Maldives live the dream at SAFF Championship

Scott McIntyre Scott McIntyre

Scott McIntyre talks to Petar Segrt – the mastermind of the Maldives fairytale victory in the 2018 SAFF Championship.

“It was unbelievable but I always believed in this dream – at the end we were all in each other’s arms because we made this dream together.”

A dream indeed for the tiny nation of the Maldives who last weekend won the SAFF Championship – the national competition for South Asian nations – by defeating the regional juggernaut India 2-1 in a final that few, if any, gave them a chance of winning.

One man who believed all along was the national coach, Petar Segrt, who spoke exclusively with FOX Sports Asia following that remarkable triumph in Bangladesh on Saturday.

“We wrote a new history for Maldivian football and have given hope for all Maldivian children with this result, my players and staff worked together without a break for six to seven weeks and this amazing win is the result.”

Amazing is something of an understatement given the vast gulf in resources, history and the astonishing gap between the number of players in the two nations.

There are more than 110 Indian cities that are larger than the entire population of the Maldives and so dominant have the Indians been that they’ve reached the final in all bar one edition of the SAFF Championships, winning more than half of them.

The world’s second largest nation has dozens and dozens of professional clubs, two professional leagues and a highly paid and resourced national staff – the Maldives has a ten-team semi-professional league that’s run for four years and has only 374 registered football players in the entire nation.

In all the underdog stories of world football, the Maldives triumph is right up with the best as Segrt told FOX Sports Asia.

“This weekend we wrote history with a new and young national side where most of my players are not professionals.

“The majority of the players have to work from eight in the morning until three in the afternoon – some work in offices, some in immigration, some in the airport and then outside of that they can live their dream of being footballers in the local league in the Maldives.

“You can imagine how hard it is to play and develop football under those kind of conditions but the 27 boys in this national squad have made an unbelievable job – they have been away from their friends and family for 41 days preparing for this new moment in history.”

Things were far from straightforward for the side though, who were rather fortunate to even reach the knockout stage after having had the benefit of winning a coin toss to progress from the group stage where they finished level on points with Sri Lanka after having lost 2-0 to India in their final pool clash.

Once they’d booked that spot in the last four though they really turned things on, thrashing Nepal 3-1 in the semis and then completing the fairytale with the 2-1 win over the Indians in the final.

Goals either side of the break had the Maldives firmly in control and it took their opponents grabbing a stoppage time goal to even get on the scoresheet and whilst India had used the tournament as a chance for their younger players to feature – the squad was essentially an U23 one – it doesn’t diminish just what a remarkable moment this is for the tiny island nation.

“It’s been a really pleasant surprise for me just how quick the players have learned and adapted and what a positive atmosphere we have been able to create in the team and you have to consider what we have achieved in the last 41 days, India has had many years to reach this level.”

Born in Croatia but having spent much of his life in Germany, Segrt is an enigmatic coach, who counts Jogi Lowe and Oliver Bierhoff amongst friends and colleagues. It was his rather unusual introduction to football in the country that helped grow the team bond that was on display over the past fortnight in Bangladesh.

Having had a previous stint as national coach of Afghanistan – where he was fortunate to escape a bombing in the capital – he took the Maldives job only in late March and made his first point of business a mass meeting in the national stadium in the capital, Male.

“I wanted to show my character as a football coach but also as a person so I invited more than 50 players and staff to the stadium in the night and asked for the lights to be turned on.

“I know it sounds crazy but everybody was there – players, physios, staff, media people and everybody and we talked about football, philosophy and life and that if we work hard we can achieve anything.”

Segrt is certainly a persuasive character and so when he tells you his next dream, it’s impossible to totally dismiss it, even as outlandish as it sounds.

“At my first press conference in the Maldives I told everybody it is my dream to take this nation to the World Cup – you should have seen everybody’s reaction!

“I know this very well but what do you have without dreams?

“Before we left for this championship a small boy, maybe six or seven, stopped me in the street and said that he wants to play for the Maldives at a World Cup and he asked me if it was possible.

“I looked him straight in the eye and told him that although I am not a big-name coach I am a proud person and that if you really dream of something, work hard and have a little luck then you can make anything come true.

“He looked back at me and told me that he will make it come true.”

This is the remarkable power of football – a tiny nation overcoming a giant and a coach with passion and belief fuelling the dreams of that country.