Portuguese coach Manuel Goncalves Gomes sat heartbroken and stunned as he watched the images of the ravages of the tsunami played out on his television set just after Christmas.

Just weeks before, Gomes had returned home from the South East Asian region after a successful 15-month stint as the national coach of the Maldives, the tiny island archipelago that was one of the areas forcefully hit by the fearsome waves.

"I was shocked, very, very sad. When I saw the images on TV, I just cried," said Gomes, better known to the football community as 'Professor Neca'.

The Maldives, a chain of 1,200 idyllic islands straddling the equator with a population of 300,000, lay right in the path of the tsunami and the loss of life and devastation to the island nation has been unprecedented.

A total of 74 people lost their lives on the island, according to the latest count, and there has been widespread destruction to the infrastructure on all of the islands. Many survivors have lost everything.

"They are such fantastic people. They are so close to my heart. It was unbelievable," Gomes said.

"The tsunami has been terrible for everybody. Fields have been destroyed and some of the investment from FIFA and the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) affected as well," said the Portuguese coach.

Gomes says he has been on the telephone every day from his home in Portugal to the Football Association of the Maldives to check on the situation in the country and particularly the welfare of his players.

"Thankfully none of my players were injured or killed. I've been so relieved to hear this. But obviously everyone there is very sad because of what has happened. They have taken a heavy toll."

The 53-year-old Gomes had performed miracles with the unheralded nation in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers last year, elevating the footballing profile of the small island nation.

The Maldives, members of FIFA for just 13 years, had only previously competed in one FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign, where they suffered the ignominious feat of going down 17-0 to Iran and also losing by double figures to Syria.

But Gomes changed the mentality of the team and steered the Maldives to some remarkable results in the 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. First they hammered Mongolia 12-0 on aggregate in the preliminary round and then upset both South Korea and Vietnam in their group.

The 0-0 draw with the South Koreans cost the job of Gomes' counterpart, and compatriot, Humberto Coelho but the coach says the 3-0 win over Vietnam in October was an even better result. "They were 50 places above us on the FIFA rankings. It was a brilliant performance by my team."

The Maldives themselves have risen from 152 to 139 in the FIFA rankings over the last 18 months.

Gomes says footballers in the Maldives are a dream for any coach. "They have a strong mentality, they are always trying to improve themselves, they've got great skill and they are crazy about the game of football.

"One of them is coming to Portugal soon. He is going to one of the big clubs. I can guarantee you he is going to become a sensation," enthuses the coach.

"The football association has done much to improve the game with the help of FIFA's GOAL project and the AFC. They have worked really hard in the last years to really develop the game," Gomes adds.

Gomes is a former national coach of Angola, who he took to the 1998 African Nations Cup finals in Burkina Faso, and earlier in January signed a contract with Portuguese club Desportivo Aves.

But he says he intends returning to the Maldives sooner rather than later. "I have to go and help these fantastic people again. I appeal to the rest of the world to help them too."