sometimes you do need to take a step back in life, or whatever it may be, to take steps forward.”

Vietnam’s football federation complex is massive, with multiple playing fields of various sizes dotting the landscape. Teams from various age groups train there regularly. Etheridge wants the Philippines to also invest heavily in youth development, and for the local league – the Philippines Football League –  to truly evolve into a steady source of jobs for players.

“What I would like to see is grassroots,” he said. “When I retire, I would like to be able to sit down and see a proper local league. I would like to see — and this is bearing that I’ve been on this team for a long period of time — I would like to see the country understand football is one thing, massively. Understand and respect football being a global sport.

“So what I want to say basically is football being recognized as a sport where you can earn a living and have a career like the PBA. People look up to the PBA I think just because of the fact that their kids can really move forward and they can earn a living, so that’s another thing. I’d like to see a local league that’s present, that’s constantly evolving.”

Filipino football fans cheering on the Men’s National Team. (Photo credit: PMNFT on Facebook)

As for the PMNFT, Neil thinks it’s high time that they finally get over several humps – from the regional AFF competition to the broader Asian Cup.

“With the national team side, I want us to compete at the highest level, so that’s going to the (AFF) Mitsubishi Cup at the moment and start to look to win it, start going to more Asian Cups, to be able to just compete at the highest level. I think that’s the best way to put it. Not hoping to qualify for an Asian Cup, but what we’re gonna say is, ‘How far can we get into the Asian Cup?’

“I just want it to be better, from the grassroots to the national team. I want to see a big change, players earning good money from the league, the country understanding football as a whole, the whole grassroots to top level, the federation and the national team going to the Asian Cup, competing in finals of the Mitsubishi Cup — all those sorts of things, that’s what I’d like to see.”

Banner images from Kieran Punay of KLIQ, Inc.

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