MARK GLEESON ,is a freelance journalist in South Africa.
The idyllic islands of the Seychelles enjoy a reputation for pristine beaches, crystal-clear waters and warm weather - but as far as football is concerned the country is something of a backwater.
Its isolation in the Indian Ocean and its small population (around 80 000) make it difficult for the Seychelles to be competitive on the world stage. Over the last ten years, the islanders have played only some 15 'A' international matches and won just once - in 1998 at home against Mauritius (4-3).
The country has only been a FIFA member since 1986 and in April played for the first time in the World Cup qualifiers, losing 1-4 on aggregate to Namibia in the preliminary round of the African qualifiers. Their ranking in the 190s reflects the lack of activity and lack of success. But there are ambitious plans to give the country a better profile, starting with the employment of a Yugoslav coach and their entry for the first time into the World Cup and the African Nations Cup qualifiers simultaneously.
Montenegran-born Vojo Gardesevic made a big impression in African soccer when he was coach of Kenya, who upset Algeria in the preliminary round of the qualifiers for the 1998 World Cup finals in France. Gardesevic, 53, was lured to the Seychelles at the end of his spell in Nairobi and given initially a one-year contract, later extended to three. "It might seem a bit off the map but I had a good feeling about the country and their plans," says Gardesevic. "They love football madly in the Seychelles and there is an energetic president at the head of the football association with high aspirations."
The passion is there
That president is Suketu Patel, who also serves on the finance committee of the Confederation of African Football, and was the driving force behind the Seychelles initiative to host the African under-17 championship next February. The tournament is the island's first opportunity to host such an event and will allow an exposure which the country's footballers have never had before. "Just the enthusiasm of the people, the full stadiums will carry the event," says Gardesevic. Government support is now also a reality for the association, which the coach says promises "big progress".
The arrival of World Cup action on the island in April saw the 7000-seater Stade Poplier in Victoria packed for the match with Namibia, which ended 1-1. The islanders put up a stoic fight in the return leg in Windhoek, twice hitting Namibia's crossbar before running out of steam and losing 0-3.
The African Nations Cup qualifiers, for the 2002 finals in Mali, saw Seychelles drawn against Zimbabwe. They have participated in two previous Nations Cup qualifying campaigns without getting past the preliminary round but again hoped to make an impression. The results were not what the players from the Seychelles expected - they lost in Zimbabwe 0-5 and at home 0-1.
In the future, the Seychelloise hope that regular competition will someday produce an upset that will ignite the African soccer scene. "Why not?" asks Gardisevic. "If we play from the first minute to the last we could do something. The passion is there."