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Katrin Hartmann
From Germany, brothers Manuel and Mike Ott help Azkals find football miracle

The Ott brothers Manuel and Mike lived before their Philippine football career in Germany.
The Ott brothers Manuel and Mike lived before their Philippine football career in Germany. | Photo (detail): © Jeffrey Hernaez

Attention is on the rise in the island state for the Azkals – the national football team. A few years ago, the country recruited reinforcements from Europe. With German-Filipino players, the country is aiming for the title at the AFF Suzuki Cup.

By Katrin Hartmann

Bacolod – On the way to the stadium the rows of sugar cane in the fields sway. When one field of the crop ends, another begins. The sight blurs into a huge sea of plants. “Bacolod is sugarcane country,” says the taxi driver, smiling in the rear-view mirror. From the central Philippine city, sugarcane is exported to the world. Suddenly a small football pitch appears between the two-metre high plants. The lawn is a lush green like freshly bathed chives. On it stand white painted timbers opposite one another as rickety-build goals. “For the children,” explains the taxi driver.

There was nothing but the village club

It reminds Manuel and Mike Ott of their old football pitch during their childhood in Bavarian Pfaffenhofen. “We grew up next to the field. It was practically just across the street. For us, there was nothing but the village club,” they say. Manuel and Mike Ott are sons of a Filipino mother and a German father. A mix that’s not untypical for the young generation in the Philippines. As Ger-Phils, they have dual citizenship. They are unmistakably brothers with their similar facial features, beards, and their eyes of the same dark colour. Another brother, Marco, Mike’s twin brother, still lives in Bavaria.

Four years ago, 26-year-old Manuel Ott was the first of the brothers to leave his native Bavaria, the small town, the village club, the sport school and his team at FC Ingolstadt 04. His 23-year-old brother Mike followed him three years later. Their goal? Their mother’s homeland. They already had contact points with the Philippines. “We flew here on holiday almost every year,” says Manuel Ott. “Our mother is from Boracay,” adds Mike Ott. Boracay, the tourist island that six months ago was still the cesspool of the archipelago and reopened in October after a rehabilitation programme, has everything the sunny-minded holiday-goer desires: snow-white beaches, azure waters, palm trees.

Then the Philippine national team invited to a trial training camp

The palm trees, beaches and azure waters weren’t what urged the Ott brothers to move, but the football. “It was 2010,” recalls Manuel “Manny” Ott. “A scout came to Germany. He was commissioned for all of Europe to look for players for the Philippine national team.” In addition to ability, the basic requirement was a Philippine passport. “Until then, I didn’t even know that there was a Philippine national football team,” says Manuel Ott with a laugh. He was invited to a trial training camp in Taiwan. Afterwards he signed the contract. “In German football, it’s getting harder and harder every year to get over the hurdles. There are a lot of good players.” The Philippine national team offered him an opportunity. Brother Mike joined him a little later. He hadn’t heard of the Azkals either. “In the Philippines it’s all about basketball. That’s the number one sport,” says Mike Ott. “But football would have a lot of potential here if only the players had better options.”

At present, the Azkals are not bad at all. At the AFF Suzuki Cup, which will go on until 15 December, the Azkals have defeated the team from East Timor 3-2 and the Lions from Singapore 1-0 for the first time. They tied 1-1 with the defending champions Thailand.

With their new Swedish coach Sven-Göran Eriksson, the Ott brothers have recently been training with a legend. “Everyone respects him. Every player knows his career,” they say, sounding awestruck.

They had to get used to the style of Southeast Asian football. “In Germany, the pace is faster, but here the players are lively and nimble. They scurry through everywhere,” says Manuel Ott. “The humidity doesn’t always make training easy,” says his brother, “but our mother’s genes give us a good level of adaptability.” As players for the Ceres Football Club in Bacolod and the national team, they regularly commute between “sugarcane country” and Manila.

Selfies and Salami

The brothers still haven’t gotten used to the excessive traffic in the capital. “In Germany it’s much more orderly. Here it’s a test of patience.” They didn’t have to change their eating habits much. “We love rice – and potatoes.” But they still miss German supermarkets with their salami and cheese. They understand Tagalog quite well, but speaking it hasn’t been easy. And having to pose for selfies with the predominantly female fans is still something they’re not used to. “We’re not really selfie freaks. We’re pretty German in that respect,” says Manuel Ott.

In the Philippines, Bacolod and Cebu are the places where football has the largest fan base, says Manuel Ott, otherwise it’s not a big deal. It’s not like in Germany, where some clubs look back on a century of fan history. But there are a few Filipino ultras anyway. From time to time, the Ott brothers and the Azkals organise trial sessions for children and teens. “Most of them really enjoy it. There are some talented players,” says Mike Ott. Even if they can only practice between the sugar cane fields.