Beyond football: The forgotten athletes of the Maldives

Maldives Football has only seen sporadic improvement over the years yet gets a lion's share of support in terms of funds and publicity; even at the expense of others where results have been much better.

Source via International Table Tennis Federation - Rémy Gros

Source via International Table Tennis Federation - Rémy Gros

With the close of this year’s SAFF Championship, the Maldivian football team retreats once more to their state of the art training facilities, avowing to return stronger than ever next time. With each goal scored and match played, the members of the national team are praised by both the people and the administration, with support shown like no other. 

By the amount of attention football gets in the Maldives, one might assume it is the only sport that is worthy of note. Nations like Brazil thrive on football, with world championship trophies galore, with a history of making history, yet in the Maldives, the same fanfares were played when the country won their first international cup in 2008. They went on to win their second championship in the same tournament in 2018, but, given the history of Maldivian football spanning half a century, these achievements aren’t as plentiful as one would hope.

A large part of the attention is due to the government’s candidness in promoting football so very vehemently. Regardless of which administration has been in power, football fields are always the common treat for the people, building turf pitches and promoting football through FAM run courses and workshops. Love for football is instilled, or proposed to, for the younger generations, with promises of international renown and achievements if they kept following their dreams. FAM, on the other hand, is an association mired in conspiracy and quite a money-pit for each government.

Yet, quite mutedly, the Maldivian youth brought home 15 medals in 14 sports at the close of the Indian Ocean Games of 2019, of which three gold medals were bagged by a 12 year old prodigy. When Fathimath Dheema put her skills out on the table, the world was shaken, and the nation responded in the best way they could, with a hero’s welcome for the entire team, and national recognition. It can be argued that the new sports facility in Hulhumalé, including an olympic swimming pool, studios and gyms for contact sports, as well as a fully equipped table-tennis training hall, was quickly opened by the Solih Administration, although planned and built by the Yameen Administration, to show continuing support and hopes for more such awards in the future.

Yet, where were these facilities before the awards came home?

An unspoken truth about the Maldivian sports and athletics environment is how very, very little attention is given to any other sport other than football. By 2008, when the football team managed to snag a win, it was reported that the national cricket team of varying age groups had already brought home over 16 medals and trophies, some of them gold. 2005, 2006 were the years the team had brought home ACC Emerging Nations trophies, and they’d gone on to win the ACC Trophy Challenge in 2010. 

It is disheartening to know that a facility built almost two decades ago, in Ekuveni, under the Youth Development Program, was utilised by nearly all other sports lumped together. A basketball court doubled as a badminton facility, three indoor bowling/batting lanes for cricket training, and an outdoor running track that was used for every running and jumping sport while cricket matches took place in the middle. The first gold brought home from the South Asian Games for athletics was by Hassan Saaid, rightfully the fastest man in the Maldives, in 2019, followed by impressive work in other sports during that year. Although a proper running track was recently opened, why has it taken so long for these facilities to be utilised or even developed in the first place?

From an administrative perspective, grants and other forms of support, including building facilities, getting international aid, all of this requires certain parameters to be met and a framework to be established before the budget can be assigned. This much is obvious, yet what hides behind the veil beyond public scrutiny (and attention span) is the work that had begun during the Yameen Administration.

The National Sports Council was established as a consultancy to develop and enhance the sporting careers of Maldivians. Their work included assessing the current state of affairs, to create a platform for the enthusiasts to reach the administrative level, and also to advise on development and finances for said sports. To gain favour in the administration, there needs to be certain standards to be met in the respective fields, such as having numbers of clubs or registered individuals, local competitions, international participation, and on the commercial side comes marketing and sponsorship.

However, the loophole is how the when categorising and prioritising specific sports based on these criteria, the government would inevitably end up supporting and promoting the already successful sports and leaving out the rest. What such an assessment should have resulted in is more development on the under represented sports, more than the attention and hype given to the already popular ones. This would allow the talent pool to expand and develop, inspire more stoic leadership in their respective fields, and more opportunities taken for International recognition.

There are roughly 17 sports that are recognised as national sports in the Maldives, inclusive of body-building and shooting. A quick note would be that the shooting games are applicable only for the MNDF and not for the private individual. Bashi, an entirely Maldivian sport, also deserves recognition and support, although International accolades would never be forthcoming, and the reason is simple. Sports, and games such as Chess and Carrom, are celebrated and venerated in different countries at different levels, and the level of skill being discovered is loosely correlated to the level of attention given to such sports by those in charge.

The government needs to take a step back from the very seemingly exciting market of football, and see the bigger picture. Time has shown that football does not bring in as many awards as some other sports, and the amount of money being sunk into fruitless ventures can be better served to build fully inclusive facilities for all sports. To be clear, the attention given to football is not what is detrimental; it is the intentional blindsiding by making the sound of football events drown out the rest of the sports categories. 

The Sports Council represents professionals in nearly every field of sport in the Maldives, and their work needs to be more comprehensive, and taken more seriously. By developing the sport today, the Maldives gain an advantage in the chances of discovering a prodigy or other determined, hardworking athletes, and give them the push they need to achieve what they dream to achieve.

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