The highlight of last night’s Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Cup match between the Maldives and Kyrgyztan was not the Maldives’ win by two goals, but a selfie between former Presidents Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Mohamed Nasheed.
The picture of the rivals went viral within minutes and spurred intense social media debates on nationalism, unity and transitional justice.
Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has accused Gayoom of torture during his 30 year reign and of ousting Nasheed on February 7, 2012 in a coup.
Meanwhile, Gayoom’s Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) accused Nasheed and the MDP of attempting to destroy Islam and sovereignty during November’s presidential elections. Despite vitriolic accusations, the two presidents sat side by side last night and, accompanied by President Abdulla Yameen, reportedly only discussed sports and unity.
Gayoom has titled the selfie ‘Maldives United’ while Nasheed reportedly said the picture was “very nice.”
All of us together to support our national team! It was a joy to watch our team playing so well! pic.twitter.com/pQpTpdJINI
— Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (@maumoonagayoom) May 21, 2014
The social media response was largely positive from across the political spectrum, with Mohamed Azmee Moosa commenting: “Former presidents being alive and living with us is a new thing for Maldivians. The country is going forward slowly.”
The first President of the Maldives, Mohamed Ameen Didi was lynched by a mob after he was ousted in 1954 and the second president Ibrahim Nasir left Maldives to live in exile in 1978.
“If it is this much, we should plead to hold a tournament like this in Maldives every three months,” Shafy tweeted.
While many MDP supporters praised Nasheed for his appearance with Gayoom, others expressed a sense of betrayal claiming the nationalism propagated by the picture appeared to dismiss the real issues of police brutality and reversal of judicial reform in the aftermath of Nasheed’s ouster.
As for President Nashyd & Maumoon’s selfie, that was a display of unity & it especially defines the character of the former. Respect. — Summer Nashyd (@SummerNashyd) May 21, 2014
Feb 7th is gone. Nasheed just left office on his own accord. There was no coup. There was no threats to his life. It’s unity time. — NzRv (@NzRv) May 21, 2014
The fact that President Yameen has recently expressed that an intended outcome of hosting the football tournament in Maldives was “to forget the past and for friendly relations and unity” seems to have strengthened this perception.
“The video of [police] beating up [people] like wild animals on 8 February are still there. After giving promotions to the perpetrators of these crimes they are talking about nationalism.” Said Mujoo.
“I don’t want to revive nationalism after bringing about a coup and fornicating judges [in the judiciary]” He said in another tweet.
Gaumiyyath; such a beautiful word. Not when applied to turning a blind eye to the country’s situation & showing adulation to a football team — SighPad Mohamed™ (@sipadmohd) May 21, 2014
Where could this negative reaction towards supporting a national team possibly come from? Some commenters have highlighted the use of national slogans to divide and incite hatred in society in the lead up to the alleged coup d’état on February 7.
so much hate probably because gaumee flags (same as gaumee team’s) was used to bring a bagaavaai?
— shahee ilyas (@projectionist) May 19, 2014
Others highlighted the state’s excessive spending on the AFC Challenge Cup and President Yameen’s pledge to present MVR1 million to the national team if they won the cup.
The Anti Corruption Commission has since announced it is investigating corruption allegations against the Football Association of Maldives (FAM) with connections to the AFC Challenge cup.
“I have no issues with the team, I also want our national team to win. But how they are doing things is my issue. They are wasting public money while there are other issues which needs to be addressed now, a lot things that we can spend money on including other sports,” said Ahmed Fauzan.
Others said they believe last night’s unity would only be temporary, highlighting the numerous social issues that continue to grip Maldivian society.
“I don’t think football can really unite us with all that is going on here. Cost of living is increasing, there are these issues with our judiciary,” noted Fathmath Sidhana.
“Perhaps it is in President Nasheed’s character to forgive, forget and move on. But I don’t think it will work now after the coup and all this. So they took a selfie together, and everything is supposed to be okay now?” she asked.
Commenters also called on Maldivians to direct the enthusiasm they have for football towards social issues.
Dhivehin boalhayah mihunna kanu foari Qawmy kanthah thakah huri dhuvahakun mi Qawm hama magah elhidhaa hutteve. Pathetic lot.
— Aimi ♥s Anni (@AimiAngel) May 21, 2014
The discussion then spiralled into questions about what nationalism and unity means and why it is important for Maldivians.
@SampAbdul temporary tolerance isnt unity
— Kafa kokko (@SuckerPunch199) May 21, 2014
— kuhthaa (@kuhthaa) May 21, 2014
@moyameehaa Unity is nothing without justice and equality.
— Noosh (@NooshinWaheed) May 21, 2014
For Evan Amir, this unity brought about by football is good enough though he knows it is temporary.
“This whole thing has been politicised by some and we all know that, but all I am saying is that when the team start playing let us all be with the team.”
“It is a fact that sports unite people, and here in Maldives the most popular sport is football. Football is uniting us now. So regardless of whatever would happen after that, please don’t ruin it. Let’s not politicise the game,” said Evan, a football fan and supporter of President Nasheed.
Secretary General of the Maldives Olympic Committee and former football star Ahmed Marzooq also said unity and peace can be achieved through sports.
“The only thing which could make rivals to sit together and take selfies is football” , he tweeted.
Speaking to Minivan News today, Marzooq said: “It was a very good thing, and I am glad that FAM invited the three presidents. Sports is the most important tool for uniting and building patriotism is sports.”
“History has proven this, that unity and peace can be achieved through sports, and it should be utilised for that. We can all see that it is working here as well. I just think we should have focused on this even earlier during the promotion of the games, we should have used former players and spread the message of unity beginning at that stage.”
When captain Ali Ashfaq, nicknamed ‘Dhagandey’ [man of steel], saluted the three presidents on scoring a goal, many wondered which of the three president he had intended the salute for?
PPM supporters claimed the salute was in honor of President Yameen’s 55th birthday, but MDP supporters said it was for Nasheed as he was the chief guest at last night’s match. The dispute was only resolved when Ashfaq, on his official facebook page – liked by nearly 41600 fans – said that it was meant for all three presidents and that he looked forward for the support from everyone in the next game as well.
— Shixlene (@shixlene) May 21, 2014
With all their reservations and criticism, there was one thing everyone agreed on – they are all with the national football team. Many believed the love for football and the national team will provide some level of healing even if it is does not cure the nation completely.
The explosion of unity and patriotism associated with football may be short -lived, but it is undoubtedly real and it could help patch up the nation’s political divide.