Pacific FC midfielder Matthew Baldisimo is being called up to the Philippines senior men's national team for three crucial 2022 World Cup qualifying matches, the club announced Thursday. The Philippines national team will be in Doha, Qatar for an 11-day training camp before heading to China to play China, Maldives, and Guam in qualifying matches that count for both the 2022 World Cup and the 2023 Asian Cup. If Baldisimo and the Philippines finish in first or second in their qualifying group they will advance to the third round of Asian Football Confederation (AFC) 2022 World Cup qualification and will qualify directly for the 2023 Asian Cup. Heading into these matches the Philippines sits in third in Group A; level on points with China in second but having played one more match. "It's been a long process because I was supposed to go to a camp a year ago but then COVID-19 happened," said Baldisimo. "So I was really looking forward to the next camp and then this one came up. Now I'm just really excited to meet all of the other players and see what kind of environment I'm getting myself into."

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Baldisimo, who played his youth career with Canada, qualifies for the Philippines through his parents and even though he's never been to the Philippines, he has a very strong connection to the country. "I have a lot of family there. My parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, they're all over there. I've never met a lot of them and I don't speak the language so I'm pretty 'Canadian-ized' in that sense, but growing up my parents would always be like 'there's a Filipino athlete there, that guy's Filipino' so I was always keeping an eye out for which guys coming up are Filipino. But I never thought that I would be the one to represent the Philippines with the men's team."

'It was a big decision, but then it also wasn't'

After representing Canada at the youth level, Baldisimo says the option to be capped by the Philippines at the senior level was an important decision but not necessarily a difficult one. "It was a big decision, but then it also wasn't, because I haven't been involved in the Canada program for a while. I honestly feel a big connection to the Philippines even though I don't speak the language and I've never been there. I just feel a big connection through my parents and the culture I grew up in. I have that little bit more pride to go and represent them." The process of joining up with the Philippines national team started as Baldisimo prepared for his second season with Pacific last year. "One of the representatives from the Philippines reached out to me right before The Island Games. And he was saying 'you've been on our radar, we want to get you into a camp' but he made it seem like he didn't want me to lose my Canada eligibility so he said 'maybe we'll get you into an under-23 camp". Then I got the call for this one and it was a men's camp and it was like 'this is the big leagues.'"

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Baldisimo knows he'll be an outsider heading into his first national team training camp because he has no prior experience with any of the other players, but does he feel any pressure because of that? Or because these matches will decide if the Philippines hopes of advancing to the next stage of World Cup qualifying? Absolutely not. "Honestly I don't feel any pressure, none of those guys know me so I'm just going to go in there and play my game. I'm just really excited to see what kind of level the other players bring in. I've never met any of them so I'm kind of the outsider. There's nothing I can lose, but everything I can gain. I've had to almost take on a leadership role (at Pacific) because I'm not one of the young players anymore. I'm a bit more mature than I have been in the past. So maybe that'll help me go into a men's team and be around those established pros. "First and foremost our biggest goal is to qualify for the Asian Cup and the World Cup. That's the first thing on my mind; we have to qualify, we have to win all our games. Just show the Filipino fans what this new team is about. We're looking at a new look for the Filipino national team and that he's bringing in a bunch of new players to try and change the culture of football in the Philippines." Even with the culture reset and the influx of new players, the opportunity to learn from established pros in a senior national team setup will only benefit the 23-year-old midfielder who has made 32 appearances for PFC over two seasons, largely in a defensive midfield role. "I think it's going to be a big eye-opener because I'm going into a new market over there that I've never seen before, and I don't think anyone on my team has seen before. So I'm just going to bring home a sense of different experiences when I come back. I hope I can share my experiences and share the mentality that the other players have at the camp. And just try to push my team, hopefully it's a championship year this year with Pacific."

Kah 'it means a lot' for Pacific to see Baldisimo hit international heights

Pacific FC head coach Pa-Modou Kah, who made 10 appearances for Norway at senior level, doesn't shy away from his admiration of Baldisimo: "He played young for Canada and now he comes to a crosspoint where he has to think about where he gets the possibility to play and it's a huge honour playing for your national team, it's the highest high." "For me, I'm always super excited for our players to represent their country," says Pacific FC head coach Pa-Modou Kah, "in this case it's even greater because Baldi and I have a history, and it's nice as a coach that your players get to represent their country. And also for us, as a club, it means a lot to have our players represent their country." Kah's advice for any young player joining up with their national team is simple but carries weight. "My advice is always to enjoy it. You can always get multiple call ups but the first one is special. That's what you play for, to represent your country," Kah said before adding Baldisimo's involvement in international football will be a boon for Pacific. "I think it will be huge because he'll play important games and get experience at the highest level; facing different countries, different gameplans. It's just going to help us. It will help him grow but also help us as a team when he comes back and uses that experience. The more players we have representing their country the better."

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