Vol. 5 Num 550 Tue. December 13, 2005  

SAFF Championship
Pakistan 2005

Payback time for the Maldives

It was not long ago when Maldives were dubbed as favourite punch-bags in international football. The records of the tiny island nation against Bangladesh both in club and national levels were also no exception.

When the two national sides met for the first time in 1984 in the Kathmandu SAF Games, Bangladesh won 5-0. A year later in Dhaka, the situation was even worse with the Indian Ocean islanders going 8-0 down to the hosts.

But for a nation that holds the ignominy of conceding 59 goals in six games during the 1998 World Cup qualifiers, things started to change after the 2003 SAFF Championship and their results in the international arena have been commendable, if not magnificent.

Undaunted by their 5-1 loss to India in the final of the inaugural SAFF Championship in Kath-mandu in 1997, they finished runners-up again in 2003, playing a lively brand of attacking football under the guidance of former Slovakian coach Jozef Jankech. This time, they were beaten on penalties after an absorbing goalless 120 minutes.

Although they have no silverware to preserve in their showcase, Maldives made the continent stand up and take notice when they held World Cup semifinalists South Korea to a goalless draw at home in the 2006 World Cup qualifying rounds.

The whipping boys of the 80s and 90s have now risen to the ranks of favourites among the SAARC football nations into the new millennium. With club side New Radiant reaching the AFC Cup semifinals in 2005, their club football is also on the up, a fact which must augur well for the national side as they eye a better result in the ongoing Fourth SAFF Championship in Pakistan.

Maldives' 6-0 defeat of Bhutan in 2003 was a championship record until they broke it themselves with a 9-1 demolition of Afghanistan in the opener here six days ago. After a 2-0 win against Sri Lanka, all they needed against the home side in the group decider was a draw to emerge group winners and they did it with ease.

Maldives rely mostly on their attacking trio of Ali Ashfaq and Ahmed Thariq of New Radiant and Valencia veteran Umar Ali.

Inspired by the success of Radiant coach Iordan Ivanov Stoikov, the football federation reappointed the Bulgarian as national coach last November. Stoikov first joined the national team in 1999 but lost his job after one year. Having spent another year as a youth coach at Bangladesh Krira Shikkha Protishthan, he returned home but did not think twice before accepting the invitation of Radiant two years back.

"Because of the government policy to improve sports, they have invested a lot of money in football. Maldives has set up a youth development programme under the guidance of Lim, a former deputy technical director of AFC," told Stoikov, who has played more than 300 matches for Lokomotiv Sofia.

"They work very hard and our best players are product of this programme. The clubs also invite foreign players and foreign coaches for development purpose.

"The problem in South Asia is lack of investment in club football. The youth programmes are also not working much. These are the basics. At BKSP, I saw attempts to develop youth football under government assistance but they are not enough.

"We have some gifted players and a lot of foreign teams are chasing Ashfaq. Even Benfica (of Portugal) were ready to pay him but at the last moment he refused that," added Stoikov, who was highly hopeful of taking the SAFF Championship trophy home this time.

"All the four semifinalists are playing good and capable of winning the tournament. But don't be surprised if you see us stand on the podium."