This article is part of the Guardian’s Women’s World Cup 2023 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 32 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 20 July.
Football in the Philippines has always been in the shadows of basketball and boxing but in the last decade, the women’s international team, the Filipinas, has been steadily on the rise and came close to qualifying for the 2019 World Cup in France.
Last year, the breakthrough finally happened. The Philippines reached the semi-finals of the 2022 AFC Asian Cup with a defensive solidity, resilience and a trademark never-say-die attitude on display all tournament long, and that was enough to qualify for the country’s first World Cup.
Much like their male counterparts, the Philippine diaspora has provided the country with options all across the world, and particularly in the United States. The key to success, however, was the hiring of the experienced former Australia coach Alen Stajcic in 2021, his tactical acumen and tournament team management instrumental in taking the Philippines to the next level.
New players joined the squad too, such as Norwegian-born Sara Eggesvik and Canadian-born Jackie Sawicki, and they had no problem fitting in and bonding with the experienced players in the team, such as the defensive linchpin Hali Long and captain Tahnai Annis.
They went on to secure their first medal in 37 years at the Southeast Asian Games, beating Myanmar to win bronze, before capping their superb run with a first major trophy a few months later by winning the 2022 AFF Women’s Championships held in the Philippines. The biggest victory of them all, though, was qualifying for the World Cup, a moment Stajcic described as “probably the best achievement so far of my coaching career”.
In Group A they face higher-ranked sides Switzerland, New Zealand and Norway, but they are not going to the World Cup to make up the numbers. “We are very happy to be there. We are excited, we are proud and we are appreciating every moment,” said Stajcic. “We are grateful that we have earned the right for this opportunity and we are respectful of an event that brings together the best female athletes on the planet. We have also raised the bar so high in the past 18 months that none of us will put a ceiling on how high that bar can go.”
The former Matildas coach Alen Stajcic arrived on a three-month contract in October 2021 with the aim to qualify for the World Cup and exceeded expectations when the team reached Australia and New Zealand without having to go through the playoffs.
The immediate success earned him the adoration of the fans, as well as a hashtag #InStajWeTrust. He has taken Australia to two World Cups and led them to the quarter-finals of the 2016 Olympics, where they lost on penalties to hosts Brazil. His tournament experience will be vital for the debutants and the players speak highly of him. “He is one of the great assets of this team and we have come a long way because of him,” says Sarina Bolden.
Sarina Bolden arrives in Australia and New Zealand having scored a joint record 22 goals in 37 appearances at the time of writing, and having converted the shootout penalty that secured World Cup qualification. She sets an example for the rest of the players with her as well as style of play, inspiring others to give their all too. “I’m a player who has energy,” she told fifa.com. “I try my best to bring that energy and keep the tempo high. And I think I’m a leader on the field. All of that makes me the player that I am.” Having picked up experience from playing in the US – where she was born – as well as Sweden, Taiwan and Japan, Bolden has been with Western Sydney Wanderers since 2022.
After impressing in the holding midfield role at the AFC Under-20 World Cup qualifiers, Bella Pasion was rewarded with a call-up to the senior team and the 16-year-old has certainly not looked out of place. Described by the Under-20 coach, Nahuel Arrarte, as a “gritty player”, he added: “She’s very coachable and has a winning mentality. She played with a maturity beyond her years. Very few players can handle that, but she’s on the right track. If she continues to work hard she will achieve great things.”
Did you know?
Having scored so many goals for her country there is no surprise perhaps that Bolden would be in the GOAT discussion when it comes to female players in the Philippines. So no one was in the least bit surprised when the Instagram account sarina.thegoat.bolden popped up. The player, though, was at pains to point out that she had not set it up. “The Instagram account is not mine,” she said. “My teammates have known about this account for some time already and they love it.”
The football coverage – not to speak about women’s football coverage – is regrettably scarce in a country where Steph Curry and Manny Pacquiao reign supreme but the Filipinas’ qualification for the World Cup has sparked renewed interest in the sport among girls, particularly in the younger age groups. There are now all-girls teams playing in most youth divisions in the summer football leagues and the PFF Women’s League is in its fourth year and going strong with 10 participating teams, including five from universities.
Realistic aim at the World Cup?
Fans could be forgiven for feeling optimistic when the Philippines were drawn in a relatively even Group A but despite avoiding some of the traditional football heavyweights on the women’s side it will not be easy for the Filipinas to get out of the group. That said they have left no stone unturned in their preparations with friendlies in Europe and South America in the buildup to the tournament. As the team manager, Jefferson Cheng, said: “We are dreaming of creating our own Cinderella story. Obviously the odds are against us based on our ranking but I assure you we will represent our country in the best way possible.”
The Philippines team guide was written by Ryan Fenix for GMA News Online.