This article will inspire thousands of youngsters in Asean who dream of playing in the English Premier League, which for the moment, appears to be a pipe-dream because of ultra-strict rules to play in the ‘Land of Football’.
But the tale of 28-year-old Neil Etheridge is a turning point and he has now been hailed as the Premier League’s first Filipino player, and in turn the first person from over 650 million people in South-east Asia to play in the competition.
“I’m very proud to be Filipino – or half-Filipino, half-British – and to represent the Philippines,” says the goalkeeper who plays for newly-promoted Cardiff City, which is owned by billionaire Malaysian businessman Tan Sri Vincent Tan.
“Here in England, or in Europe, they hardly blink at an Asean player because the region is a developing country in international football. We’ve got other sports in the Philippines, such as boxing and basketball, that we’re competing against. Football really only came on the map in 2010.”
When he wore Cardiff City’s No 1 jersey in his Premiership debut this month his presence in England’s top flight added another Asean nationality to its ever-growing list of international participants.
“Being the first Filipino and the first South East Asian to play in the Premier League and that’s a massive thing for myself, my family and the people around me,” Etheridge says.
“But also, hopefully, it will serve as a good platform for people to see that if I can do it then hopefully we can push other South-east Asian players to see that there’s a big world out there outside of Asia. It’s very exciting.”
FIFA RANKING OF 50
But before any Asian teenager dreams of being an Etheridge and to play in the Premiership, please know that the basic qualification for a non-EU (European Union) player is a FIFA ranking of 50 – that rules out almost every Asian country except Iran, South Korea or Japan.
Let me set the records straight: Etheridge was born in London and qualifies for the Philippines through his mother and, after playing for England at Under 16 level, the imposing 1.90m goalkeeper pledged his international future to the Azkals (Philippines’ nickname) a decade ago.
In that period, Etheridge has played more than 50 times for the Philippines, with the highlight coming earlier this year when he helped the country qualify for the finals of the Asian Cup — the quadrennial continental championship — for the first time.
So, in the eyes of the Premiership, he is NOT a non-EU player because of birth-rights and that makes it easier for him to get a quick work-permit ticket to play in the Premiership.
Now he’s basking in the glow of promotion from the Championship and with a Premiership debut and a goalkeeper price-tag of 3.5 million euros, Etheridge honestly recounts that playing in England is never a bed of roses. He also reflected on the day when he was ready to give up on the dream of carving out a professional goalkeeper career and return to the Philippines.
‘I SLEPT ON SOFA’
“I sold my house and I sold my cars and I was about a week away from going back to the Philippines,” says Etheridge. “I was living on my mate’s sofa while I was there. But that’s what you’ve got to do to get by.”
The year was 2014 and Etheridge had been out of work for five months after being released by Fulham, where he made only one appearance, in a Europa League game under Martin Jol, after joining the club as a teenager from Chelsea.
Asked what he did during that time without a club, he replies: “Paid for myself to train at Charlton Athletic. I was close to the goalkeeping coach there, so I just trained as hard as I could and waited. That time is all in the past now but it will never leave me because it’s made me who I am today.”
To Asia’s credit, many from the world’s biggest continent have reached the ranks of millionaire footballers in England – from South Korea’s Park Ji-Sung, Son Heung Min, Ki Sung-Yueng to Japan’s Shinji Okazaki, Maya Oshida, Yoshinori Muto and Shinji Kagawa.
Undoubtedly the most successful Asian in the Premier League would be South Korean striker Park Ji Sung, who has won almost every major honour in English club football. Park’s immense contribution to Manchester United during his seven-year career will forever be remembered.
BEST ASIAN PLAYER
“Three-Lungs Park”, as he is affectionately known, was the first Asian to captain Manchester United and also the first to win the Champions League. Currently a global ambassador for the Red Devils, his appointment is a testament to the immense contribution to the club during his career at Old Trafford.
Now the Asian “darling” is Tottenham Hotspur striker is Son Heung Min, who arrived at White Hart Lane from Bayer Leverkusen as the most expensive Asian player in football history at £22million. The previous highest was Shinji Kagawa at £16milllion from Borussia Dortmund.
Even British Asian prodigies find it tough-going in England. Pakistani Zesh Rehman, the first British-Asian to play in the Premiership, says breaking down what he describes as “negative stereotypes and stigmas that have been going on for years.”
He says: “Coming through the system was very difficult for me. There was a lot of negativity I had to deal with, there was a lot of doubt from coaches as to whether I would make it and I had to get through that.”
But Filipina Etheridge makes it a point that the “Premier League has so many different nationalities in it…it’s crazy and it’s fantastic for football all around the world to be honest”.
“It’s a great level to be playing at. It’s the most watched league in the world, so to have the opportunity to play and be involved at this level is fantastic for me and I’m looking forward to the season,” he says.
“Physically, mentally, and emotionally, the Championship, where I got a first major break, is a very strong level of football. I would argue that it is right up there with some of the best leagues and is hard to get out of.”
INDIA’S BIG HEADACHE
Even India’s iconic footballers Sunil Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, with high hopes of playing in the Premiership, are banging on their feet.
Despite being the 11th best team in Asia, according to the FIFA rankings, India still languishes in the backwaters of world football. It is indeed a shame that no Indian footballer has, until now, graced the Premier League’s confines. The prospect of that for Indians in the future is equally bleak,
Former India captain Renedy Singh gave an honest assessment of the English FA’s international player recruitment criteria based on FIFA rankings of 50: “It’s so unfair to have a ranking issue. They need to look into the quality of players then national team ranking. It would help if talented players like Sunil [Chhetri] and others make it big.”
But Greg Dyke, the FA chairman from 2013 to 2016, explained the amendment of the work permit rules for non-European players: “The new system will make it far easier for us to identify and attract top quality players that truly are at the elite level, and it will make it far tougher for those who don’t meet the quality standard to get to play in Britain.”
While the new rules stressed on negating the impact of foreign players on the development of British homegrown players, they have barely helped the England national team.
England is not among the world’s top 10 at the moment and suffered one of their worst humiliations at Iceland’s hands in Euro 2016. But the Three Lions redeemed themselves at the Russia 2018 World Cup with a quarter-final qualification.
In my opinion, the contradicting player-entry rules in England appears to be mind-boggling. While the Premier League blows its trumpet as the reported best league in the world, their inclusiveness policy lags behind several other European leagues.
Take for example, if the German Bundesliga can have clubs with Lebanese and Thailand players, La Liga in Spain can be home to players from Eritrea and Mozambique, why can’t the Premier League allow the recruitment of players from lesser ranked countries like India or Asean?
PREMIER LEAGUE STAGE
Mind you, Germany and Spain have done far better at international level than England despite their domestic leagues housing players from lesser footballing nations, hence there is no reason to believe that intense filtering of international transfers will result in an instant change in fortunes for the Three Lions.
In my honest view, Asean players of the new generation like Singapore’s Irfan Fandi, the eldest son of iconic Fandi Ahmad or Thailand’s Chanathip Songkrasin – with two AFF Suzuki Cup titles and also winning the Most Valuable Player award on both occasions in 2014 and 2016 – deserve a chance so that they can inspire countless generations of footballers in South-east Asia if they can showcase their skills on the Premier League stage.
While it is inappropriate to hang on to the FA’s system to get something out of our own players, there should be more emphasis on a player’s quality than the FIFA rankings.
Since rankings are made out to be objective, although they are not, and quality tends to be a subjective measure dependent on myriad factors, Asean players aiming to someday play in the Premier League must lower their ambitions for the time being.
Yes, the latest tale of 28-year-old Neil Etheridge is a turning point, especially after the much-publicised controversial Ben Davis episode in Singapore, which was even mentioned in Parliament.
Hats off to Etheridge, who confesses to be an Englishman, unlike Ben Davis, who tried to get over his NS (National Service) obligations, despite holding a Singapore passport.
He has now been hailed as the Premier League’s first Filipino player, and in turn the first person from over 650 million people in South-east Asia to play in the competition.
Luckily, he’s English-born and circumvents the FIFA below-50 ranking rule to play for newly-promoted Cardiff City, which is owned by Malaysian businessman Tan Sri Vincent Tan. – BY SURESH NAIR
• Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who strongly believes the English Premier League (EPL) is not the right ground for any prodigy player, born in Asean, to find the professional football mark