Writers Jack Hands and Peter Hampshire pose with the Maldives national team
It was March 31st 2004, when Maldives created one of the biggest shocks in modern Asian football. They played South Korea, heroically forcing a scoreless draw against an opponent only two years fresh from their famous 2002 World Cup performance and still flying high. Then-Maldivian goalkeeper Imran Mohamed, now a seasoned veteran, told us: “it was the greatest moment of my life, I will never forget it. I made 15 saves that day and I helped make the whole country feel proud to be Maldivian.”
Fast-forward over a decade and the Maldives, whilst still competitive, have struggled to emulate this success. For most people, the Maldives conjures up an image of beautiful, warm, sun-kissed beaches. While this is partially true, nearly a third of the country’s sprawling 350,000-strong population lives in the relatively poor but bustling capital city of Malé.
“Many people see the Maldives as just a beautiful, luxury seaside resort,” says Velizar Popov, the counry’s promising young Bulgarian coach. “Malé is very different to people’s imaginations. The people here love football. When we play at home, 11,000 fans will come out and make the most incredible noise you will ever hear.
“In my footballing life, no sound matches the passion of the Maldives football fans when at home”.
We met the national side after getting lost in an Under-8s football tournament at the Paju National Football Center literally on the North Korean border. First to greet us on the training pitch was Popov the man who invited us. His team were enduring the final fitness session of their camp and some ball control drills before lunch and an afternoon shopping trip. The 39-year-old Popov was relaxed and openly spoke about his and his side’s’ ambitions. Having took the job in January, he appeared genuinely proud of managing a national team at such a young age. He told us that he has had job offers which pay much more, but wanted to choose the experience over money. He knows that some shock results in the Maldives upcoming games would be a great way to increase his profile.
As Popov returned to oversee the session he beckoned experienced goalkeeper Imran Mohammed and Akram Abdul Ghani over to chat with us. The pair both had knocks but hoped to be fit within a week.
Imran spoke of his highlights during his 16-year Maldives career: in addition to that historic 0-0 draw in Malé, something etched in the minds of both Korea and Maldives national fans, both for very different reasons, he recalled the 2008 South Asian Football Federation Cup (SAFF) win over the country’s biggest rival, India. The win over India and their vast resources was no small feat, and players returned as heroes.
“It is hard to underestimate how big this win was for our people,” says Akram. “We came back into Malé and we couldn’t see anything over than cheering fans. We couldn’t even hear ourselves talk. It was one of the best experiences of my life.”
Football runs at the centre of Maldivian culture and this passion is raw, with successful players such as talisman Ali Ashfaq being treated as demi-gods. Ashfaq, the current star of the Malaysian Super League, will be at the center of his country’s upcoming World Cup campaign. With 41 goals in 101 appearances and still only 29, Popov tells us he is “the greatest player [I have] ever coached. He could play in a top European club if he wanted to, no doubt.”
Despite Popov’s domineering aura there was a jovial atmosphere, and players who knew him from domestic league team New Radiant – where Popov broke more records than it seems worth mentioning – seemed particularly fond of their boss. Keeper Mohammed said he would play as long as Popov was there, to which the coach quipped that as long as he was there, Mohammed would not be allowed to retire.
Many of the group have part-time office jobs to supplement their income, and there were no inflated egos to be found. They also had a genuine buzz regarding the world-class facilities they were using. Such is the surreal nature of playing for the Maldives, where many players went from sitting in dusky offices in the heavily crowded capital city, to spending two weeks in some of the planet’s greatest football training facilities.
But the beautiful sunshine belies dark times for Maldives, which faces political instability with deep divisions amongst the populations. With former President Maumoon Gayoom’s 40-year reign having only recently ended, Maldivian society faces severe challenges, with internal divisions deeply impacting football.
“People don’t have time to watch football; They are busy fighting for the country’s political future,” Mohammed says. “The country is divided and now we only have hundreds turn up to watch our games. It is a very sad time for football in the Maldives.”
To make matters worse, the Maldives youth system, which has previously produced talent through mini-tournaments arranged on the vast array of different islands, is drying up. There are few players in the senior squad below the age of 23. More worryingly, the country has continued to slip down FIFA’s World rankings, dropping 38 spots to a lowest-ever 178th in June 2015.
It should be said that the country, with its relatively tiny population, has done extraordinarily well over the past decades to fight against the insurmountable odds it faces to compete in Asian football. Centralising talent is difficult across the sprawling group of islands, and basic football infrastructure often wastes talent that does emerge. Many young Maldivians move abroad to earn a living, and to make matters worse, the islands are so badly threatened by rising sea levels that the United Nations has warned that residents may need to leave by 2100.
Indeed, it is a miracle that the Maldives have competed so valiantly for so long at all. Rarely has the nation suffered severe drubbings, even against the continent’s strongest teams. It is, however, no surprise to Popov that the team punches above its weight.
“The players’ technical ability is absolutely superb,” he says. “Brilliant. These players and those who play on the street have more ability than most countries in Europe.
“[But ] they are hindered physically. Maldivians lack the physical conditioning needed to compete at the highest level. If they had that, we would be one of the very best teams.”
Maldives kick off their World Cup qualification campaign on Thursday against one of the two favorites from their five-team group, the rapidly improving Qatar. Answering how he would approach the game tactically, Popov realistically answered that they must recognize that teams like Qatar and China have better players, preparation and infrastructure.
He remained hopeful of getting something from their opener on June 11th, which will take place in a raucous Rasmee Dhandu Stadium in Malé with its 11,850 capacity. No team gets an easy game there, with its bobbly pitch and intimidating atmosphere. This could prove crucial to the island nation’s hopes, especially with two of their last three qualifiers taking place at home against Hong Kong and Bhutan.
Popov suggested that a shock result early on, plus points from this month’s fixtures including Hong Kong away, could raise interest in these qualifiers. The attention of the Maldivian public, he said, remains focused on the SAFF tournament this December.
As it happens, Hong Kong coach Kim Pan-Gon is currently under fire for selecting a squad from mostly abroad, to which the 46-year-old responded by saying: “If [Hong Kong’s domestic players] were good enough, we would not have to look outside.”
Popov expressed frustration that such a luxury was not an option for his adopted nation, reflecting another disadvantage the Maldives must contend with. But with the highly-competent manager at the helm, a fantastic team spirit, and a raw love of football, this tiny Indian Ocean nation may, not for the first time, surprise us all once again.
This feature was a contribution with Peter Hampshire, a Yorkshire native who writes for @KLeagueReport.