AUCKLAND, New Zealand — A decade ago, the Philippines women’s national team was a certified soccer minnow. He trained in mismatched kits on chewed up pitches and often didn’t even qualify for qualifying tournaments. He emerged from the 2013 Southeast Asian Games with zero goals scored and nine conceded for Vietnam and Myanmar. He was soon sidelined for over a year, without a coach, amid allegations that stolen credit cards were used to book players’ plane tickets.
All of this, and more, set the stage for a stunning upset in Tuesday’s Women’s World Cup: Philippines 1, co-hosts New Zealand 0.
It framed the tears of joy and wild celebrations that greeted the final whistle.
Goalkeeper Olivia McDaniel kicked the ball into the sky and then cried.
Top scorer Sarina Bolden, flanked by teammates, entered the field in ecstasy.
And in Illinois, around 2:30 am, the team’s original architect, Butchie Impelido, freaked out.
Impelido, an IT worker from Chicagoland, never planned to build a World Cup team when he convinced his eldest daughter, a Filipino-American college student, to try out for the Philippines national team in 2005.
But in the years since, he helped build a Pinoy pipeline. This attracted hundreds of American Filipino girls to Southern California for auditions. Together they turned an underfunded and outclassed team into a first-time World Cup qualifier – and now a first-time World Cup winner.
“Incredible,” said coach Alen Stajcic, summing up a famous night and grueling journey. “Miraculous… mind-blowing.”
Impelido, an American immigrant born in the Philippines, still remembers the early days in the 2000s when the team trained on uneven grass fields and often shared them with track and field athletes. “You had to make sure the dart players weren’t throwing,” he told Yahoo Sports with a laugh. “You could see the holes in the field.”
Now, he is seeing history.
He also remembers combing through websites and emerging message boards such as usapangfootball.proboards.com, where in 2012 he found Mark Mangune. Mangune, a football obsessed who moved from Davao City to Michigan as a boy, published lists of Filipino-American candidates, which Impelido forwarded to the Football Federation of the Philippines. The PFF then made Mangune a volunteer “liaison and recruiting officer”. He would call college coaches, inquire about the players’ Filipino heritage and Instagram potential clients after mundane days at his telecommunications job. He would invite them to tryouts in California – and in the early days, many would ignore him; some suspected a hoax.
[The making of America’s other Women’s World Cup team: The Philippines]
But over time, hundreds jumped on this unexpected opportunity. Mangune and Impelido, with help from the PFF and others, built a Scouting database of “perhaps 800 girls,” Mangune estimates. And one of them was Sarina Bolden.
Bolden, a Northern California native, was a forward for Loyola Marymount when he impressed at a 2017 Philippines tryout.
Six years later, on Tuesday, she scored the country’s first World Cup goal.
On the other side of the field was Olivia McDaniel, daughter of a Filipino mother, Lindy, and soccer coach father, Clint. In 2012, when the PFF and its head coach, Ernie Nierras, organized their first US tryouts, they were looking for fields and Clint stepped forward. He secured a compound in Corona, California and helped Nierras. Lindy helped with accommodations and logistics. Others, like team manager Filbert Alquiros and local coach Trey Scharlin, have helped make Corona a second home of sorts for the Philippine women’s national team.
Olivia and her sister, Chandler, were teenagers at the time. But before long, they made it to the national team.
Earlier this month, they were two of 18 American-born players named to the team’s 23-woman World Cup roster.
And on Tuesday, Olivia put in a flawless, dazzling display in goal to secure an unforgettable victory.
She jumped left to avoid a potential injury-time equalizer – “the save of her life”, said Stajcic.
After the match, she cried and held her head in her hands in disbelief.
She won the player of the match award and was asked where she would keep the trophy.
“We hope to keep it next to the World Cup trophy when we win it,” she said with a smile.
She knows, for sure, that this is unlikely. Less than two years ago, that same team had to go through Nepal and Hong Kong with last-minute goals just to qualify for the 2022 Asian Cup, which became their path to the 2023 World Cup.
But then he got financial backing from Filipino businessman Jeff Cheng. Cheng used her Australian connections to hire Stajcic, a respected coach who took Australia to the quarter-finals of the 2015 Women’s World Cup. The players arrived at their first camp under Stajcic to finally find a professional environment. They would meet before training. They would follow a semi-regulated schedule. “It was very organized,” said midfielder Quinley Quezada.
And most importantly, no matter where they were born, they’ve always played with pride, with a love for a country that’s in their blood. Many are the daughters or granddaughters of 20th-century Filipino migrants. They know there is skepticism about the team, which has only one local player. But they fight for their family’s homeland all the same.
“We all share the same culture and heritage,” defender Sofia Harrison told Yahoo Sports this spring. “And to be able to experience that while playing together is very special. Everyone loves the country very much and we want to do everything we can to show that and prove that we are here for the country. We are not just doing this for ourselves, we are doing this for the country, for the children, for the future.”
On Tuesday, they more than proved that.
In Wellington, amid a sea of eager supporters, his countrymen responded with enthusiasm, waving flags and roaring.
And in Illinois, at 2:36 am, Impelido sent a one-word text that said it all: “Unbelievable.”