Neil Etheridge is having quite a season in the English Football League Championship, the soccer-mad country’s second-tier competition.
And if the 28-year-old Cardiff City goalkeeper belonged to any Southeast Asian nation other than the Philippines, his every move would be closely watched and debated “back home.”
Manila rocks to a different sporting beat than Bangkok, Jakarta, Hanoi or Phnom Penh, however. In the Philippines, the three ‘B’s – billiards, boxing and basketball – hold sway. And yet for all that, it may well soon become the first Association of Southeast Asian (Asean) nation to have a player in the English Premier League, the world’s most popular domestic football tournament.
“The Philippines is not an out-and-out football country like Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia or Indonesia,” Etheridge tells Asia Times. ”That is just the culture: football is just not a big sport at the moment.”
He references the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup, the region’s biennial international competition. For the first time, the Philippines was a co-host – but attendance, which barely reached 2,000, was as poor as the home team’s performances.
“The national team need to be improved in terms of promotion. Getting to the Premier League may help with that but this is uncharted territory,” Etheridge said.
Although Thailand sent three players to Manchester City in 2007 – when the club was owned by former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – none of the trio came close to making a competitive appearance for the club.
Etheridge, born in London to an English father and Filipina mother, is different. Signed by the then Premier League team Fulham in 2008, the shot-stopper struggled to break into the first team and bounced around lower league sides on loan.
After being released by Charlton Athletic in 2015, he was without a club for a few months before being snapped up by Walsall. Then, after impressing for the English Midlands team, the call came last summer from the Welsh capital: Cardiff City were looking for cover for the injured Lee Camp.
(The top teams in Wales have long been allowed to play in the English leagues because there is no wholly professional league in Wales itself.)
Etheridge performed so well in Camp’s absence that the latter was unable to reclaim his place on recovering and has been loaned elsewhere.
“It has been a struggle at times, but I am making the most of this opportunity,” says Etheridge. “The Championship is a competitive league but we are in there fighting for promotion and will keep going until the end.”
“The fans in the Philippines have always been really good to me, they have supported me through everything”
Promotion to the world’s most lucrative football league is a huge deal, and as the season approaches its run-in to May, when promotions and relegations are decided, the pressure builds.
The top two Championship sides go up automatically, with the next four teams playing off for the remaining spot. None of it is for the faint-hearted.
Etheridge believes his experience as a Philippine international is helping him. Called up in 2008, as one of a number of “fil-foreigns” – players with one parent from the country but born and raised overseas – Etheridge played a major role in the national team’s big breakthrough in 2010. At that year’s AFF Suzuki Cup, the “Azkals” went from their traditional role as the tournament’s whipping boys to becoming real contenders.
Winning against defending champions Vietnam in front of 40,000 supporters in Hanoi, the team made it all the way to the semi-finals, where they faced Indonesia. The advance came as such a surprise to everyone in the Philippines that the country didn’t have a suitable stadium ready and both legs had to be played in Jakarta. In total, almost 200,000 attended the two games as the visitors lost out narrowly.
“I was 18 in 2008 when I started playing for the national team and playing in front of 90,000 fans,” says Etheridge. “Unless you are a superstar, you don’t get that if you are a young player in the lower leagues. That experience really did help me.
“[In terms of] my story that I didn’t break through as early as most people expected… There is not one route for players, especially goalkeepers. I went on loan at an early age, and didn’t start playing regular football until I was 24 or 25 and most people had written me off. There is no right or wrong way.”
Interest in the Philippines around whether or not Etheridge and Cardiff can make it to England’s top flight is growing. The player understands Tagalog, the Philippines main local language, and although he is not a fluent speaker he certainly knows enough to recognize that having a Premier League star to call their own could be a real breakthrough in Southeast Asia.
“I hope so. The fans in the Philippines have always been really good to me, they have supported me through everything.” Through thick and thin, some might say, but then the times could be about to get very thick indeed.