Phil Younghusband's legacy: Helping revitalize Philippine football

As the decade draws to a close, the ESPN5.com editorial staff look back at the sporting figures and moments that stood out and helped define Philippine sports in the 2010s. Check back regularly until December 31 for the latest features in our ESPN5.com Best of the Decade series.

We honor the athletes who excelled in the 2010s, those who made their mark, raised the bar, and collected championship trophies along the way. Ask anyone to name an Azkal they're familiar with, chances are they'll answer Phil Younghusband. A mainstay of the national team even before the 2010s started, the gifted striker became the face of the sport's resurgence at the start of the decade with the Miracle in Hanoi, and continued to be so for the next several years. By the time he announced his retirement last month, the longtime Azkals team captain was the Philippines' leading goal scorer in international competition and one of the most recognizable Filipino athletes in recent years.

If you're a long-time, possibly long-suffering, football fan in the Philippines, you should probably give thanks for Phil Younghusband's contribution to the sport in the past 10 years this Christmas season.

Specifically, we can zoom in to a couple of moments when the former star striker left a lasting effect on Philippine football. In 2010, Younghusband used his left foot to gift wrap the victory that propelled football into national consciousness. In 2018, Younghusband used his right foot to lift the Philippine Azkals into its most prestigious tournament in its history.

Rarely has a pair of feet played such a crucial role in the growth of a sport in the Philippines.

Phil Younghusband was smack dab in the middle of two of the most iconic moments of Philippine football in the last decade, and has been the face of the sport in the country in that same period.

If you're being technical about Younghusband's career, he may not even be the most talented player the Philippines has fielded in the past ten years. Stephan Schrock and Neil Etheridge both have a claim to that recognition, especially with their stints in the top flights of Germany and England under their belts, respectively.

In fact, domestically Younghusband has relatively little silverware to show for his career. The Chelsea FC youth product plied his trade exclusively for Filipino clubs in the past decade, winning two cup competitions with the now-defunct Loyola Meralco Sparks. Younghusband quietly wrapped up his local career with the Davao Aguilas in 2018, after a runners-up finish in the cup competition in his final season.

To fully appreciate what Younghusband has done throughout his career, you have to look at his exploits wearing the flag on his chest.

After famously being discovered alongside brother James via a video game in 2005, the Younghusbands made their debut in front of the Filipino crowd in the 2005 South East Asian Games as part of the under-23 team. Despite not finishing with a medal, the brothers earned their first full international cap a year later.

The pair were key in helping the Philippines climb from football obscurity to being respected by their neighbors in the South East Asian region. The exact turning point came at the start of the decade in Hanoi, Vietnam, as the Philippine Azkals took on the hosts in the AFF Suzuki Cup on December 5, 2010.

Despite being heavy underdogs, the Philippines managed to overcome Vietnam, 2-0, in front of a partisan crowd of 40,000. Chris Greatwich pushed the Azkals in front in the first half, before Phil Younghusband put the game to bed in the second half to complete the upset.

Former coach Simon McMenemy called the younger Younghusband a 'hero' for his exploits that day. Pointing out that the striker had been dealing with a stomach virus prior to the game. In fact, the highlights from that game show Younghusband nursing his stomach right after scoring the goal and footage from the locker room after the game revealed he was still feeling the ill effects from the bug.

The 'Miracle of Hanoi' elevated football into the mainstream in the Philippines, with the Younghusbands and the rest of the Azkals as the star attractions. The sudden popularity of the sport in the country saw numerous commercials involving football players, sold out national team games, and a television deal for the local league.

Even when public interest in the game faded away with time, the Azkals quietly worked to be worthy of its improved FIFA world ranking. This meant that more foreign-based talent started coming in from abroad, and younger local talent started displacing some of the veterans of the national team. But despite all of the turnover, Phil Younghusband was always in the conversation of being in the starting XI.

From the standpoint of the opposition, teams had to figure out ways to silence the Azkals and that often meant finding ways to shut down Phil Younghusband.

Yet, Younghusband typically found ways to score, as evidenced by his goalscoring record. In 108 appearances, he racked up 52 goals for the Philippines throughout his time as an international.

The 50th goal of Younghusband in particular was historic in many ways. Most importantly that turned out to be the goal that secured the Philippines' passage into the highest level of competition the country has ever qualified for.

On March 27, 2018, Younghusband converted a last-minute penalty to secure a victory against Tajikistan in their AFC Asian Cup Qualifier at the Rizal Memorial Stadium. A draw would've been enough to qualify, but the victory assured their spot in Asia's most prestigious tournament beyond doubt.

The milestone also placed Younghusband in esteemed company, being part of a handful of active players at the time who notched half a century of goals for their country. Other players in that list included superstars Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal, Lionel Messi of Argentina, and Neymar of Brazil.

Younghusband officially hung up his boots last November, taking to social media to announce his retirement. Leaving fans and observers to ponder his legacy on the beautiful game.

The iconic Philippine striker leaves as the country's top goal scorer and most capped player in its history. Younghusband was also wore the captain's armband in the latter part of the decade, when the Azkals reached the peak of their highest ever FIFA ranking.

While it is unfair to give Younghusband all the credit for the revival of football in the country, he deserves due recognition for being one of the key pieces of the Philippine Azkals for more than a decade. From 2006 to 2019, Younghusband has been a consistent part of a national team setup that saw them rise from a low of 195 to a high of 111 in the FIFA honor roll.

Younghusband never won a major trophy with the Philippines during his time with the team. But with the life Younghusband gave the sport in the country, he could well be one of the reasons the Azkals will eventually win one in the near future.