Maldives to kick off SAFF championship

The Maldives national football team will kick off its South Asian Football Federation Championship (SAFF) campaign against Sri Lanka tonight.

Despite the resignation of the Team Manager Ibrahim Amir after a dispute over player discipline during the team’s pre-tournament trip to Thailand, officials are confident that all adversities can become overcome.

“I believe it’s a loss to the team if we lose anyone close to the team,” said Assistant Secretary General of the Football Association of Maldives (FAM), Mohamed Nasir.

“However, the team is very determined to win despite the situation,” he added.

Amir left the team after disagreements with the FAM over the inclusion of two players in the squad. Nasir recommended the suspension of Ismail Easa and Hassan Adham after the pair returned late to the team hotel, but was overruled by the FAM who argued it was too late to replace the two important players.

Team captain and all-time leading goalscorer Ali Ashfaq told media today that he felt preparations for this tournament had been better than ever before.

“We came here to win the tournament and be with us as the 12th player. Insha Allah we will win the tournament this time, so be with us.” said Ashfaq.

SAFF record

The Maldives are the second most successful team in the tournament’s twenty year history, behind six time winners India. The Maldives’ sole victory came in 2008, after they defeated India team who are otherwise unbeaten in the competition since 2005.

The Maldives take on neighbours Sri Lanka – kick off 5:45 Maldivian time – in the second of Group B’s games. Afghanistan and Bhutan will play this afternoon.

The two sides last met in the semi-finals of the 2009 SAFF championship, with the Maldives claiming an emphatic 5-1 victory in Male’.

Group A’s games began on Saturday, with tournament hosts Nepal beating Bangladesh 2-0. This was followed by champions India beating neighbours Pakistan 1-0.

Coach Istvan Urbanyi – retained by the FAM for his third SAFF tournament – told media last week that the final group game against Afghanistan (September 6) would be crucial.

“No need to talk about options. The first two games we must win, and last game is probably a fight to which position who will qualify, but its better to focus on each game,” Urbanyi told the press.

Afghanistan are the highest FIFA-ranked team in the tournament, followed by India and then the Maldives.

“We have a good team, but nobody can say that they have the strongest team. Small details will make a difference. We are ready to fight. Our target is to take back the trophy to make fans happy,” said the Hungarian coach.


Maldives seal dramatic late win against Syria

The Maldives national football team reignited their hopes of making it to the final of the 2012 Nehru Cup with a dramatic win over Syria yesterday evening.

After taking the lead via captain Ali Ashfag just before the 60 minute mark, victory appeared to have been squandered when Syria’s Alaa Alshbbli equalised with a stunning overhead kick in the 81st minute.

However, the Maldives grabbed a late winner three minutes into added time as Ahmed Rashid turned in an Ashfag cross to seal a 2-1 victory.

The win sees the Maldives retain second place in the table, level on points with India who play this evening.  At present, the squad are 2 points ahead of Cameroon, whom the Maldives face tomorrow evening in their final group game.

The top two teams will play in the tournament final on September 2.


Maldivian football contemplates new horizons ahead of Nehru Cup

Maldivian football fans will look to New Delhi this week as the national team competes for the first time in India’s Nehru Cup.

The team arrived in Delhi yesterday ahead of their first game against Nepal tomorrow evening at 6:30PM (7:00PM local time).

The match will be played in the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, which will host all the tournament’s fixtures.

The tournament begins this evening, with India taking on Syria.

Mauroof Ahmed, Technical Director of the Football Association of Maldives (FAM), said that despite being invited at short notice, the team were in good physical shape.

“In terms of fitness we are well prepared. In terms of spending time together as a team, we need more games,” said Mauroof.

Following their opening fixture, the Maldives will play the hosts and holders India on Saturday (August 25),  Syria on Monday (August 27), and Cameroon a week today (August 29).

This will complete the round robin stage of the tournament, at the end of which, the top two sides will play for the trophy on September 2.

Team Coach Istvan Urbanyi told of his high expectations despite a lack of time for preparation.

“I wish we could have a long-term preparations. This time, I am going with a team prepared by clubs, definitely fitness wise,” said Urbanyi.

“I have the maximum expectations because we tried our best even though we didn’t have enough time to build up a team.”

Despite media reports that they have sent an inexperienced squad, the tournament’s favourites are Cameroon, who sit a clear 88 places above any of their opponents in the FIFA world rankings.

Meanwhile, the teams from the Asian Confederation are all thought of similar ability, with the Syrians officially ranked highest and the Indians the lowest. Of the participants, the Maldives is the only side to have moved up the rankings in the past 12 months.

Cameroon’s invitation to the tournament continues the tradition of high quality international opponents featuring in the competition since it started in 1982. Previous non-Asian confederation invitees have included Argentina, Uruguay, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Russia.

This year’s tournament is the 15th edition of the Nehru Cup which was resumed in 2007 after a ten year hiatus. The most successful team in the competition’s history is the Soviet Union, who won four titles during the 1980s.

Football development

However, in a region fixated with cricket, the Maldives stands out as a nation that has seemingly shunned wickets and bats for goal-posts and football boots.

“Football has been the number one sport for quite a while,” say Mauroof. “There is a long history of football here, going back 55 years.”

“Cricket is not very popular. In terms of space and available land, football is far more convenient,” he added.

During the recent European Football Championships, huge screens were set up across the capital Male’ to show every game live.

Hundreds of boys turn up every night to play on the sandy pitches on the southern side of the Male’, often having to wait for another game to finish before placing their portable goals at either end of any available space.

Mauroof explained that the best way for the game to continue to develop in the Maldives was to find overseas opportunities for its players.

“The football association is doing work to get players international exposure. We have a close links with the Japanese FA and plan to send one player and one coach to Japan,” said Mauroof.

“Playing in the local leagues will not bring players to an international level. The mentality has to be changed. The challenge is to instil professionalism,” he continued.

The national team’s current captain and leading goalscorer, Ali Ashfag, was offered opportunities in Europe with Portuguese club Benfica as a younger player before opting to remain in the Maldives.

More recently, youngster Mohamed Miraash Imthiyaz travelled to Spain this summer to play with an FC Barcelona under-13 side.

“He is very talented,” said Mauroof. “He has been in our development programme for two years.”

Mauroof was quick to add, however, that Miraash’s parents had been the main driving force in securing opportunities for their son.

“The parents are very motivated. Miraash has also attended other international academies for clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool,” he said.

However, limited finances were described by Mauroof as being a key issue in the further development of the sport, with overseas opportunities often dependent on sponsorship money.

“It will take time,” he said.


Maldives ease to victory against Cambodia 4-0

The Maldives national football team kicked off its AFC Challenge Cup qualifying campaign with a comfortable 4-0 victory over Cambodia in Male’ last night.

Cheered on by enthusiastic home support, a goal in the first minute by Muhthar Naseer and a hat-trick by Captain Ali Ashfag sealed the victory, which takes Maldives top of Group C on goal difference.

In the other game in the group, 2006 Champions Tajikistan beat Central Asian neighbour Kyrgyzstan 1-0 courtesy of a late own goal.

The Maldives was chosen by the AFC to host Group C games last month. The next matches will take place on March 23 and 25 at the National Stadium in Male’.

The two teams placed top in the group will qualify for the AFC Challenge Cup in 2012.