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US diaspora helps Philippines make World Cup history with country’s first ever appearance

When the Philippines faced off against Switzerland in the New Zealand city of Dunedin on Friday, they became the first team of any gender from the Southeast Asian nation to play at a World Cup.

Boosted by a large contingent of dual US nationals, the squad made history despite the 2-0 defeat to the more experienced Swiss side.

Led by coach Alen Stajcic, who formerly coached the Australian Women’s National Team, the young team has seen its fortunes transformed in recent years, thanks in large part to a global talent pipeline that has drawn on the skills of the country’s vast Filipino diaspora.

“If they have the Philippines in their heart and in their blood, and they’re a good footballer, then they’re eligible for our team,” Stajcic told reporters at a press conference Thursday ahead of the team’s first match.

More than half of the squad are Filipina-Americans, including California born Sarina Bolden, whose penalty kick clinched the island nation’s spot at the 2023 tournament

“I honestly couldn’t tell you where everyone was born and to me it’s irrelevant,” added Stajcic. “They all play for the flag, they all play for the country, they all play for the people of the Philippines, wherever they reside.”

‘Word is spreading’

Before joining the national team, Bolden had never been to the Philippines. Now, she’s one of the team’s most recognizable stars.

“Everyone’s really excited for what’s to come and to really shock the world,” she told CNN.

“I know soccer isn’t the main sport in the Philippines… But I think by seeing us on the big screen on the big stage, I think more people are going to be really interested and want to get into soccer,” said Bolden, who plays for Australian A-League side Western Sydney Wanderers.

The 27-year-old is hopeful that her country’s presence in the World Cup will promote soccer both in the Philippines – where other sports such as basketball and boxing remain more popular – and among the Filipino diaspora.

“I think it’s really just gonna help with the growth of football in the Philippines and not just the Philippines, globally too, because Filipinos are everywhere,” Bolden said.

Bolden, who qualifies to represent both the US and the Philippines, attended Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where she earned a reputation as a standout talent for the LMU Lions, making more than 70 appearances.

Since turning professional, her career has taken her to Europe, the US and Asia, with stints in both Taiwan and Japan. In 2022, she played a key role in the Philippine National team that progressed to the knockout stages of the AFC Women’s Asian Cup for the first time.

Bolden said she’s already seen awareness and interest grow in the Philippines following the team’s on-field successes and historic qualification for the World Cup.

“I think the excitement is really growing from the grassroots. People are really trying to spread the word,” she said, sharing an anecdote in which her mother randomly approached a Filipino coworker to let them know that the women’s national team was playing in this year’s World Cup.

“I know people are talking, Filipino Americans especially, about how huge this is,” Bolden added.

“So I can imagine the word is spreading.”

‘Come a long way’

Coach Stajcic took the helm of the Filipino team ahead of the World Cup qualifiers under a three-month contract, with the goal of “trying to give them the best possible chance to qualify.”

“A year and a half later, myself and all my coaching staff are still here,” he told CNN.

Since Stajcic took over as coach, he said the team has “come a long way.”

“A number of different objectives have been achieved in terms of building up the playing experience building up depth within the squad.”

To prepare for their first appearance in a World Cup, Stajcic said the team’s first goal “was to try and play against as many different playing styles as we could.”

He claimed they played “more matches than any other team in the world.” Last year, we were up around the 30 mark.”

“The comfort that I have is knowing that we’ve done everything we could do to give us the best possible chance,” Stajcic told CNN ahead of the tournament.

“We know we’re the underdogs. But at the same time, I know that we come into that starting line with good preparation under our belts, with a belief and confidence that’s grown over time.”

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