Considered as one of the most important names in the history of Philippine football, Aly Borromeo talks about the peaks and valleys of his career, his injury and comeback, how perseverance transcends any setback, and why he stuck with football. We let the captain grab the spotlight as he retells his life from the day he left gymnastics to the day he led the Azkals and changed the landscape of football. Of course, we can’t leave his career at Kaya—past, present, and future—out of the equation! Read on to find out.
Born on June 28, 1983, in San Francisco, California, Aly Borromeo moved to the Philippines just over a week after he was born. Yes, Aly grew up here in Manila, where he learned to speak Filipino and English fluently, realized that chicken inasal is something that he can eat every day, and more importantly, learned to play football. Actually, gymnastics was his first sport, and while it would be difficult to imagine him doing all of the swinging, tumbling, and parkourlike stunts now, it prepared him for the beautiful game.
“I was five years old, and my mom enrolled me at Tomas Lozano’s Makati Football School [MFS]. I studied gymnastics for a year before that,” recalled Aly.
While MFS introduced the sport to Aly, he grew up at Kaya, where he turned into one of the finest players to don the club’s colors. There was no Kaya FC Academy back then—does joining Kaya at 16 make him one of the first “students,” though?—so MFS was the only choice, and it started from there.
“There was no varsity team in grade school. We just played in the garden. I learned football at MFS. I was there since I was five years old all the way until high school. I was part of the varsity team of La Salle. I was goalkeeper until I was 17 years old. I only started developing my skills on the field at that age.”
Aly also recalled that his fondest football memory was the Gothia Cup in Denmark when he was 12 years old, and they came in second place, an experience that he treasures to this day. But it wasn’t all football from the get-go. Has he always dreamed of becoming a footballer?
“No, I wanted to become a wrestler. WWF! Either that or NBA player. I used to follow all these wrestlers before.”
Even though he seems to prefer sports to school, we asked him about it anyway.
I went to International Montessori School in grade school and La Salle Green Hills in high school. I wanted to go to CSA [Colegio de San Agustin] because all of my teammates from MFS were from CSA, and MFS was the only team who could compete against Ateneo, with the likes of Paul Tolentino [Kaya general manager]. He was the top scorer of Ateneo before. Magaling ’yun! In college, DLSU [De La Salle University] for one year and CSB [College of Saint Benilde] for one semester, then I went to the States and studied at Skyline College in San Francisco for two years. Anton del Rosario and I were teammates for one year. I got offers from Division I schools—scholarship!—but I ended up going back to the Philippines to pursue the national team. My dad said, ‘You can’t do this full-time. You got to do something else,’ so he made me work for GNC. I was in my mid-20s then.
If there’s anything noticeable about Aly, it’s his athleticism and healthy lifestyle. Don’t even get him started. Gymnastics and football aside, he played practically every sport he came across. He interestedly tried each one, and football ultimately won in the end.
“Basketball helped with my footwork, tennis with my coordination, and golf with my patience. Yes, they helped me a lot. I stopped playing golf because I was getting impatient. I used to play, with my dad, nine holes after school until it became seven holes, four holes, two holes … you need a mental game for that, but that helped me a lot too with football,” explained Aly.
But why football?
“Nothing compares to the feeling of playing a team sport like football, like when you score a goal. You worked so hard to achieve that goal. Every player has to work. The unity and camaraderie it brings is different compared to other sports.”
Sometimes the universe aligns perfectly, and sometimes it doesn’t or doesn’t seem like it, but his love for football and what it means for him did not fade into darkness amid the changes and challenges in his life.
Captain of the Azkals
Even though Aly has been Kaya’s longtime captain, being the captain of the Philippine national football team (Azkals) after the 2010 ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup is the title that stuck with the public. And even if he didn’t break Bagets Pinero’s nose several years ago, Aly thinks he would still have been the captain of the Azkals sooner or later. Accepting the armband is an honor that he would always accept with alacrity.
For accuracy’s sake, Aly had represented the Philippines for the Under-14 and Under-19 levels as a goalkeeper and the Under-23 level as a central defender. In 2004, Coach Aris Caslib invited him to try out for the national team, and eventually, he made his first-team debut in the 2004 Tiger Cup (now called the AFF Suzuki Cup). In the tournament, Aly, who played as a forward, played together with our very own Chris Greatwich and former Kaya players Anton del Rosario and Kale Alvarez.
Prior to being a central defender, Aly had played different positions throughout his career. He started as a goalkeeper, then played as a forward in the 2004 Tiger Cup and, finally, settled in the center back position in 2005. So was it an easy transition?
“Yeah, from goalie, I went to forward. In the  SEA Games, we didn’t have any other defenders, and I was quite big for a Filipino, so Aris Caslib put me in defense. I didn’t like [the center back position] at first, but I got used to it because I could see the pitch from there and be the general at the back and command a bit. Eventually, I enjoyed it,” narrated Aly.
In 2005, he participated and captained the U-23 team in the SEA Games, which was held in the Philippines. Aly mentioned that being a center back fell into place and that the key to playing the position is “finding a right balance between being aggressive and composed.”
Fast-forward to December 2010, when the skipper and his teammates, armed with only pure passion and Filipino pride, caused a national stir that will surely be repeated in every synopsis of Philippine football history. Their achievement did not just put the country on the football map, but it has also given the next generation of Filipino footballers a chance to pursue their dreams. Although the rise of football has been slow and steady, we are reaping the rewards of their hard work and sacrifice today. For Aly, being a part of that determined team means so much.
That’s the game changer right there. I knew going into the tournament that we could actually compete against Vietnam and Singapore with that core team we had, but no one believed in us. And that made us work even harder! We were playing purely for passion and pride for the country, for each other, and for the sport. We knew we could build something for this country. We knew the players are capable of playing football.
When the perseverance finally paid off, the feeling was priceless. Aly’s professional football career just launched itself after that historic 2010 finish.
“It all fell into place after 2010. We were like overnight stars, celebrities, whatever. We were like rock stars in one day! I realized this could be full-time, something to achieve and make football bigger in the Philippines, which is why the UFL is here.”
For Aly, his proudest moment on the field remains the win against Vietnam because “it changed the face of Philippine football.” He believes that, while the current squad is fulfilling its potential, there are some areas that need improvement.
“Majority of the guys [today] play in the top leagues in the world. It’s just a matter of playing together most of the year. I think what the national team lacks is that core stability. Like, why we did so well in 2010 was because we were always there—me, Chieffy, Chris, Phil, Rob, Neil, Anton—it was always us there. We had nothing to lose.”
Even though Aly hasn’t been called up recently, he says the door is always open.
“If I get invited to, why not. The door is always open. But I’m not devastated about it because I know Dooley selected the best players at the moment.”
Being the captain of the Azkals undeniably launched and defined his career, but it is also a role that he truly and equally cherishes at Kaya. We see the same Azkals captain at the club. The way he walks, talks, and conducts himself make others soldier on or fight alongside him.
But before anything else, when did he even join Kaya?
“I was 16 years old [when I joined Kaya]. I went to one of their training sessions slash pickup games at the old IS [International School]. Ever since then, I was playing with Kaya. It’s my roots. It’s where I started,” said Aly.
Kaya was established in 1996, and Aly joined Kaya in 1999, making him a bona fide icon in the club’s history. While this is something Aly doesn’t particularly like to dwell on, it is a testament to his unquestionable loyalty and unparalleled passion. A genuine homegrown talent and a great ambassador for the club, he was a player that matured into a great leader.
They say that great leaders don’t tell you what to do, but they show you how it’s done, and that’s exactly what Aly has been doing as Kaya’s captain. There are instances when Kaya is behind the score line at halftime, and Aly’s commanding presence fills the room, infects everyone, and impacts the players even when he’s not on the pitch.
“I go to the players individually and tell them their individual tasks and responsibilities. I’m more of that type of captain. I set an example. I sometimes have to shout because no one else will, but I don’t really talk too much. I lead by example.”
Aly leads by example, maybe throws a few words sometimes, but never uses brute force, uncalled-for remarks, or inane chatter. It is all about action and example and how he can help his teammates, and the pressure and responsibility that come with being the captain are not a drawback for him. Quite the opposite, as it turns out: “I like the pressure. It’s something that I thrive off.” Inevitably, though, there is one thing that pisses him off.
“If my teammates aren’t working, if they’re not moving their asses and working with each other, that pisses me off. Once you step onto the pitch, everyone has to give everything.”
During Aly’s absence due to injury (more on this shortly), Masa Omura emerged as the supplementary force to be reckoned with at Kaya. More than anything, having another leader at the helm has proven itself to be a welcome boost to Kaya.
The team was under the captaincy of the most experienced and respected Kaya players, and they assured a sense of unity and strong work ethic within the team.
“We [Masa and Aly] work pretty much both as the captains of the team. Wearing that armband doesn’t really mean anything. We always discuss the kind of strategy and who’s not there physically and mentally. We try to help the coach out.”
In 2011, during the UFL Cup match against Diliman, he sustained an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury that affected his football career. He still deems this his worst memory at Kaya because this also meant not playing for the national team.
“Of course, getting injured because I had to leave the team for almost two years. Being away from the game, I thought I had to give up football. I couldn’t watch the game, talk about football with my friends. I just really had to get away from the game completely. But in the end, that made me even stronger as a person in everything.”
Aly is no stranger to injury. He tore his ACL in the 2007 AFF Championships in Thailand but managed to participate in the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup in Iloilo and the 2008 AFF Championship qualifiers in Cambodia. So when he tore his ACL in 2011, he did not think he would get sidelined longer than he expected.
“I thought six months only, and I rushed it. I came back too fast,” he admitted.
He was gung ho to return quickly because “there was still a lot to prove for Filipino football to prosper out of it, like winning the UFL Cup with Kaya, winning the AFC Cup with Kaya. A few more years until I hang it up.”
Upon his immediate return, he felt that something wasn’t quite right, but he couldn’t figure it out at first. He asked all the doctors he knew in Manila, but it was when he went to Australia, upon the suggestion of his brother, when he discovered that it was still his ACL all this time.
Although this setback put his football career on hiatus, the road to recovery made him discover more about himself, rediscover what he wants in life, and uncover other opportunities. It’s like his version of Eat Pray Love. OK, not exactly a perfect example, but you get it.
“It definitely opened up my doors for other things like in terms of fitness and nutrition. I studied fitness and nutrition in Australia, and when I came back here, I invested in two businesses.”
Having worked at GNC in his mid-20s, health and wellness had already been deeply ingrained early on. His newfound knowledge complemented how to be a better footballer in terms of proper nutrition, which entailed changing his eating habits and lifestyle completely.
I’m really concerned about the food I put into my body. During my college days, I would eat In-N-Out [Burger] and all these kinds of junk before and after playing. I didn’t care. Now I’m really conscious of what I put in my body. When I was in Australia, it definitely magnified. Before, I was like, ‘OK, maybe I should eat this, or maybe I shouldn’t eat that.’ In the beginning, it was hard, but I love it. We’ve always been in the nutrition industry. When I was a kid, every time we would eat out, I would always look for the nearest fast-food restaurant. I wouldn’t eat the food at the restaurant. I’d go to McDonald’s or KFC on the corner and bring it to the restaurant. And then in the past few years, I’d get mad at my parents because they would be eating crap. It turned around. So funny!
With Aly reborn as the epitome of health and wellness, he also returns bearing nuggets of wisdom. Sometimes we need a not-so-gentle reminder that life is bigger than the game.
“I learned about life. I think that we should grasp every opportunity that is out there because they just come and go. It made me stronger as a person.”
Coming back after a long recovery from injury is an accomplishment in itself. Some people would contemplate totally giving up on the path to recovery because it can eat up your confidence and passion and, consequently, lead you elsewhere. It is a test of true courage and will, and fortunately, Aly, who personifies Kaya’s “Never say die” spirit, has been blessed with both.
He also revealed that his mother is one of the secrets behind his comeback.
My mom was pushing me until the end. Before she passed away, she was always telling me, ‘Go to Australia. Go do this. Focus on your recovery. Come back stronger. Come back and play.’ Even if I didn’t come back stronger as a player, I came back stronger as a person, and that’s something no one can take away from you. It’s funny how things unfold.
Instead of condemning or repressing his ordeal, Aly accepted everything that happened with an open mind and heart. He gained valuable lessons in the process—which made him a stronger and better person—and the unintentional football break became a teacher. It’s amazing how his experience also showed us that by walking your talk, you grow and turn into the person that others want to follow—the person you would actually follow.
What Aly experienced could be one of the many predicaments or forks in the road that we too might face one day, and here’s a piece of advice from the skipper:
“Look ahead, look further down the line, and ask yourself where you want to be. It’s all about perseverance. How bad you want it.”
The Great Comeback
In May 2014, Aly played his first game since his injury against Stallion, but a series of unfortunate footballing events plagued Kaya, from injuries (not his this time) to fortuitous incidents. We can’t deny the dips and lows that followed since his return, but at the same time, it has been a fulfilling and uplifting professional and personal experience for the team, especially for Aly, who finally won a trophy with Kaya after six years.
It’s amazing considering what I’ve been through in the past four years, with injuries and family issues. That’s why this one means a lot. This is the most significant one. I shed a few tears. I was telling the guys in the shoot-out during the semifinal and final that these are moments you take in for the rest of your life: ‘No one will take this away from you. Even if we lose today, you’re going to remember this moment. You know how many people want to be in your shoes right now? So just enjoy this and embrace it. Leave everything out on the pitch.’
In football, more often than not, there is no immunity to the emotional comedown during a loss or when the opposing team is leading, but players always surprise us by how they react, whether they rise to the occasion or go down with the ship.
The sport brings out the best and worst in people, and remarkably, we have seen the Kaya players demonstrate hunger, heart, professionalism, and passion even in the most heart-stopping and demanding situations. After all, no game is won until it’s all over.
The high-stakes game against Ceres-La Salle in the 2015 UFL Cup will be remembered as a classic example. The players showed great character, and the pressure kept them focused because they had worked so hard to get there. Aly felt similarly and wants to share a message with his teammates:
We wouldn’t have won the UFL Cup if we didn’t go through all those adversities because they built character in each individual on the team. These setbacks made each of us a better person on and off the pitch, whether they have a family, become a better father, or become a better individual. Everything we went through this season changed us. That’s why I stuck it out for football—for something like this. It all fell into place.
So what does Kaya need to do to win the league next year?
“Keep our core solid. Our system was kind of erratic throughout the season, going through all those coaching changes, but when Chris took over in the end, we were familiar with it.”
Now that Kaya has qualified for the AFC Cup play-off round, Aly is eagerly looking forward to continue making history with the team. Imagine, after playing for 16 years and counting at the club, he will now represent Kaya in the international arena.
“Yes, definitely [looking forward to the AFC Cup]! That’s the next milestone right there. It’s a personal goal and also for Kaya. Just to represent Kaya in an international competition is an achievement right there. From playing pickup football once a week at IS to competing to making the international level now. That’s, like, unreal.”
Learning from Example
The “Never say die” attitude is the standout Kaya hallmark, and it is perhaps the reason for the second-half comebacks that we’ve witnessed in some matches. Even when the odds are against the team, hunger, heart, and humility prevail, and it leads to a great comeback. More importantly, coming or fighting back is also a Kaya trademark, something instilled in the players and something we learn from Aly himself, who practically grew up at Kaya. He carries the spirit of Kaya even during his darkest moments, and under his captaincy, he has, by example, inspired the players to never throw in the towel, and his life story has done the same.
Phrases like “leading by example” and words like “perseverance” are used often, but through Aly’s journey, we learn that he has actually made these words relevant to everyday life. No matter what we are going through or will experience, we can think of how setbacks or failures are necessary and valuable parts of life. Sometimes we need ups and downs to remind us that we are breathing, living, and aspiring to be extraordinary. He has redefined professionalism and leadership with his comeback, and his commitment to the team is an example to everyone in football.
Sometimes when things are falling apart, they might actually be falling into place.
Bonus: Ask Aly
Whose career do you admire the most?
Francesco Totti. He’s kind of like me. He’s been with the same club, Roma, for how many years.
Who is the best center back you’ve seen play the game?
Fabio Cannavaro during the World Cup when they won. I was in Sydney when he came here, so I didn’t see him. I was so pissed. Paul and I are huge Italian fans.
If you were to describe the qualities of a great center back, what would those be?
Being able to read the game. Timing. Anticipation.
Do you have a special routine or superstition before you play a big game?
I have a lot. I always put my right shoe on first. Before I step onto the pitch, I always make sure I thank my mom for my being able to walk with my own two feet to play the game. Of course, praying. Hmm, what else …
Which one moment from your whole career gave you the most satisfaction?
Being able to step onto the pitch again after a long-term injury.
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned on your journey?
What is one thing that you enjoy while playing football?
Now the challenges since I’m the oldest guy on the team.
Best mates in football?
Anton and Eddie. We’re still best buddies.
If I gave you the chance to live the life of a football star for a day, who would it be and why?
Messi. Just to know what it feels like to be the most skillful player on the pitch in one training session—in the world!
Do you want be a coach?
I don’t think I have the patience for it. My mind is always going crazy. I can’t stay still for a few hours. I’m always on the go. I’m not the type who can sit all day and watch TV shows. I gotta be active, that’s for sure. Keeps you young too.
If you could change one rule in football, what would it be?
No more golden goal. Straight to PKs.
If you were to change one thing in your entire career, what would it be?
I really wouldn’t change anything. It’s what you work for that you get in the end. For me, it doesn’t matter if you scored goals or not but if you play your part, if you play your role. Like me, I lead by example. It’s all self-fulfilling for me.
Do you see yourself pursuing other more serious careers in the industry like match reporter/analyst or full-time recruiter?
Yes, that’s on the sidelines now. I still want to play for the next few years.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a football player?
Advantage: I get to play the sport I love for a living.
Disadvantage: It takes a toll on your body in the long run. And your career can just end like that.
Now that you’re back, you’ve won the UFL Cup, and you’ve qualified for the AFC Cup, how are you preparing yourself for next year?
By taking advantage of every second and every minute of the day. You’re accountable for that, and that’s what I believe in. That’s a process in life. It’s like vacation mode, but right away, it’s time to train and get better for next season. You have to be accountable for everything.
Do you have a backup plan if you ever decide to hang up your boots?
That’s why I took up nutrition and fitness. Still the whole fitness side, definitely. I have the Healthy House. We’re four owners. Gerard Sison is the CEO. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s perfect. It’s right up my alley. My role is on the nutrition side, like diets for athletes.
Away from football, what do you like to do? What are your hobbies?
I love to eat, go to the gym, go to the beach, and work out.
Name three things you wanted as a child but never got.
I can’t ask for anything more. I got everything I wanted when I was a kid. All I wanted to do was play, and my dad let my buy all the soccer gear I wanted. Everything I wanted, as long as it’s for sports, they gave it to me, so I really couldn’t ask for anything more.
How many commercials have you done? Which one is your favorite?
I have done three or four. I dunno. Datu Puti, Smart, Cortal … Cortal was good.
When you starred in the Datu Puti commercial, were you thrilled? How did you prepare for the shoot?
It was funny. We were eating chicken, and it was enjoyable.
Do you look back on your Bench billboard with pride or …
With pride because it helped grow the sport too. It’s also like Beckham doing it.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Robert Baggio from Italy in the ’90s. Defenders are not like before.
I used to enjoy watching the Premier League, but I don’t have a favorite team.
Working out and eating.
Any Given Sunday.
Artist, singer, or band?
Old-school hip-hop, like Tupac, Snoop, and Dre.
Jessica Alba—not actress but girl-next-door type.
Mario Kart for N64.
Finish the sentence! I spend my money on …
I play a bit like …
I want to meet …
I think there should be …
Lower income tax in this country. Tax in this country, generally.
Word to live by?
Describe yourself in five words.
“Go-getter,” “active,” “generous,” “kind,” and “hungry.”
If you could write a note to your younger self, what would you say in only three words?
Just do it.