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How Philippine women’s soccer brought me back to my roots

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AUGUST 03, 2023

I’m as Filipino as peach mango pie. The Jollibee staple is a deep-fried pastry shell, stuffed with a mixture of fruits you could pass off as tropical. Technically Pinoy, but not authentic.

That’s where I’m at with my parents’ culture. I’ll watch Manny Pacquiao on pay-per-view, and I do enjoy purple yam for dessert. But I’ve never drunk soda from a plastic bag, and I’ve got a Robert Pattinson-pale friend who likes our pork blood stew more than I do.

Maybe the least Filipino thing about me is my favorite sport. The average Pinoy man measures 5-foot-4 ½ inches, but the country is crazy for basketball. When Jordan Clarkson and Jalen Green — both of whom have partial Filipino roots — first shared an NBA court in 2021, it might as well have been a national holiday.

Soccer is, for all intents and purposes, an afterthought, if it’s ever on the mind.

It was my dad who told me that the Philippines would compete at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. He’s barely aware of Lionel Messi, so you can imagine the whiplash I felt. My soccer obsession could read as a rejection of my Filipino roots — I shunned our national sport for a foreign, cosmopolitan game.

But now, those two worlds were colliding.

My dad was now a diehard soccer fan. He would play our national anthem — one I didn’t understand — before kickoff. I, however, was more on the fence.

I didn’t think I had the right to support Las Filipinas. I was Filipino by blood, skin and surname. But my connection to the country was de jure and not de facto — I felt like an interloper to my ancestral homeland.

Ironically, some have said the same about the women’s national team. Out of 23 players, only one — midfielder Anicka Castañeda — was born in the Philippines. 18 were born stateside, leading the BBC to patronizingly deem them “the other American women’s team.”

But they rejected that label on the pitch.

The United States is — or at least should be — a footballing Ferrari. Flush with talent, the Stars and Stripes dominate possession, overwhelming their opponents with technique, quick passing, and a rabid press.

The Philippines is nothing like that.

Australian manager Alen Stajcic had his team playing a compact low block. His players soak up pressure — they bend without breaking — and surge forward on the counter. They love the inelegantly beautiful long ball, and with chances coming at a premium, make the most of every set piece.

To America’s Ferrari, the Lady Azkals are a Jeepney. Unglamorous, but supremely reliable, they have a distinctly Pinoy charm. In their opening match against Switzerland, the Filipinas were technically and tactically outclassed by experienced opposition.

This isn’t unknown territory for Filipinos. Between three different colonizers, a brutal dictatorship and endemic corruption, my ancestors are used to adversity.

They were probably going down — but they would go down swinging.

The Swiss were taller and stronger, but that didn’t stop the Filipinas from getting stuck in. They fought for every ball and flew into every challenge. They put their bodies on the line for the flag, and formed a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.

If that isn’t love of country, I don’t know what is.

When you look at goalkeeper Olivia McDaniel — a Laguna Beach-born blonde — you might question her place on a Philippine team. But McDaniel wore her Pinoy heart on her sleeve. Beyond goalkeeping fundamentals, she risked herself to claim crosses and smother chances. She even dabbled a bit in the dark arts: If time needed management, she was your go-to.

Watching this team, I had an epiphany. Being Filipino is more than liking dinuguan, or where you were born or the color of your skin. It is resilience, and these women had it in spades. My parents crossed an ocean to give their children a better life — they definitely have grit.

Not to toot my own horn, but I like to think I’ve got it too. Cerebral palsy will do that to you.

Ahead of the second group game against co-host New Zealand, I was hooked. I could see myself in this squad: It was multinational and diverse, but undeniably Filipino.

24 minutes in, the Philippines won a free kick. It’s cleared only up to Norwegian-born Sara Eggesvik. Eggesvik isn’t even a professional — she’s currently in medical school — but she whipped a perfect ball into the head of Filipino-American Sarina Bolden.

The net ripples. My living room erupts.

It was an ugly goal — the Kiwi keeper should’ve saved it — but screw it, they all count.

These women had a nation on their backs. And for the first time in my life, I felt like a part of it.

Our joy was short-lived. There was, after all, more than an hour to go. Like the Swiss, the Football Ferns were the heavy favorites. Before long, they were in total control of the match.

A Kiwi goal was ruled out by the slightest offside. The Ferns wasted several golden chances. But at this rate, the resolute Filipino defense looked doomed to crumble. Every last-ditch tackle just postponed the inevitable.

On 93 minutes, Grace Jale sent a close-range volley toward the bottom right corner. Surely this was New Zealand’s equalizer. My heart preemptively sank.

But the heroine of the hour stepped up: McDaniel. She moved like a woman possessed, diving full stretch to palm the ball out for a corner. Philippine hopes were saved by a white girl from Orange County.

At the final whistle: New Zealand, 0. Philippines, 1.

There weren’t words for that moment. Out of every sporting triumph I’ve witnessed — granted, they’re few and far between — only that night in Amsterdam even compares.

I’d supported this team for all of three days. But these players reminded me that I’ve been Filipino for 20 years.

Our joy was short-lived. The Philippines wouldn’t make the knockouts, courtesy of a 6-0 mauling by Norway in the last group game.

But that didn’t matter. Even qualifying was a massive overachievement, to say nothing of actually winning a match.

And I had a newfound bond with my motherland. I wasn’t some whitewashed Fil-Am kano. I was Pinoy and could be proud of it.

I’m now more motivated than ever to explore my Filipino roots. Maybe I could learn Tagalog, or study our historic poetry.

But I’m staying firm on one thing. Sorry, mom and dad: pork blood stew is still gross.

Contact Daniel Gamboa at 


AUGUST 25, 2023