Maldives in safe Argentine hands
17-0 is a scoreline one rarely associates with a football game, let alone a FIFA World Cup™ qualifier. However, such a defeat - a then-record FIFA World Cup scoreline - was inflicted upon Maldives by Iran in a qualifying match for France 1998. To compound the agony, the south-Asian islanders went on to concede another nine unanswered goals in the return leg.
While Maldives would undoubtedly prefer to forget that part of their history, it does provide an opportunity for the Red Snappers to reflect on how much progression they have made in recent years. Indeed, such improvement was demonstrated by the draw for Asia’s first and second round qualifying matches for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, which ranked Maldives 26 of the AFC’s 46 Member Associations.
Current coach Andres Cruciani stated unequivocally in a recent interview with FIFA.com, that history will not repeat itself, despite the nuances of the draw pitting the pair together once again in Round 2 of Asian qualifying for Brazil 2014 on 23 and 28 July. "To be honest I was not happy when I learned that we have to face Iran in our first qualifying game," said the 48-year-old Argentinian, who took over the team early this year. "Because everyone knows Iran's potential and that they are much stronger than my side. However we are not daunted by the task and our target is to play as best as we can and achieve satisfying results."
Cruciani's confidence is not without basis given the steady progress Maldives have made over the past decade. The tiny Indian Ocean nation, located hundreds of kilometres south of India, showed marked improvement in their qualifying bid for Korea/Japan 2002, allowing eventual qualifiers China PR to escape the capital Male with just a solitary-goal victory. But it was four years later that they caused one of Asia's biggest qualifying upsets in holding 2002 FIFA World Cup semi-finalists Korea Republic to a goalless draw at home.
Allied with their incremental improvement in the continental arena was Maldives emergence as a regional power. They won their maiden SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) Championship with a 1-0 final defeat of India in 2008, before finishing runners-up the following year. It is these achievements on which Cruciani is seeking to build upon for the enormous challenge that is a two-legged encounter against one of Asia’s elite.
"We will strive hard to not only reduce their chances, but also to try to win the game should there be any chance for us. In one word, I believe in my players and I am sure they are capable of performing excellently when it matters," said Cruciani.
Boasting dream-like coastal vistas, the Maldive archipelago is amongst the world's most idyllic holiday destinations. While they may not have yet produced the kind of convincing football results which match the setting, the nation’s populace are not lacking in passion for the beautiful game. It is a fact which proved a key detail in Cruciani's decision to accept the coaching job in one of world footballs more remote locations.
"Unlike many other south Asian nations, football is definitely the number one sport in Maldives, so that is why I jumped at the chance when the offer came," said the former Bangladesh boss. "Also I saw how well Maldives performed during my time with Bangladesh and I wanted very much to achieve success with them."
It didn’t take long for Cruciani to mark his mark, guiding the team through April's qualifying for the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup, which secured the nation’s first-ever place at a continental finals. Maldives opened their qualifying tilt in positive fashion with a 4-0 demolition of Cambodia and, after seeing off Kyrgyzstan 2-1, they progressed as group winners thanks to a goalless draw against Tajikistan.
"I was surprised how well they did during those matches, because we had been given little time to prepare,” stated Cruciani. “The players played with big hearts and they showed their skill and commitment. From their performances I see a team with a great deal of potential."
In particular Cruciani heaped praise on the team’s striking duo of skipper Ali Ashfaq and Ashadh Ali. The former netted a hat-trick against Cambodia, while the latter opened the scoring against Kyrgyzstan. He said: "Ashfaq is the best player in Maldives. He is able to break the rival's defense and score the match-winner. Ashadh also has a great future and his top quality is his fighting spirit."
Blessed with such promising stars, it is no surprise that Cruciani is adamant that he can take the team to a new level. "The FA recruited me to win games and I have the same goal of achieving success. I hope I can take the country to it’s best-ever place in the football world and also to build a new team for the future.”