The tiny Indian Ocean nation of Maldives may be more famous as an idyllic getaway than a footballing powerhouse. However, in recent times football has been taking an increasing hold in the archipelago. Maldives soared nine places to 149 in May's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking courtesy of some inspiring performances in April's qualifying for the 2010 AFC Challenge Cup.
Although not the highest position reached in the global pecking order, [they hit 126 in July 2006] it is undoubtedly a remarkable achievement for a tiny nation where registered players number just a few thousand.
The country's current placing also indicative of steady improvement over the last decade, marking an improvement of 34 places above their lowest ebb in August 1997 when they languished at 183. Making for even more impressive reading is the fact that Maldives have leapfrogged the likes of Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan to rank 25 amongst the AFC's 46 nations.
The Maldives stunned many onlookers last year when they defeated India by a solitary goal in the final to lift the 2008 South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship trophy. Boosted by the unprecedented success, the islanders looked to transform their regional triumph onto the continental stage when they played hosts to the recent AFC Challenge Cup qualifying campaign.
Their ambitions, however, were dealt a serious blow when they suffered an opening 3-1 defeat to Turkmenistan. Under Hungarian mentor Istvan Urbanyi, Maldives bounced back to overcome Philippines 3-2 in the second game before firing five unanswered goals against Bhutan to round off their campaign in style.
Despite the two late victories, their opening loss to Turkmenistan proved fatal with the Central Asians progressing to the continental finals at the expense of the host nation. Of greater disappointment though was conceding the runners-up berth to Bangladesh, who narrowly advanced to the by virtue of superior goal difference.
Fazeel the talisman
While the Maldives had again failed to secure a maiden appearance on the continental stage their fans were there were a number of positives. Aside from the hosts side's excellent display, striker Ibrahim Fazeel displayed an eye for goal by netting four times to top the team's scoring chart.
The 28-year-old opened his account against Turkmenistan, pulling one back for the hosts after they were two goals down, only to see the strongly-favoured visitors coasting to an opening win. The Victory SC marksman was on target again in their defeat of the Philippines before completing a brace in their demolition of Bhutan. The other stand-out was captain Ali Ashfaq, who grabbed three goals in as many games as Fazeel's attacking partner.
In the centre of the park, midfielder Mukhthar Naseer, who scored the title-winning goal against India in last year's SAFF Championship final, further enhanced his reputation as a scorer of crucial goals by grabbing the winner against the Philippines.
With a steady increase in both talent and performance, the Maldives are proving more than just an irritation, a point borne out in their qualifying campaign for the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ when they held Korea Republic to a surprise goalless draw. Despite their near-miss in their AFC Challenge Cup bid, it seems that they are set to continue to progress and break new ground in the coming months and years.