By Michael Church
HONG KONG (Reuters) – In the Philippines, where basketball rules the sporting scene and football is a minor player, Neil Etheridge is hoping he can make a positive impact with his Premier League debut this weekend.
Goalkeeper Etheridge will become the first player from South East Asia to feature in the top flight of English football when he makes his debut on Saturday afternoon for Cardiff City against Bournemouth.
But while millions of fans in Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia will be tuning in, Philippines is more likely to be focused on the fate of the nation’s basketball team as they hone their preparations for this month’s Asian Games.
Etheridge knows his presence in the world’s most watched league might not do much to change the sporting landscape in Manila and beyond, but he is optimistic it can have a long-term impact on Filipino football.
“I think, if we’re being realistic, we’re a long way from being able to compete with basketball,” the England-born custodian told Reuters.
“It’s a cultural thing more than anything. For me, it’s just about getting younger players to play for the national team and hopefully helping the Philippine league progress. We are far away from other sports but we’ve got to start somewhere.”
Etheridge qualifies for the Philippines through his mother and made his debut for the country a decade ago having previously represented England at youth level and over the past 10 years has made more than 50 appearances for the nation.
The last year, though, has seen his career scale new height.
After struggling at a succession of clubs, Etheridge was signed by Cardiff where he established himself as first choice goalkeeper and helped the Welsh side return to the Premier League after four seasons in the Championship.
On the international front, Etheridge played a leading role in the Philippines securing a place at the finals of next year’s Asian Cup, the first time the country has qualified for the continental championship.
“The national team and the federation have made mistakes in the past but we’re just trying to iron everything out so that we can move forward as a country in football,” said the 28-year-old.
“I do believe me playing in the Premier League will help, along with some sort of success in the Asian Cup.
“Us getting to the Asian Cup is a massive success. We’re trying our hardest. It’s not easy but we’re trying our hardest.”
The Philippines‘ preparations for January’s Asian Cup have been hit by Terry Butcher’s decision to quit as manager less than two months after signing up, having not led the team in a single training session.
“I think it’s tough for any Europe-based or western player, coach or manager in general to understand the culture of South East Asia and the Philippines because it’s a developing country and there has to be a lot of patience involved,” says Etheridge.
“It’s not like other national teams or federations where you’ve got a coach from elsewhere and they live in their home country and they fly over for internationals.
“For a country that’s developing like the Philippines a lot of time needs to be invested being there and constantly being on top of things. Even for myself it took some time to understand the culture and how things were.”
Etheridge is looking forward to the challenge he faces in the coming season when he plays against some of the biggest names in the game.
“It’s going to be tough but we want to make sure we do enough to survive in the Premier League,” he said. “We’re no different to any other team that comes up from the Championship.
“Everything’s been going really well in preseason. It’s always tough but the team are doing well and we’re ready.”
(Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)