Something was not quite right in paradise. The sun was still beaming, palm trees bent in the breeze and the blue of sea and sky blended into one on the horizon. But pineapple juice orders arrived unusually late, smiling faces betrayed anxiety and the odd fast-pedalling cyclist was the only sign of life in the capital Male. Suddenly a giant roar broke the islands’ peaceful calm. Ali Umar had equalised for the Maldives, the Final of the SAFF Championship in Bangladesh was going to penalties…

Interview with MFF General Secretary Ibrahim Ismail
Players' comments on artificial pitch

It was not to be a fairytale ending though as hosts Bangladesh finally prevailed 5-3 in the penalty shoot-out. However the team’s feats throughout January’s tournament (including a competition-record 6-0 win against Bhutan and a semi-final victory against Pakistan) will live long in the memory of the 320,000 inhabitants of the nation of more than 1,000 islands. Sixteen years after the Maldives joined FIFA and six years after losing 17-0 to Iran – which was at the time the worst defeat in FIFA World Cup™ history –, the Maldives' side were welcomed back home as heroes. More than anything, the broad smiles that weathered the pouring rain to greet the players on their return told a tale of a pride restored.

A great festival
“There was a huge crowd of people when the team arrived at the airport and in Male,” recounted the Maldives’ FA General Secretary Ibrahim Ismail. “It was fantastic. There were men, women, elderly folks, school children and even people from other countries. In Male, they were in trucks, there were cars with banners - it was like a great festival for our people. It had rained so much that day, the islands were virtually under water but nobody felt it because they were so happy.”

Interview with MFF General Secretary Ibrahim Ismail

More accolades were thrown in the Maldives’ direction with Slovakian coach Jozef Jankech scooping January’s AFC Coach of the Month honours as much for his team’s entertaining, slick-passing game as for their runners-up finish at the championship.

The popularity of football since it was introduced to the archipelago just over 30 years ago has never been in question. Despite its location, southeast of Sri Lanka in the cricket heartland of South Asia, and the fact that its tiny islands are not much bigger than regulation-sized football pitches, the beautiful game is unquestionably the number one sport.

A scene of perfect beauty
hile the eye visualises a scene of perfect beauty, shouts and cries from beach football matches compete with the occasional chant of Muslim prayers to break the otherwise peaceful calm.

Accessibility has always been the major restraint to development. Small tufts of hardened grass around the penalty spots of otherwise coral pitches reveal attempts to grow football’s natural surface. But the 1.5m sea level, salt-resistant grass and beating sun have ensured that all previous efforts have been in vain.

If that was not bad enough, simply playing football in the Maldives has often been a source of fun because of the size of its islands. The usual joke revolves around being careful when taking a shot because if the player misses, he will have to jump into the sea to fetch the ball back.

Even today, the Maldives can only boast of two natural grass pitches, further underlining their staggering success in Bangladesh. However, help to overcome these geographic and climatic constraints arrived last year by way of FIFA’s Goal programme. Football’s world governing body had an available slot in its programme because Lebanon were unable to secure land for a project in 2001.

A psychological change
Instrumental in the process was FIFA’s Deputy General Secretary Jérôme Champagne, who saw the Maldives’ potential while holidaying in the Indian Ocean islands in March 2001. Since then, there has been a marked improvement in the performances of the national team, rounded off by the second-place finish at the SAFF Championship 2003. In February, the Maldives jumped seven places in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking to 144 - a statistic that underscores the impact the Goal programme has already had.

“It’s a beautiful success story,” says Jérôme Champagne. “You cannot link the construction of the artificial turf pitch to their change in fortunes, but you can say that there has been a psychological change towards the game and winning. Suddenly they feel that FIFA is behind them and it has given them added motivation.”

Lebanon’s loss was the Maldives’ gain. With the full support of the Government and the national football association, legal issues were quickly ironed out and work was able to commence almost immediately. In March 2002, construction began on an artificial turf pitch equipped with a special drainage system to make sure no water would rise to the surface. The ground in Male was completed in the summer and a second project, a building for the association’s headquarters, is due to be completed this summer. The intention was for the pitch to be used as a training field for the national team, but such has been the demand that school children are often seen training alongside their heroes. The more elderly of the capital’s population, dressed in traditional Muslim garb, appear to have adopted the artificial field as a meeting place, and are often seen shaking their heads on returning each day to find the green surface still in place.

Players' comments on artificial pitch

Boat-hopping referees
The nation’s Goal project has attempted to include as many of the country’s islands as possible in the development work. Referees and coaches have been encouraged to boat hop and sometimes helicopter between islands to teach and educate. As with all projects, the emphasis has also been on youth. International youth development expert Victor Stanculescu was brought in to help improve the skills and technique of younger players and to provide a structure for future development.

Mr. Ismail says two thousand children are currently involved in programmes taking place in Male and four other areas.

Youth development is our priority,” he states. “Victor, who left us in June last year, was involved in planning and running the coaching courses. We hope that our national team will prove to be stronger, and we look forward to even better results.”

Football is now blossoming in the country’s inhabited atolls. Among the population of 320,000, there are 2,000 registered footballers and more than 100 teams. Players and coaches, recruited from around the world, receive a competitive wage from clubs in the three-division semi-professional league - the envy of the region. Each island fields its own team and as well as an FA Cup and youth tournament, the finalists of the inter-island championship play off at the national stadium in Male, a grass pitch hemmed in by English-style close-to-the-action stands.

The next step for the Maldives is to host regular international tournaments and if everything goes according to plan, the paradise islands could soon be attracting another type of tourist.