Meet the first Filipino born overseas to play for Azkals
Former Azkal Leigh Gunn
Meet the first Filipino born overseas to play for Azkals
Rick Olivares (Philstar.com) - July 28, 2020 - 12:16pm

MANILA, Philippines – When Filipino-Australian Leigh Gunn looks back at his stint with the Philippine men’s football team — 16 international caps — the result might have not been the best, but they remain fond memories.

“Good memories. Good friendships made. Hard battles on the pitch,” is how the Sydney-born Gunn sums up everything. 

Like many kids around the world, the dream was to play in the English Premier League. “After completing high school in Sydney, I wanted to pursue a career playing football,” Gunn recounted. “Back in those days — 1998 to be exact — making contact with overseas clubs was done by the old landline phone and fax machine. With the help of my dad we sent out my resume to a few clubs in England that were willing to give me a trial. And we also sent one to the Philippine Football Federation through the late General Secretary Chris Monfort.”

Reaching out to Philippine football officials was part of the plan. His mother, Violeta, hails from Liloan, Cebu and he had been to the Philippines on several occasions to visit relatives. 

“We would travel to the Philippines on holidays. ‘Growing up, mum would cook Filipino food for us and memories of parties were always Filipino food, friends, and even tinikling!”

Monfort received Gunn’s entreaties and then-national coach Juan Cutillas gave Leigh a long distance phone call before the Fil-Aussie flew in. “Juan Cutillas had called me prior to arriving and explained that he used to coach in Australia so he knew of the clubs that I had played for and had an idea of the level I was playing at.”

Gunn had just finished out his two-year contract suiting up for the Marconi Stallions in the National Youth League and was looking to take his talents abroad. 

Leigh first donned the national colors on the June 12, 1999 with the Under-23 squad in the Olympic Qualifiers in Hong Kong and became the first Filipino born overseas to wear the national football team’s colors. And yet, the locals ran smack against a talented Japanese side that featured players competing in European leagues. The result was a 13-nil hiding. 

Despite the lopsided scores, the nationals played on valiantly; hoping to score even a goal or limit the opponents’ scores that would lift their collective spirits. 

“We went on to play seven matches in that tournament with my personal highlight being my first international goal scored in a 2-2 draw with Nepal,” recounted Gunn. “After that tournament, Coach Cutillas asked me to stay on for the senior team and play in the 1999 South East Asian Games held in Brunei where I played another three matches. We had a great game against Laos there where Norman Fegidero and Marlon Pinero both scored but we unfortunately lost 3-2.  There were three other players from the U-23s that came across also —Freddy Gonzalez, Alvin Ocampo, and Wilson De La Cruz. Freddy, Alvin and I were great friends throughout as I was living with Freddy whilst I was in Manila, the three of us would always travel to training together.”

Gunn’s next tournament with the nationals — yet to be nicknamed “the Azkals” — was the 2000 Tiger Cup (as today’s Suzuki Cup was then known). While the team was playing better, they still returned home without a win. 

“I returned in 2006 under Coach Aris Caslib for the AFC Challenge Cup in Bangladesh, but our two draws and one loss did not see us through. A young Chieffy Caligdong and Anto Gonzales were a part of this team and it was good to see them reach great heights later on.” 

“The last time I suited up was at Barotac Nuevo, Iloilo. With the World Cup Qualifying pool team under Coach Michael Weiss. I have such fond memories of this match against Central Philippines University where some 7,00 packed the grounds next to the old church. I was happy to go out like this and I believe it was also the send-off for Yanti Bersales who I played with back in 1999.”

After hanging up his boots, Gunn went into coaching and received his FFA C License where he was an assistant with the U23 PHL National Team under Jim Fraser and manager Jeff Cheng throughout 2014-15 AFC qualifiers Thailand as well as the Bolkiah Cup in Brunei. 

“It was great to be involved with the PFF at a coaching level. It was also very pleasing to see many of my old national teammates who are coaches now,” added Gunn. “My friend, Andrew Fletcher, and I also started an academy program here in Australia for Filipinos called ‘the Azkalroos’where we scouting local talent with Filipino heritage. I am very pleased to see one of our Azkalroos players in Joshua Grommen doing well in Asia now.”

Gunn lives today in the Sunshine Coast in Queensland where he is happily married with three girls. He owns a GPS communications company named Australia Wide GPS & Radio Installations. While he still follows the exploits of the Azkals, Leigh has taken a step back from football and is seriously into triathlon. 

“I spend my time now competing in triathlon with dreams of qualifying for the World Championships in Kona Hawaii (representing the Philippines of course),” he pointed out. 

“Working through all the adversities the national team faced back in the early days only made us stronger and more grateful for what we received. To witness first-hand the changes and improvements over 20 years is remarkable. And I am happy to think that players of our generation had a small hand in where we are now as a footballing nation in Southeast Asia.”

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