Etheridge, Philippines dreaming of English Premier League
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Cardiff City goalkeeper Neil Etheridge could become the first southeast Asian to play in the English Premier League later this year, and also help develop soccer in his native Philippines.
Etheridge has missed just one game in Cardiff’s push to be promoted to the Premier League from The Championship, English’s soccer second tier. With 13 games of the 46 remaining in the 2017-18 season, Cardiff sits in second place and is on course to join the richest and most popular soccer league in the world.
“We are not thinking of the Premier League just yet,” Etheridge, born in London in 1990 to an English father and Filipino mother, told The Associated Press.
“Physically, mentally and emotionally, The Championship is a very strong level of football. I would argue that it is right up there with some of the best leagues and is hard to get out of.”
The Championship contains two former European title winners and is in the top 10 of the most-watched leagues in the world with an average attendance in 2017-18 of over 20,000. The battle for promotion is fierce.
“There are big clubs paying large amounts of money to try and get into the Premier League,” said Etheridge. “It would be a dream to play there.”
It has been a dream for many southeast Asian players. Soccer is the most popular sport in every country in the region except the Philippines, but having a player in the Premier League, closely-followed in southeast Asia, could make a difference.
“I hope it would have a significant impact on the game here,” Chris Greatwich, a former national teammate of Etheridge, said. “When Cardiff played Manchester City in the FA Cup recently there was a real buzz as Neil faced some of the best players in the world. To have a player from the Philippines there every week would be very exciting.”
Greatwich is the head coach of Kaya, a leading club in the Philippines Football League, the country’s first nationwide professional league first established in 2017.
With the second season due to kick off in March, there are issues with two of the eight teams withdrawing due to financial issues.
As well as Etheridge in the Premier League, the Philippines qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup for the first time could help. The national team only has to avoid defeat at home to Tajikistan on March 27 to do so.
“The Asian Cup is a massive deal,” Greatwich said. “If you had said 10 years ago that we would be one game away from playing Korea, Japan and Australia then people would have laughed. Hopefully, it will be a watershed moment for the impact it could have on the domestic game here.”
Fans in the Philippines are hoping that Etheridge can transfer his form in England, where he has stopped the opposition from scoring in 15 league games so far this season, back to southeast Asia next month.
“You can really feel his presence when he is with the national team,” Greatwich said. “He is a big personality. He has been with the national team for 10 years and given what he is done and is doing, when he speaks people listen.”
Etheridge made his international debut in 2008 at the age of 18. Even in the middle of a promotion campaign, he’s looking forward to returning to international duty.
“We need a draw to make history,” he said of the Tajikistan match. “I have been part of that for 10 years and it has been a fantastic journey through thick and thin. It is a massive game.”