The Maldives national team was narrowly beaten by India in the SAFF Cup Final following a nail-biting 3-1 penalty showdown.
The streets of Male were deserted as the match began, with locals cramming teashops and restaurants. Those left on the streets gathered around TVs on street corners brought out by residents, or went to the main action at Lonuziyaaraikolhu where a large screen had been set up under the stars.
India was kept on the defensive throughout the match and during extra time, holding the score at 0-0 despite numerous close calls and several injured players. Indian goalkeeper Arindam Bhattacharya weathered a brutal onslaught in the final minutes of the second half as the Maldivians ran rings around the bedraggled Indian defenders. But despite the perpetual pressure the team just couldn’t get the ball past Bhattacharya, who must have felt like he was playing a particularly vindictive game of Dodge Ball.
Tension mounted during the TVM broadcast’s pause for prayer in the first half of extra time, but nothing was scored during the break sparking a nervous sigh of relief from some in the crowd.
The audience was on their feet by the time of the penalty shoot-out, excited and nervous in equal measure. Jibon Singh’s opening goal was returned by Fazeel Ibrahim, but Thoriq missed in the second round while India’s Denzil Franco hit the back of the net. Both Nirmal Chettri and Mukhuthar missed in the third, but Subodh Kumar scored in the fourth and Ali Ashfag failed to make up the point, giving the match to India by the narrowest of possible margins.
Disheartened, the crowd gathered in Lonuziyaaraikolhu quickly melted away leaving nearby stallholders equally dispirited.
The few Indians in the crowd cautiously celebrated. “Do you still love my country?” one Maldivian teenager asked a group of spectating foreigners, worriedly, while a convoy of red-decked motorbikes set off to lap Boduthakurufaanu Magu, honking their horns somewhat half-heartedly.
It was a saddening picture compared to the uproarious celebrations that could have been triggered by a mere gust of wind during the Maldivians’ many attempts in the closing moments to creep the ball past the line. But in the end, India’s ironclad goal defence – and more than a little luck – saw them scrape through to their third SAFF victory in four years.