Football flourishing in Timor-Leste
Timor-Leste are among the newest member associations of FIFA
Football began in the country during Portuguese rule
Big progress has been made since their independence in 2002
Timor-Leste number among the newest additions to the global football fraternity, having become affiliated to FIFA as recently as 2005 - three years after the country became an independent nation. Nonetheless, this island nation boasts a long tradition of playing the beautiful game.
Football was introduced into Timor-Leste during the Portuguese colonial era, beginning first among the Portuguese officials before spreading to the locals. Football at amateur level flourished, and it didn't take long for the game to take root across the country and become the nation's No1 sport.
Indonesian occupation, and a long fight for independence, followed Portugal's withdrawal in the mid-1970s. But despite the changing political landscape, the people's passion for football remained unaltered.
The Timor-Leste Football Federation (FFTL) was founded the same year the country became independent and immediately set to work on organising a team to represent their fledgling nation. The following year, history was made when they debuted in qualifying for the 2004 AFC Asian Cup.
It was in these preliminaries for the continental finals that Timor-Leste came close to producing a stunning upset against Sri Lanka on 21 March, 2003. In what was their international bow, playing away in Colombo, the debutants showed took a surprise lead inside three minutes and were competitive throughout before being edged out by the odd goal in five.
Timor-Leste crashed out of the campaign following another 3-0 loss to Chinese Taipei. They went on to feature in their first regional campaign in the 2004 AFF Championship but again suffered an early exit with zero points.
Timor-Leste created another small slice of history when their National Stadium in Dili hosted the very first global qualifier on the road to Russia 2018.
With a population of a little over a million, spread over an area of 15,007 square kilometres, Timor-Leste have limited footballing resources at their disposal. But this has not prevented them dreaming big.
FFTL were all too aware on the need to focus on football's grassroots and, with support from FIFA and AFC, they began the process of promoting, the game, organising competitions and launching educational courses for coaches and referees of both genders
"Things are much better today," FFTL President Francisco Jeronimo told FIFA.com. "A series of competitions have been established across the country at different age levels - including competitions for women. In fact, football events have reached every municipality."
Goals set in FFTL Vision:
Establish grassroots and youth development programmes in all municipalities
Launch more local and national competitions in line with the FFTL strategic plan, including:
Youth boys and girls U-14 & U-16 competitions
Competitions for players from football centres and academies
Education courses for coaches
Futsal coaching courses
Goalkeeping courses & fitness and physical conditioning courses
Timor-Leste's first breakthrough on the field came in qualifying for the 2012 AFF Championship, when they registered their maiden victory - a thumping 5-1 opening defeat of Cambodia. Despite narrowly losing 2-1 to Myanmar, they went on to defeat Laos 3-1, with only a 2-1 loss to Brunei Darussalam costing them a qualifying spot.
They then lifted their first silverware by emerging as surprise winners of the seven-nation 2018 Hassanal Bolkiah Trophy. Timor-Leste opened brightly by edging hosts Brunei 1-0 and, despite losing 2-0 to Myanmar 2-0, they drew 1-1 against Thailand to reach the last four. Regional powerhouses Singapore were duly stunned in a 2-1 semi-final reverse before Henrique Cruz earned a place in national folklore by scoring the only goal of the final against Cambodia.
At domestic level, the Liga Futebol Amadora 1 (Amateur Football League 1) top flight was launched in 2015 and features eight sides. Another 12, meanwhile, compete in the second tier: the Liga Futebol Amadora 2.
“Football is the most popular sport in Timor-Leste in terms of attendance and participation,” added President Jeronimo. “You will find football played everywhere across our country, at every village and town. Before, the game may have been lacking in organisation. But now the FFTL are playing a key role in managing football's development across the country.”
This article is part of the 'Global Game' series, which focuses on football in remote places away from the spotlight. Next week we'll travel to Scotland's Outer Hebrides and the island of Eriskay.