|One of my all-time favorite Filipino football players who will no doubt go down as one of the most important players to don a national jersey… the one and only Chris Greatwich.|
Ten years into his football adventure, Chris Greatwich has achieved quite a few milestones.
by rick olivares
Right before kick off of the 2014 World Cup, Philippine international Chris Greatwich took a moment to reflect on some of the news streaming out of the United States.
There was some controversy about the United States Men’s National Team, when coach Jurgen Klinsmann selected several Americans of foreign descent for the squad. Some like former US coach Bruce Arena decried the selections and said that Major League Soccer was teeming with enough talent to stock the national team. Why select players from the outside including some unproven ones? Some including US women’s player Alex Morgan wondered about some selections, “I want to like Julian Green” she Tweeted.
“Been there. Done that,” commented Greatwich over lunch at the 26th Street Bistro by The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. “The world is changing. It has been for a while now. So I’m surprised people are reacting this way because this isn’t the first time the United States went through those changes.”
That was in 1994 when the US fielded a team composed of home grown players to go with naturalized players and some who were of American parents. One of the more prominent ones was current Philippines head coach Thomas Dooley, who played every single minute of all American matches in 1994. Dooley’s father was an American serviceman.
“I used to be a little bothered by the label, ‘Fil-foreigner’,” admitted Greatwich. “I also understand the need to label people for certain purposes. But I’m fine with it now. There are bigger things to worry about. Besides people are coming around to the impact of globalization.”
Greatwich stewed on the word – globalization – for a minute.
“I was born in England and I never thought that I’d find my life in the US and in my mother’s home country of the Philippines,” he waxed philosophical. “I wanted to be a football player but if you told me that all that I have achieved and experienced in the past 10 years would happen I’d say you’re kidding me.”
It’s hard to believe that 10 years have gone by since Greatwich first suited up for the national team. Once considered one of its bright young hopes, he is one of its seniors citizens when it comes to football standards.
“It’s been good,” he pronounced of the past 10 years. “Hopefully, we can add more good memories and experiences to this.”
In these past 10 years, there have been five milestones in Greatwich’s life.
Making the national team
“In 2003, my grandmother passed away and mother came back to the Philippines for the first time in 11 years to attend her funeral. She happened to be in Pasig before going to Bohol when she found out that the PFF (Philippine Football Federation) office was in nearby ULTRA. She walked in and said that her three sons play a little bit of football and maybe in the future they can try out for the national squad.”
“The following year, I had some correspondence with the PFF inviting me to try out for the national team. I was studying and playing in the US at that time, and I flew in October of 2014 to attend the tryouts. Luckily, I made the team.”
“Chris had quality,” recalled then national head coach Aris Caslib. The nationals were then preparing for the 2004 Tiger Cup (today’s Suzuki Cup). “He was smart in his play and didn’t make too many mistakes. He was perfect for the team.”
“I hadn’t come back to the Philippines since I was four years old so this was a good time as any to return,” added Chris of the start of his great football adventure. “I wasn’t nervous about coming over. It wasn’t a concern. It was more of not knowing what to expect. What were the standards? Was I going to be completely out of my depth? Could I help this team? Was the training facility going to be terrible? I just went over with an open mind. I didn’t know the level of exposure the team had. I didn’t care to know. That wasn’t my main concern. I didn’t care of there were millions of people watching or not. It was just to play. I came over with the mindset of just making the team.”
Among the hopefuls at that time were Chad Gould, Aly Borromeo, Anton del Rosario, Chieffy Caligdong, Roel Gener, Ian Araneta, and Peter Jaugan. Of the eight, including Greatwich, only Gould would not be in the lineup during the 2010 breakthrough.
“I stayed with Aly for the first week then I stayed at the dorm in ULTRA where the conditions were terrible,” laughed Greatwich of those salad days. “We had a small toilet and shower. We had to navigate through all the fences in the back just to get a proper shower. And there’s a whole lot more that I will leave to the imagination.”
The Fil-Briton was singular in his mindset about making the team despite the difficult conditions. “The important thing was making the team. It was difficult. I have never been through anything like this before. I just had to suck it up. It wasn’t going to help me if I botched and moaned.”
During that Tiger Cup, the Philippines faced Myanmar as its first group stage opponent at the Bukit Jalil Stadium in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The Burmese were tipped to progress deep into the tourney while not much was expected from the region’s traditional whipping boys.
Upon kick-off, the Philippines displayed tenacious defending that beat back repeated attacks by Myanmar.
“We parked the bus and held them off. We couldn’t mount much offense but we tried to find openings on the counter,” described Chris of the heroic stand. “We had one good chance to score in the game off a long throw by Anton after which Aly picked it up and sent the ball to me. But…. I missed my volley. It was our one good chance!”
After 90 minutes and the match still scoreless, the Philippines had a chance to eke out a point in a draw. But a long forward ball dropped in front of an unmarked San Day Thien, the Myanmar striker, outside the box. He controlled the bar and fired a shot that beat keeper Michael Casas for the match’s only goal… at death’s door.
I remember thinking, “That was right before the whistle blew and I remember feeling devastated like everyone else. I just sat down feeling empty. This was a chance to for us to get a point.”
The next three matches saw Malaysia and Thailand blow out the Philippines but in between, the picked up a huge, 2-1, win over Timor Leste on account of Chieffy Caligdong’s two late goals.
“That was Chieffy’s coming out party,” said Chris. “Considering the squad we had and the amount of preparation we had – which wasn’t much to start with -- it was a good result. But… it was the start of something.”
The 2010 Suzuki Cup
In the midst of a horrible boat ride to play Maldives in the semifinals of the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup, longtime number one national keeper Neil Etheridge suddenly said to Chris, “One of the best moments of my life is when you scored the equalizer against Singapore.”
With the ferry being rocked by the huge waves, Greatwich, who preoccupied by several things, could only nod in appreciation.
In his international career, Chris Greatwich has scored only seven goals. That’s 29 less than Phil Younghusband has. And perhaps outside Younghusband and Chieffy Caligdong, no one has scored more important goals than Greatwich.
Aside from the three goals he has scored during the qualifiers for the Suzuki Cup, the pair he scored during the 2010 edition helped put the Philippines where it is at the moment.
The affable Fil-Briton was a late addition to the national side because of concerns over his fitness, but come kick off in Vietnam, Greatwich was arguably one of the more important players in that tournament.
In the group stage opener, Chris banged home a spectacular injury time goal from a fine cross from James Younghusband to give the Philippines a 1-1 draw with Singapore in the opening match of Group B at the My Dinh National Stadium.
It was a stunning result but none more so a few days later against defending champions Vietnam when Greatwich took a well-placed cross from defender Anton del Rosario in the 37th minute for a header that beat keeper Duong Hong Son for a most unlikely 1-nil lead.
The goal seemed so inconceivable at that point as, Vietnam, the home team had dominated possession and shots on goal. Phil Younghusband scored the insurance goal late in the match to give the Philippines its most important result, a 2-0, win that forever changed the course of the sport in the country.
The win sent repercussions throughout the Southeast Asian region where football is akin to a religion. The following day at the press conference for the match between Singapore and Vietnam where one team could possibly be sent packing depending on the result, much of the discussion centered on the Philippines’ fantastic run.
Singapore defender David Mark Bennett was effuse in his praise, “We don’t play too many teams that show that kind of passion. That’s a well-deserved point for the Philippines.”
“This is so much a product of passion and pride,” gushed then head coach Simon McMenemy after the historic win over Vietnam. “We just wanted to keep it tight, defend well, and try to beat them on the counterattack. We wanted to limit their numbers on their attacks and after Chris’ goal, we had them somewhat thinking twice. We were fortunate but that’s what football’s all about.”
Playing with Kaya in the UFL
Despite the successful 2010 Suzuki Cup run, Greatwich returned to the United States to get back to work. “Even after the accomplishment of 2010, domestic football wasn’t financially viable here,” explained Greatwich. “It was difficult to consider a full time career in football unlike the way it is now. Back then, there weren’t enough facilities too. There wasn’t anything for me to give up the way of life I had over in the US.”
However, the seeds of the football’s growth had been sown. Within a year, the UFL was awarded a long-term television contract. Club football was on the rise and so were the infrastructures surrounding the game.
“No one could have foreseen football develop the way it has,” said Greatwich upon his return to the Philippines as a member of Kaya. “Everything sort of blew up. The infrastructure grew. So did the UFL. Football became more popular. I spoke with Santi Araneta about potentially coming over here. He told me that I would work with the academy and how things will develop from the UFL to the Youth League. I wanted to be a part of that and I thought I could add value to it.”
With Greatwich in the middle, Kaya has gone up from fourth to third in the last two seasons of league play. “Hopefully, we don’t have to wait two more years to win it all,” joked Chris of his team’s finishes.
Tying the knot
For all of Chris’ accomplishments on and off the field and for the sport in the Philippines, he couldn’t have done it without his longtime girlfriend, Samantha Kettle who he married in August of 2013.
“We’ve been together for a very long time, Sam and I,” reflected Greatwich of his relationship. “We have been all over the world. We’ve lived in England. We’ve lived in the States. And now, we live here in the Philippines. With the national team, I’ve been doing a lot traveling. Without Sam’s patience and understanding, a lot of this would not be feasible. I would be in England doing a boring mundane job while playing some football on the side. She’s been very extremely supportive. Allowing my dreams and aspirations to take shape. A lot of partners are not willing to do that. I don’t have to worry about what’s going on behind the scenes. She’s embraced everything living here and there. And that has allowed me to focus and play well.”
For as long as he could remember, Chris always thought and planned ahead. He moved to the United States to not only study but to earn a living. “Living away from your parents teaches you to fend for yourself,” he said over his time living outside England.
With a child due the family way this September, Chris is thinking even more long term. “A child on the way,” Chris thought. “That’s different. I have to think more long term. There’s more than Sam and me now. How do I support my family? There’s a lot to think about --- food, the condo, care for the child, balancing my time with my work and family. There is so much to consider and think about. But it’s good to know that Samantha is there too so it isn’t just my decision.”
Free to focus on football, Greatwich has adapted his game to the team’s needs and its composition. He has gone from playing attacking midfielder to working to get the ball back and distributing the ball to the forwards.
“The change in the style of play also comes with maturity” expounded Greatwich. “You have to realize that there are some things you can be good at and there are others that you leave to your teammates who can do a much better job. You look at the quality of the team now and you have to adapt as well. It’s like when I first came over, you have to keep an open mind about things or else you’ll be left behind. It helped me prolong my career if you ask me.”
The 2014 AFC Challenge Cup
Ten years after making his debut with the national team, Chris is still making significant contributions.
When Greatwich scored late in extra time against Maldives to give the Philippines, a 3-2 win in the semifinals of the AFC Challenge Cup, another teammate of his announced that it was one of the proudest moments of his life.
“It’s just good to be able to still contribute,” remarked Greatwich who came on as a second half substitute for Jerry Lucena. “I’m thinking that I scored some big goals in 2010 and four years later, there’s another. I’m just happy to be a part of this and show my worth.”
As a campaign, Chris felt the whole campaign was a roller coaster ride of emotions. He got injured in the first match then managed to come on in the all-important semifinals match that saw the Philippines go through its best finish in a major tournament.
“One moment, you’re thrilled to be with the lads. Then you’re worrying about keeping it all together in the boat ride and battling sea sickness,” recalled Greatwich of the off field problems the national team had to go through while at the Maldives. “Then I got poked in the eye and I’m on the bench. It was frustrating. Luckily, the manager’s got faith in me and puts me in against the Maldives in the semis.”
“Finishing second in the tournament was a disappointment,” said Chris of the 2-nil loss to Palestine in the Challenge Cup Finals. “But it’s still a huge achievement. Never thought our wildest dreams did we think that we could be one game away from playing the biggest teams in Asia. We’ll just try to do it all over again.”
The long-time national team midfielder knows that his days representing the country are numbered. Of his batch of eight that began the journey in 2004, only Anton del Rosario was in uniform in the Maldives.
“I’m going to be 31 by September,” admitted Greatwich. “I am fortunate enough to be a part of all of this. Ten years is a good run. Hopefully, there’ll be a few more but if not I’m happy and comfortable with what I have done for the country. As long as there are better players coming through and the team does better then it’s all good.”
When Greatwich and company began their ride 10 years ago, there was hardly any media coverage. The one meaningful interview he recalled giving was to DZSR Sports Radio’s Cecile Quimlat. Today, the national team and the UFL are constantly in the news. The games are regularly televised. The game is flourishing and “the infrastructure” that wasn’t there a decade ago is partly in place with more being built.
There is already some talk from media quarters and the fans about Rob Gier, Phil Younghusband and possibly Greatwich coaching the national side one day.
“Maybe the three of use could do it together,” wondered Chris. “I think we have a lot to give. Players would respect what we’ve achieved from our playing days and we’ve got good footballing minds. I don’t know to be honest. I am sure we’d all like to do that. We’d like to play a little bit longer too. But we’ll cross the bridge when we get there.”
In the recent Maldives match, Greatwich got to play alongside younger brother Simon who came on as a substitute in the 110th minute. “You think first that you have a brother on the team. You think of the team first. In the Maldives game, Simon came on the right wing where I played the entire tournament so I was a little confused. But he came on and played pretty well. After the game, with the win in the bag, I thought, “That was cool to be on the field with your brother celebrating an important win. It was a little more poignant.”
“Years ago, if you told me that one day, I would be on the field with Landon Donovan, David Beckham, and Fabio Cannavaro; that I’d play in front of 90,000 people (in Malaysia); that I’d play in front of Manny Pacquiao who is in the crowd, and we’d be playing in World Cup qualifiers, I’d tell you, ‘You’re lying.’”
“But…. reality never looked so good.”
Chris Greatwich smiled the smile of the content, happy, and accomplished.
Deep down inside, he knows that the best is yet to come.
The next decade beckons.