Maldives is Asia’s smallest country in terms of both population and area and, at an average of fewer than five feet above sea level, the lowest nation in the world. Yet there were towering celebrations on its several islands when they stunned comparative colossuses India to win the South Asian Football Federation Championship in 2008 – so much so that the euphoric then president declared that 15 July to be a national holiday.
It was the first silverware Maldives had ever won, and their progress continued thereafter. The Red Snappers reached the SAFF Championship decider again in 2009, only to lose out to India on penalties, before qualifying for their maiden AFC Challenge Cup earlier this year, when they bowed out in the first phase after finishing third in the four-team Group A behind Turkmenistan and Palestine.
Maldives’ recent success has been rewarded with a steady rise up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Sitting 165th in June, they jumped one spot the following month before hitting 162nd in the latest edition of the global ladder. And while that may be some way short of their personal best – 126th in July 2006 – it does represent Maldives’ best position since the 160th they occupied 13 months ago.
The FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking rise came as a timely boost for Maldives as they entered the ongoing Nehru Cup aiming to make an impact. Under Hungarian Istvan Urbanyi, who was given back the national team reins last October, they got their campaign off to a flying start with a 2-1 defeat of Nepal last Thursday. And although they conceded three unanswered goals against hosts India two days later, Maldives rebounded in style with a 2-1 defeat of Syria, before a 3-1 loss to Cameroon on Wednesday.
"Our players have worked very hard," said Urbanyi after the latter victory. "We have brought many new players here, so I am happy we won with a new team. We had Ramadan and the players were busy with their club duties, so their fitness levels were not ideal. However, we overcame the difficulties to win the match."
The Man of Steel shoulders the burden
Spearheading the transitional side is captain Ali Ashfaq, the New Radiant marksman who is affectionately nicknamed ‘Dhagandey’ (Man of Steel) by his fans. Since breaking into the national team back in 2004, the 26-year-old has dazzled with his dribbling and uncanny scent for goals.
Ashfaq, who has been consistently prolific at club level, was instrumental in Maldives' triumphant SAFF Championship campaign four years ago. Although he failed to find the net, he excelled throughout, providing the assist for the match-winner against Sri Lanka in the semi-final and setting up Mukhthar Naseer for the only goal in the final.
Ashfaq has lived up to expectations so far in the Nehru Cup, having a hand in both of Maldives' goals against Nepal in the opener, before scoring one and creating the other as his country upset Syria.
While this form may have impressed those who haven’t seen more of Ashfaq, Urbanyi nevertheless believes his talisman’s best is yet to come.
"Ashfaq is our key player, but he was obviously not in his best shape," said the Maldives coach. "Had he been 100 per cent fit, he would have scored at least two or three more goals.”