Etheridge and Philippines dreaming of English Premier League

FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, file photo, Philippines' goalkeeper Neil Etheridge fails to block a Bahrain goal during a preliminary joint qualifier for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and the 2019 AFC Asian Cup in Riffa, Bahrain. Cardiff City goalkeeper Etheridge may not just become the first southeast Asian to play in the English Premier League later this year, he could also help develop soccer in the Philippines, on and off the field. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Philippines goalkeeper Neil Etheridge has been in touching distance of the English Premier League before, without getting on the pitch.

After so much frustration and repeated setbacks, the wait to become the first southeast Asian to play in the league could soon be ending for Etheridge with Cardiff.

The south Wales team is second in the second-tier League Championship and is on course to gain promotion to the world's richest and most popular league.

"There are big clubs paying large amounts of money to try and get into the Premier League," said Etheridge, who was born in London in 1990 to an English father and Filipino mother. "It would be a dream to play there."

Etheridge was with Fulham from 2008 to 2014 while the London club was in the Premier League but he never managed to make it into the lineup.

Etheridge has revived his career at Cardiff, which is owned by Malaysian businessman Vincent Tan.

In his first season since joining Cardiff from Walsall, the 28-year-old Etheridge has missed only one game in the push to clinch one of the two automatic promotion places. With 13 games remaining, Cardiff is four points ahead of third-place Aston Villa.

The Championship is the third best attended division in Europe, with an average crowd of over 20,000.

"Physically, mentally, and emotionally, the Championship is a very strong level of football," he said. "I would argue that it is right up there with some of the best leagues and is hard to get out of."

Etheridge making it into the Premier League will help to raise the profile of the game in his native Philippines. Soccer is the most popular sport in every country in the region except the Philippines, where basketball and boxing are bigger.

Chris Greatwich, a former national teammate of Etheridge, already sees the impact he is having in the Philippines.

"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," Greatwich said. "To have a player from the Philippines (in the Premier League) 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, 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.

But the national team is eyeing a first-ever appearance at the Asian Cup in 2019. The team only has to avoid defeat at home to Tajikistan on March 27 to qualify.

"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."

The Philippines will be hoping that Etheridge can transfer his form in England, where he has kept clean sheets in 15 league games 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."

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