Located in the Indian Ocean, the Republic of the Maldives is Asia’s smallest island nation as well as being the world’s lowest-lying, given its territories average just 1.5 metres above sea level. Its 1190 islands, of which 203 are inhabited, are grouped into a total of 26 atolls.
Around 110,000 people live in the capital Male, which represents a third of the total population. In historical terms, the nation’s main economic activity used to be fishing, but tourism overtook this industry many years ago. And, in an area where idyllic scenery abounds, sport also has a part to play.
“Which is our most popular sport? Football of course! It’s our No1 sport, without a doubt,” said a smiling Ilham Ahmed, President of the Football Association of Maldives (FAM), when speaking to FIFA.com after a meeting with FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter at the Home of FIFA in Zurich.
Development is pivotal
During his conversation with Blatter, Ahmed highlighted an area that has been central to FAM’s efforts since he stepped into his current role in January. “Development, of course,” he said. “With the future in mind, we think that grassroots football and talent scouting are key, because that’s the only way we can boost our national sides and help the game grow. However, in a country’s that’s as geographically spread-out as ours, there are a host of obstacles.
“This [geographical] spread is a real challenge, not just due to the distances that need to be covered, but also due to infrastructural issues,” continued Ahmed in more detail. “For example, there’s no comparison between the transport and communications networks on the atolls with the ones in the capital – which is where our Centre of Excellence is. That’s where the idea of developing centres in each region came from. That way we can pick up talented players [in their local areas], prepare them and then, yes, bring them to Male.”
There are currently three projects funded by the FIFA Goal Programme in the Maldives. These are: a renovated artificial playing surface on the island of Addu; a new artificial pitch in Male and four futsal courts on the islands of Eydafushi, Thodhoo, Thinadhoo and Fuahmulah.
“Everything that we’ve put in place or are going to put in place is in line with FIFA and the AFC, since without their help it would be very difficult to bring any idea to fruition,” said Ahmed. It is also worth clarifying that part of the money the Maldives received to invest in the game came from the FIFA/AFC Tsunami Solidarity Fund, due to the 2004 natural disaster that left virtually the entire nation under water.
Only through competition can a nation really assess the standard of its play, and it is for this very reason that, according to Ahmed, FAM intend to organise a variety of youth tournaments – including events at Under-9, U-11, U-13, U-16, U-19 and U-21 level. “What’s more, we’ve got everything ready to restart the Atolls League at the end of May, which has been at a standstill for the past two years,” added a clearly pleased Ahmed.
The FAM head man was also optimistic thanks to the support his organisation has received from Mohammed Waheed Hassan, President of the Republic of the Maldives since 2012. “He’d barely taken up his post when he got in touch with us and said we could count on his support, as he wanted to see Maldives crowned regional champions once more,” said Ahmed, referring to the South Asian Football Federation Championship (SAFF).
Maldives have won the competition only once to date, in 2008, but were finalists in 2009 and semi-finalists in 2011. This year’s edition will take place in September in Nepal.
Meanwhile, Ahmed believes encouragement can be drawn from some of the other recent results achieved on the Maldives football scene, such as the U-21s winning an international tournament in Sri Lanka and the displays of club side New Radiant. The latter are performing admirably in the AFC Cup, having just qualified from the group phase for the first time since reaching the last four in 2005.
“There’s no doubt these are achievements that deserve special mention. It’s results like these that encourage us to keep working hard,” said Ahmed, who signed off with a message of thanks to the governing body of world football. “Blatter promised us that both he and FIFA will be at our side, helping us to develop football in the Maldives, and for countries like ours that support is vital. For that, we give him our thanks and promise to play our part too.”