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Philippines, united nations of a team

Two games into the World Cup, the Philippines story that began on a January evening behind closed doors in Pune continues with Olivia Davies-McDaniel and Sarina Bolden still at its front and centre. And given that the debutants are “dreaming of creating our own Cinderella story”, in the words of team manager Jefferson Chang, they may not be done yet.

Team Philippines attends a training session in Auckland on July 29, 2023, ahead of their 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup(AFP)

Bolden thinks they can survive the group stage if they “don’t do anything crazy different”. On three points after two games, a win will ensure that for Philippines, a draw could too. So, bring on former world champions Norway for whom this is a must-win and who will miss prolific striker Ada Hegerberg due to injury.

Nineteen months to Sunday when Philippines play their final game in group A, Davies-McDaniel stood between Chinese Taipei’s Su Sin-Yin’s penalty and a World Cup berth. She saved and then converted her kick to force the tie-breaker into sudden death. Another save, off Zhou Li-Ping who had scored with a stunning effort from range to make it 1-1 and take the quarter-final into extra-time, and now Philippines, having trailed in the tie-breaker, were one shot from a semi-final berth in the 2022 Women’s Asian Cup. That also meant a berth among 32 in the ninth World Cup. Up stepped Bolden and converted.

When Philippines beat New Zealand on Tuesday, it was Bolden who scored and Davies-McDaniel protected the lead with excellent saves, the best of which came late in the game when she pushed away Hannah Wilkinson’s shot. After the game, Davies-McDaniel spread her arms and looked up as a beaming Bolden obliged everyone at the Wellington Regional Stadium who wanted a photo with her.

“It doesn’t feel real,” said Bolden after the game, obliging journalists from Australia, Canada, Norway and the USA, apart from the Philippines. The Pilipinas, which is what the team is known as, is a veritable united nations of a team. The assist for Bolden’s header came from Sara Eggesvik, who was born in Norway. Jackie Sawicki was born in Canada to a Polish father and a Filipino mother, and of the three countries she could have played for, the midfielder opted for the one through which she could show gratitude to her mother. Long-serving defender Angie Beard played senior internationals for Australia but was allowed to represent Philippines because they were friendlies. Like 16 others in the roster, Boden and Davies-McDaniel, whose sister Chandler is a forward in the squad, were born in the USA.

“Some people haven’t really been accepting but I think when you are a Filipino, you are a Filipino,” Davies-McDaniel, who has been in Philippines’ goals since 2021, has said.

The hugely competitive USA college soccer scene – 137 of the 736 players at the World Cup have been part of the system, according to an AP report quoting the National Collegiate Athletics Association – continues to shape the careers of forward Isabella Flanigan and defender Alicia Barker. The Davies-McDaniel siblings read at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and camps for age-specific teams and to spot future Pilipinas continue in USA. Bolden, Beard, Sawiki and second goalkeeper Kiara Fontanilla play in the A-League Women; defender Jessika Cowart, midfielder Ryley Bugay and forward Quinley Quezada are in Europe and defender Reina Bonta represents Santos in Brazil.

Getting this disparate bunch to punch above its weight is Alen Stajcic. The former Australia women’s team coach was hired in October 2021 and tasked with getting Philippines to the World Cup. Philippines had made the play-off for the 2019 finals but lost to South Korea. Under Stajcic and after a 10-week training camp in USA, the Filipinas qualified, won bronze in the Southeast Asian Games and the title in the Asean Football Federation’s competition at home, all in 2022.

A combination of exposure to football at a high level, playing 30 international games going into the World Cup and Stajcic’s tactical nous, which puts a lot of emphasis on defending, meant Philippines did not look overawed in their opener against Switzerland (0-2). Like against New Zealand, they were physical and could have gone ahead but for a close off-side decision against Katrina Guillou. In their second game, Philippines scored in the 24th minute and frustrated the co-hosts with a bit of luck and a lot of pluck.

A 10-team women’s league began in 2016 but football’s behind basketball, boxing and billiards in popularity. Being the first team ever to make a World Cup finals, the Pilipinas have changed that somewhat. Billboards sprang up in Manila after the Asian Cup; there has been a surge in participation in summer leagues and the country’s president Ferdinand Marcos Jr termed Tuesday’s win “momentous” on Twitter. “Been zero to full throttle in 18 months,” Stajcic, 49, has said of the team that under him has climbed 22 places to 46th in the FIFA rankings.

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