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 By Kelvin Leong

Hartmann brothers ready for Global success with Philippines

In the past decade, football has been gaining a larger following in the Philippines.

Although the majority of Philippines' 100 million citizens are hooked on basketball and boxing, it came as no surprise when football took the country by storm at the turn of the century. Around the same time, Europe-based Filipino players began donning the Azkals' colours.

The 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup was the breakout tournament for Philippines. They made it to the semifinals and were undefeated in the group stages before eventually losing to Indonesia. They upset co-hosts Vietnam in a game referred to as "The Miracle of Hanoi." They even ousted title favourites Singapore from Group B.

In that 2-0 victory over Vietnam, the Azkals had a famous name on the scoresheet: Phil Younghusband. The former Chelsea FC graduate and his brother, James, who played an integral role in making the passionate Filipinos fall in love with football, continue to be key players on the national team.

But Phil might have unknowingly contributed an even bigger assist off the pitch, having played a huge part in unearthing another family of Filipino footballers in the Hartmann brothers.

Matthew (bottom row, second from left) captained the U-23 side in 2011, while Mark (top right) was the team's main striker.

Matthew and Mark Hartmann both learned their craft in the famous Southampton academy before choosing to head back to Philippines, their mother's home country, to continue pursuing their first love, football.

"We started in Southampton, and I was lucky enough to play with Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale during my time there," 26-year-old Matthew told ESPN FC.

Both brothers then joined Portsmouth, then in the Premier League. Mathew, a midfielder, subsequently moved to Nottingham Forest, while forward Mark joined Swindon Town.

"During my time at Portsmouth, Phil was at Chelsea, and he knew me," Matthew said. "So he told the Philippines Football Federation [PFF] about me. That was the start of my journey as a professional footballer in the Philippines."

Mark in action for the Philippines U-23 team against Vietnam in 2011.

Five years after Matthew made his national team debut in 2006, younger sibling Mark became the third member of the Hartmann family to don an Azkals jersey. Their elder brother, Darren, had represented Philippines at the U-21 level.

"I came to the Philippines on holiday at the age of 14 in 2006. That was even before the national football team was called the Azkals," 23-year-old Mark said. "I joined my brother in training when I was in town but had to head back to England, where I continued playing. The first time I was called up to the national team was when I was 19. It was for the Long Teng Cup in 2011. That's when I moved to the Philippines permanently, and I've been there ever since."

In 2015, the Philippines are no longer the minnows of Southeast Asia. They are getting closer to the dream of winning their first ever AFF Suzuki Cup, having made the semifinals the past three editions.

Philippines have made the final four of the AFF Suzuki Cup the past three editions.

If Mark's justifiable aura of confidence -- the striker has scored more than 90 domestic club goals and seven for his country since 2011 -- is anything to go by, it might not be long before we see the Azkals lift that elusive piece of silverware.

"Can we win the next Suzuki Cup? Absolutely," Mark said. "We are a good, well-knit team where everyone gets on well with each other. That is our strength. "We're good at going forward. We have a lot of quality attacking players who can score a goal or do something magical. We are also a very young team, so the core of the team that played last year's Suzuki Cup will be more or less the same in 2016.

"Coach Thomas Dooley's goal is always to win as many games as we can. Hopefully, we'll keep moving forward and achieve something together."

The Azkals won the first two games of their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.

While the Suzuki Cup is a primary target for the Azkals, this could be a massive two years for the Philippines, who soared to their highest FIFA world ranking, 124, in July.

The Azkals have made a superb start to their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, defeating Bahrain 1-0 before sealing their first away win in the competition with a 2-0 victory against Yemen.

With the competition doubling as qualifiers for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, it is an enticing prospect for all Southeast Asian teams to qualify for the premier continental competition.

"We won our first two games in the World Cup qualifiers, and I think we're only going to get better," Mark said. "Making the Asian Cup will be a huge step for Philippines football. It could also establish the Philippines as a Southeast Asia powerhouse over the passage of time."

As for his brother Matthew, his immediate aim is to help his new club Global -- he moved to the club from Loyola Meralco Sparks earlier this year.

Having tasted international action with six caps, the skillful midfielder was a mainstay of the Loyola team, with 15 goals in 65 matches, but he has yet to be called up by Dooley for the new-look Azkals side.

"I signed a long-term deal with Global six months ago, so I'm here to stay for the next few years," Matthew said. "Global is one of the best clubs in the Philippines, and the club has big plans. Hopefully, we can be successful domestically and also do well in tournaments like the AFC Cup and Singapore Cup."

Mark (second from left) and Matthew (far right) helped Global FC reach the SG Cup semifinals last week in Singapore. Photo credit: S.League

Fresh from their sensational second-leg comeback in the Singapore Cup, in which Mark's hat trick lifted them to a 4-1 extra-time win over Geylang International (4-2 on aggregate), the Hartmanns' dream of adding silverware to their family trophy cabinet is slowly taking shape.

The Philippines traditionally have a good fanbase wherever they go -- more than 1,000 Filipino fans packed the Bedok Stadium the past Sunday in one of the highest attendances for the season.

Therefore, it might not be long before we see them lifting a regional trophy or becoming the first ASEAN team to qualify for the Asian Cup. Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand were co-hosts of the 2007 edition.

"Whenever we play in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, it feels like a home game because Filipinos come out to support us," Mark said. "So, in the near future, hopefully we can celebrate a trophy triumph together."

ESPN FC editor Kelvin Leong is a former media officer for Singapore and ex-regional editor of ESPNSTAR.com. Twitter: @KelvinLeong29.

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