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 maldivesoccer.com 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.
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.