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Tea Leaves

When the 'beautiful game' transforms national confidence

Maldives shows that victory for Asia's soccer minnows means more than just goals

Samooh Ali of the Maldives, right, defends the ball against a Singaporean rival during a friendly match in the city-state on March 23. (Pictobank/Getty Images)

Abdulla Yameen, president of the Maldives, watched the first Airbus A380-800 land on his country's soil in mid-September -- an important moment for both the tourism-dependent island nation and Velana International Airport, recently extended by a Chinese company to facilitate landings by the world's largest passenger aircraft. But Yameen was not there to witness aviation history. His more important mission was to welcome home the national soccer team, which had just won the South Asian Football Federation Cup in Bangladesh.

The SAFF Cup is not the most prestigious trophy in world soccer, and the region is hardly a hotbed of soccer prowess. Only seven countries contested the trophy: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka -- all minnows in the global game. Even in India, the region's biggest soccer "power," a visitor to Kolkata, a local soccer hotspot, is  much more likely to be invited to join a game of cricket than to kick a ball.

For a handful of Asian countries, competing in the finals of the World Cup -- when the whole planet tunes in -- is a legitimate aim: Japan, South Korea, Iran, Australia and Saudi Arabia played in the 2018 tournament in Russia. In South Asia, though, the finals of the globe's premier soccer competition are a distant dream, as is winning the Asian Cup, currently held by Australia -- although India has qualified for the 24-country 2019 tournament, to be held in the United Arab Emirates in January.

Regional tournaments such as the SAFF Cup offer a rare chance to pick up a trophy. So there were big celebrations when the Maldives, known for its beautiful beaches, vicious politics and not much else, defeated India 2-1 in Dhaka in September. Yameen handed medals to the homecoming heroes at the airport, claiming that "the sky is the limit" for the national team.

Slightly over-optimistic, perhaps, but there was much to be proud of as a nation with a population of 400,000 celebrated victory over a global giant with 1.3 billion people.

International soccer success is on the wish-list of much bigger countries than the Maldives. China, the world's most populous nation, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on soccer development, and aims to be a global powerhouse in the game by 2050. For smaller countries, though, it is regional success that matters.

In the Maldives, love of soccer runs deep. When I interviewed Ali Ashfaq, a 33-year-old striker who has scored more than 50 international goals, the website that ran the article was deluged with comments from fans. It seemed as if a large proportion of the population wanted to express its approval.

For the Maldives, beating India provided a rare chance to appear in the sporting sections of international newspapers (The country's only previous SAFF Cup championship came in 2008, with a 1-0 victory over India). There were few complaints when Yameen declared that the following day would be a national holiday, telling coach Petar Segrt: "You have done a wonderful job."

The Croatian-born German coach deserved the plaudit. Segrt came to the Maldives from Afghanistan, where he was head coach from 2015 to 2017, achieving second place in the SAFF Cup in his first year after his team lost 2-1 to India in the final after extra time. Afghanistan subsequently left SAFF to join the neighboring Central Asian Football Association. But its good run in 2015, and an earlier success in 2013, when the team achieved its only SAFF Cup championship, beating India 2-0 in the final, provided rare moments of optimism for a country better known for intractable violence and unrest.

It was the same when Iraq won the 2007 Asian Cup. I was in Jakarta when the Iraqi team defeated Saudi Arabia in front of a sympathetic crowd of 60,000 Indonesian fans. Even U.S. President George W. Bush commented on the success of the Iraqi team, which featured players from across the country's multi-ethnic and multi-confessional society. For once, the gunfire in the streets of Baghdad was celebratory.

Soccer has the power to bring people together, and success creates the desire for more. Not long after the airport ceremony, the Maldives' coach was talking of contesting the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. That is not going to happen, but even relatively small triumphs such as the SAFF Cup victory can help bring more investment into the game, improve facilities, get more people involved and generally lead to improvements. At the very least, it can make a country happy, for a while.

John Duerden is an Asia-based writer who has covered Asian soccer for 20 years.

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