One hot Azkal – An interview with Azkals goalkeeper Neil Etheridge

Neil Etheridge | Photo by ikerquesadillas

By Jay Abalos

When it comes to sports, the Philippines is known for three Bs: billiards, basketball and boxing.

However last year, during the Suzuki Football Cup 2010 (organized by ASEAN Football Federation and competed in by countries from Southeast Asia), the national football team, more popularly known as the Azkals, because of their victory and good looks, brought attention to football in the country.

Although the Azkals did not bag the championship, winning a game against a strong opponent was a big achievement. The victory brought attention to football, which has been neglected for so long.

I had a chance to meet and interview Azkals’ goalkeeper, Neil Etheridge, at his test shoot, a day after he arrived from their successful match against Bangladesh in Myanmar. We talked about his early football career and his aspirations for Philippine football.

On the radar: How did you get into football?

NEIL ETHERIDGE: Football has always been close to me. Growing up in England playing football is like breathing for most children. Just like basketball is at the moment in the Philippines. It’s such a popular sport I have always played and truly enjoyed football.

Being British-Filipino, what is Filipino in you and what is British?

I’ll start with the British ones — maybe my height. It actually comes from my Filipino side too because my grandfather is quite tall for a Filipino. My talent in football comes from my British side. More importantly, I get most of my character from my Filipino side: my hard work ethic, good attitude and humility.

I don’t usually show my humble side. Some people may think I am arrogant, but I like to be disciplined in everything I do. I am a hard worker and will never stop until I get what I aim for.

Describe Fulham FC. Is it a friendly football club?

Before Fulham, I was at Chelsea and switched club at the age of 15. I was much in-demand around that age playing for England but decided to base myself at Fulham, and never looked back.

Fulham is one of the friendliest and family-oriented clubs in England. It brings good character to myself and other players in the team.

Fulham’s playing ground is very special as it is on the banks of the Thames River. What’s it like playing there?

That’s our stadium — 30 minutes by train. It’s very nice, small but very homey, not the best stadium I have played in but has a nice atmosphere. Stadium can’t be extended because of the river and parks around it, which makes it very special.

What is football in UK like?

Football in UK is always improving. Players are becoming stronger, quicker, and more talented. Also, getting better at such a young age, which is good because it keeps everyone on their toes.

What made you decide to play for Philippine Azkals? Were you surprised by the Pinoy’s warm reception?

Playing for Philippine football team took me a long time to think about. I made the decisions to play at 18 — very young and told myself never to look back. I make decisions every day in life and career and always remind myself never to regret whatever I do. Everything is part of the learning process to make myself a better person.

Seeing different parts of the world that I’ve never seen is an amazing experience of playing for Azkals, but aside from that, people I’ve met and making history for a national football team will never leave my memory. I hope we can build on this success not just as a team but a country as well. We are all in this together; we could never have done this without the support of Dan Palami. I know he doesn’t like to be mentioned all the time, but I feel he deserves to be highlighted in this situation.

What do you think of football here in the Philippines?

Football needs to be developed in the Philippines. This won’t happen overnight, it is a gradual process. I’m sure with proper support and funding, it can really happen. I know there are lots of young children now who want to play and I will support and encourage as many people to get into the sport as it is very close to my heart.

Do you think Philippines can bag the Suzuki Cup in two years’ time?

Football is a crazy sport, things can happen rapidly and strangely. It’s possible, but we need to keep our feet firmly on the ground. We have to understand that we are years behind other countries in Southeast Asia. And if we want to take football seriously, it will happen.

Do you have any dreams for Philippine football?

Of course, I wouldn’t be playing for the country if I didn’t. Even after my playing career, I want to be involved. Maybe as a coach or someone in the background, our team and country has so many possibilities and so much potential. It’s just finding it all and bringing it together. I believe that we can give more and know deep-down that people will follow and support us.

Do you have a girlfriend?

I am single. But right now, I am so dedicated to football. Doesn’t mean I don’t have time for a girlfriend. It’s just that I really have a busy schedule and I fly most of the time. Source