‘We share blood’: The US-born players leading the Philippines’ World Cup charge

Tahnai Annis still remembers the epiphany she had nearly a decade ago, when she realized that international soccer could be in her future.

Annis was coaching in the United States and she was at a professional combine helping out a friend she had met while playing in Iceland. One of the coaches at the event was Bruno Baltazar, who at the time was an assistant coach for the Philippines men’s team. Baltazar suspected that Annis might be Filipino-American, she recalls, and after confirming as much he asked a simple question: “Did you know that the Philippines has a women’s team?”

No, Annis did not. She grew up in Zanesville, Ohio, a small city about 50 miles east of Columbus. There, she could count the number of Filipinos-Americans on her two hands, the family doctor among them. A Philippines women’s soccer team? That was a world away.

Annis now finds herself at the 2023 World Cup, the Philippines’ first. The 34-year-old has frequently captained her team, one predominantly composed of players with Filipino roots who grew up in the United States. Teams making their debuts compose one-third of the expanded, 32-strong field at this tournament, a tangible sign of the growth of women’s soccer. But the Philippines aren’t just here to make up the numbers, Annis said.

Related: Women’s World Cup 2023 team guides part three: Philippines

“We don’t want to forget or overlook the fact that it is an historic moment for the country and the national team,” she told the Guardian prior to the tournament. “What an accomplishment that is. But also, we don’t just want to participate. The coaching staff has made that a point since we qualified. It is an amazing accomplishment and something to relish, but it doesn’t do us any justice just to show up and play. If we want to continue to grow the sport in the Philippines and bring more awareness, people want to watch us do well and compete.”

The Philippines players want to inspire their nation of roughly 117 million, and leave a legacy that propels women’s soccer forward in the country. They are also fighting that battle largely from afar. Eighteen of the team’s 23 World Cup players were born in the United States.

Annis’s story is like that of many of her teammates. After that fateful conversation in 2014, she went in search of information and opportunity. With little of the former, she left her temporary homebase in Connecticut, where she was coaching as her playing career hit roadblocks, and flew to California for an identification camp, where she met other Filipino-Americans.

“We made the best out of it that we could,” Annis said. “We weren’t expecting a whole lot because we didn’t know what it was going to be like, and we didn’t generally have a whole lot of background or information. We were going in hopeful and trying to keep an open mind, and here we are.”

Things went well for Annis on the field, but away from it matters were a little tougher. Repeated attempts to gain a Philippines passport in the US failed, with little explanation why, and she paused her dream for several years. Eventually, however, Annis realized she would need to go to the Philippines to obtain her birth certificate. Her first visit to the country was in 2018, as the team prepared for the Asian Cup, which doubled as World Cup qualification. This time, there was strength in numbers.

The identification camps in California continued and there were more players in the same position as Annis by 2018. Each day until they found a resolution, that small group would go to training in Manila, then sit around together at the immigration office trying to plough through the necessary paperwork to obtain their passports.

The Philippines missed the 2019 World Cup, but there was hope. They saw that they could compete. They needed regular training camps and committed coaching. They needed to increase the level of play.

Camps in California continue to this day, with a particular focus on building up the country’s youth teams. There is a sizeable population of Filipinos in various pockets of California, but the turnout comes from all parts of the US as word gets out through coaching networks and players come of age.

“The World Cup is here and the whole idea of making the World Cup, we’re trying to leave a legacy and trying to plan the future,” said Philippines assistant Nahuel Arrarte, who helped run the most recent camps alongside the head coach, Alen Stajcic. “Hence, we’re trying to create an alignment within the federation and the national teams, and it’s all part of looking down the track and having a bit of a vision at what the national team space can look like in the next four, five years.”

Staff set up camp in greater Los Angeles earlier this year in addition to three others that evaluated a total of 400 young players, Arrarte said. Among the players identified in LA there was Isabella Pasion, who has just turned 17. The Texas-based midfielder has already made an impact with the U-20 team. She missed the final roster for the World Cup but stayed in New Zealand to train and get exposed to the environment, a decision the staff hope pays dividends in the future.

Annis recalls an early conversation with Stajcic, who used to coach Australia, and his staff when they took over the job. They asked a few core players at the time what was needed to make the team more successful.

“We need someone to stay,” Annis told them. Coaching turnover had been frequent, making it impossible to build momentum. “We have players, we have the talent, we have the commitment of these girls, but no one has committed to us.”

Family values are intrinsic to Filipino culture. Tita and tito – aunt and uncle – are terms used loosely for good friends. Annis remembers from a young age having to ask her parents who was actually a relative at parties, because everyone got the same designation. Annis’s mother – who came to the US four decades ago at age 14 – has family in Cleveland. As a child, Annis loved the short trip north to see them and immerse herself with Filipinos in a way she could not in her hometown.

Now, the players see the welcoming aspects of Filipino culture on the road. In late 2022, they traveled to Chile for a pair of games as part of World Cup preparations. There, they found a welcoming group of Filipinos – as they do everywhere – who brought them treats like mangoes and turon, a deep-fried sweet treat. After learning players needed massages after their first match, thePhilippines fan who delivered the snacks said she knew just the people. The next day, Filipina masseuses showed up at the hotel. A sizeable Filipino community in New Zealand is also expected to turn up to support the team.

It is that sense of connection that drives a team largely pulled together from outside the Philippines. Players do not hide from the obvious fact that most of the team was born in the United States. Among the connections to the US is defender Reina Bonta, whose father is the attorney general of California and whose mom is a California assemblywoman.

A 2-0 loss to Switzerland in the the Philippines’ World Cup debut was a difficult start but one with signs of encouragement. The Philippines are set up to defend well and frustrate opponents, before counter-attacking. Their draw into Group A was seen as a fortunate one, too. Norway and Switzerland are the least intimidating of the 12 European sides, and co-hosts New Zealand, who the Philippines face on Tuesday in Wellington, are by far the weakest of the eight seeded teams that headline each group.

“I feel like right from the start and always, any camp, anything we’ve been through, we’re a very tightknit group and it’s very much like family,” Annis said. “I think that’s kind of an underlying knowing that everyone has. It really didn’t matter how long anyone’s been on the team, or if we grew up in the States or Manila; we have some girls that grew up in Canada and Norway. We’re everywhere. Then, when we’re together, it’s not about where we grew up or where we live. Everyone knows we share the same blood and we’re family.

“It doesn’t matter if you grew up in Manila or your family is in the States … That common goal is that we are playing for the country and for all the football players in the Philippines.”

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