International playboys

Owen Amos explains how two brothers dealt with rejection in England – by becoming footballing celebrities in the Philippines

While Chelsea wait for Josh McEachran to establish himself (or be sold to Fulham), two of their other youth team graduates are doing rather well. James and Phil Younghusband, brothers from Middlesex, were released by Chelsea in 2006 and 2008 respectively. Now, they’ve got 50 caps between them, a string of sponsorship deals and – most importantly of all – 200,000 followers on Twitter. The Younghusbands have made it; they’ve just made it 7,000 miles away, in the Philippines.

The brothers, born to a British father and Filipino mother, were first picked for the Philippines Under-23 squad in 2005, while still at Chelsea. The Philippines manager at the time, Jose Ariston Caslib, explained how their in-depth scouting system worked. “One young kid was playing a game on his Playstation and found the Chelsea reserve list,” he said. “And there were two players eligible to play for the Philippines.” According to the Times, the “mystery gamer” sent an email to the Philippines Football Federation and that was that. The road to south-east Asian superstardom had begun.

Neither brother played for Chelsea’s first team. James – who’s 11 months older than Phil – was released in 2006, before brief spells with Staines, AFC Wimbledon and Woking. But, while he wasn’t getting a game in the Ryman League, his international career was blooming. He played three times for the Philippines first team in 2006 and got his first goal in a friendly in Singapore in early 2007.

Phil, too, seemed to find international football easier. One week he was playing Watford reserves, the next he was top scorer in the 2007 ASEAN Championship qualifiers (scoring four against East Timor and two against Brunei). When he was released by Chelsea in 2008 – after a fruitless loan spell at Esbjerg in Denmark – both brothers spent more time in the Philippines.

Phil, the dashing darling of the national team, was invited onto Celebrity Duets, a singing contest on national television. His singing was bad – like a slightly drunk 16-year-old at a working men’s club karaoke night – but he stayed on until week ten. After an especially awful version of Always Be My Baby (“We will linger on…”) he was voted out with tears in his eyes.

A star was born and the sponsorship deals kept coming: from Del Monte to Alaskan Milk via Kenny Rogers Roasters, there was nothing Phil wouldn’t plug. He appeared in his pants in Cosmopolitan magazine and, to top it all, even found a high-profile love interest – the Filipino actress Angel Locsin. (“At present, we enjoy each other’s company,” she said. “That’s it so far.”)

Naturally, some of Phil’s stardust has fallen on James. As well as sponsorship deals, he’s been on a television dance show and had a Cosmo photo shoot dressed as James Bond. But, like B-list David Beckhams, both brothers insist they’re focused on football. “If the football went and the celebrity stays, I wouldn’t be happy,” said Phil.

Earlier this year, both Younghusbands helped the Philippines qualify for the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup (the Asian tournament for “emerging” nations) for the first time in six years. In the pre-qualifying play-off against Mongolia, Phil scored in the 2-0 home win, before James got the crucial away goal in Ulan Bator, where the Philippines lost 2-1. From there, the team played a qualifying group stage in Burma.  A 1-1 draw against the hosts (James scoring a penalty), a 0-0 draw against Palestine and a 3-0 win against Bangladesh saw them qualify for the main tournament.

When the Younghusbands started playing for the Philippines, in 2006, their world ranking was 195. Now, it’s 155 (between Liechtenstein and Fiji). That’s not down to them alone – other ex-pats, including the Fulham goalkeeper Neil Etheridge and the former Wimbledon defender Rob Gier, are key players – but their influence is obvious. The brothers have become omnipresent poster boys for a sport that, quite simply, wasn’t that popular.

And, for the first time since 2008, they’ve even got clubs. In April it was reported that both brothers have signed for Filipino club San Beda, where their old boss Caslib is in charge. “It has been our dream to be professional football players since we were kids,” Phil said. Manila is a long way from Middlesex and San Beda’s a long way from Stamford Bridge. But most players released by Chelsea in 2006 and 2008 would, you feel, gladly swap places.

From WSC 292 June 2011