Asian Cup berth 'catalyst' to grow Filipino football: captain

Manila (AFP) - The Philippines football team's captain said on Wednesday he hoped their historic first-ever qualification for the Asian Cup could be a catalyst for growth of the sport in the basketball-mad nation.

Nicknamed the Azkals -- slang for mongrel dogs -- the Philippines qualified for the Asian Cup with a 2-1 come-from-behind win over Tajikistan in Manila in an emotional game on Tuesday night.

"When there's success in any sport people would talk about it and the most we can do is bring football as much success," Azkals captain Phil Younghusband, a former Chelsea youth player, told AFP.

"Hopefully this will be the catalyst for the growth of Philippine football," he added. "Maybe the lack of success in the last eight years has slowed down the growth."

The Philippines had been a bit-player on the Asian stage but turned heads by reaching the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup semi-finals.

The victory sparked interest in football in the Philippines, a nation that treats basketball almost as a religion.

Tuesday's game began with a goalless opening half but Kevin Ingreso later headed home to level for the Azkals who then made sure of their place in next year's tournament with a last-minute penalty that was converted by Younghusband.

It happened to be the 50th international goal of Younghusband.

"It was so emotional because of the way the game went. It's the happiest football moment so far in my professional career," he said.

"All I was thinking about is we qualified for the Asian Cup. Anything else is a bonus."

Younghusband, who has been playing in Philippines football for 13 years, described the Azkals' journey to being among the top 24 teams in Asia as a "rollercoaster ride".

He said the victory would prompt more interest in football in the Southeast Asian nation ahead of the World Cup in Russia in June.

"Football will again be on people's minds and attract new fans, bring back old fans and with the World Cup coming up, this is the perfect timing," he said.

Younghusband urged for fan support, adding the Azkals will be going up against teams in the Asian Cup where football is the main sport.

"I grew up in England where football is a big sport but rugby, cricket are also popular. It can be the same in the Philippines. It just needs good organisation and a lot of support."