Philippines stuns New Zealand for first-ever World Cup win. Its heroes? Californians

Philippines' Sarina Bolden celebrates after scoring her team's first goal during the Women's World Cup Group A soccer match between New Zealand and the Philippines in Wellington, New Zealand, Tuesday, July 25, 2023. (AP Photo/John Cowpland)
Philippines’ Sarina Bolden celebrates after scoring her team’s first goal during the Women’s World Cup Group A soccer match between New Zealand and the Philippines in Wellington, New Zealand, Tuesday, July 25, 2023. (AP Photo/John Cowpland)

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — One short decade ago, the Philippines women’s national team was a certified soccer minnow. It trained in mismatched kits on chewed-up fields, and often didn’t even qualify for qualifying tournaments. It exited the 2013 Southeast Asian Games with zero goals scored and nine conceded to Vietnam and Myanmar. It soon went idle for over a year, without a coach, amid allegations that stolen credit cards were used to book players’ plane tickets.

All of that, and more, was the context for a stunning Women’s World Cup upset on Tuesday: Philippines 1, co-host New Zealand 0.

It framed the joyous tears and unbridled celebrations that greeted the final whistle.

Goalkeeper Olivia McDaniel punted the ball skyward, then cried.

Goalscorer Sarina Bolden, flanked by teammates, streamed onto the field in ecstasy.

And in Illinois, at around 2:30 a.m., the team’s original architect, Butchie Impelido, went bonkers.

Impelido, a Chicagoland IT worker, never set out to build a World Cup team when he convinced his eldest daughter, a Filipino American college student, to try out for the Philippines national team in 2005.

But over the coming years, he helped build a Pinoy pipeline. It pulled hundreds of Filipina American girls to Southern California for tryouts. Together, they transformed an underfunded, overmatched team into a first-time World Cup qualifier — and now a first-time World Cup winner.

“Staggering,” head coach Alen Stajcic said, summing up a famous night and an arduous journey. “Miraculous. … Mind-blowing.”

Impelido, a Philippines-born U.S. immigrant, still remembers the early days, in the 2000s, when the team would train on choppy grass fields and often share them with track-and-field athletes. “You had to make sure the javelin players are not throwing,” he told Yahoo Sports with a laugh. “You could see the holes on the field.”

Now, he’s seeing history.

He also still remembers scouring nascent websites and message boards, such as usapangfootball.proboards.com, where in 2012 he found Mark Mangune. Mangune, a soccer obsessive who’d moved from Davao City to Michigan as a little boy, would post lists of Filipina American prospects, which Impelido forwarded on to the Philippines Football Federation. The PFF then made Mangune a volunteer “liaison and recruitment officer.” He’d cold-call college coaches, inquiring about players’ Filipino heritage, and DM prospects on Instagram after mundane days at his telecommunications job. He’d invite them to the California tryouts — and in the early days, many would ignore him; some suspected a prank.

[The making of America’s other Women’s World Cup team: The Philippines]

But over time, hundreds jumped at this unexpected opportunity. Mangune and Impelido, with help from the PFF and others, ultimately built a scouting database of “maybe 800 girls,” Mangune estimates. And one of them was Sarina Bolden.

Bolden, born in Northern California, was a forward at Loyola Marymount when she impressed at a Philippines tryout in 2017.

Six years later, on Tuesday, she scored the nation’s first-ever World Cup goal.

At the other end of the pitch was Olivia McDaniel, the daughter of a Filipina mother, Lindy, and a soccer-coach father, Clint. Back in 2012, when the PFF and its head coach, Ernie Nierras, arranged their first stateside tryout, they were searching for fields, and Clint stepped up. He secured a complex in Corona, California, and assisted Nierras. Lindy helped with accommodations and logistics. Others, such as team manager Filbert Alquiros and local coach Trey Scharlin, helped make Corona something of a Philippines women’s national team second home.

Olivia and her sister, Chandler, were teens at the time. But before long, they made the national team.

Earlier this month, they were two of 18 U.S.-born players named to the team’s 23-woman World Cup roster.

And on Tuesday, Olivia put on a flawless, dazzling display in goal to secure an unforgettable win.

She sprung to her left to keep out a would-be stoppage-time equalizer — “the save of her life,” Stajcic said.

After the match, she wept, and brought her hands to her head in disbelief.

She won player of the match, and was asked where she’d keep the trophy.

“Hopefully we’ll keep it next to the World Cup trophy when we get it,” she said with a smile.

She knows, surely, that that’s unlikely. Less than two years ago, this very same team had to squeak by Nepal and Hong Kong with last-minute goals merely to qualify for the 2022 Asian Cup, which became its route to the 2023 World Cup. For years, it cycled through coaches and swam among minnows, with meager resources and no path to anything else.

But then it got financial backing from Filipino businessman Jeff Cheng. Cheng worked his Aussie connections to hire Stajcic, a respected coach who’d led Australia to the 2015 Women’s World Cup quarterfinals. Players arrived at their first camp under Stajcic to find, finally, a professional environment. They’d meet before training. They’d follow a semi-regimented schedule. “It was very organized,” midfielder Quinley Quezada said.

And most importantly, no matter where they were born, they have always played with pride, with love for a country that’s in their blood. Many are the daughters or granddaughters of 20th-century Filipino migrants. They know there’s skepticism of their team, which features only one homegrown player. But they fight for their family’s homeland all the same.

“We all share the same culture and heritage,” defender Sofia Harrison told Yahoo Sports this spring. “And to be able to live that out while we’re playing together is so very special. Everyone loves the country so much, and we wanna do everything we can to show that, and to prove that we’re here for the country. We’re not just doing it for ourselves, we’re doing it for the country, for the kids, for the future.”

On Tuesday, they more than proved that.

In Wellington, amid a sea of expectant home fans, their countrymen and countrywomen responded rapturously, waving flags and roaring.

And in Illinois, at 2:36 a.m., Impelido sent a one-word text that said everything: “Unbelievable.”