The Maldives won the South Asian Championship for only the second time in their history with a shock 2-1 victory over India in Saturday’s final in Dhaka.
Goals from Ibrahim Mahudhee and Ali Fasir put them on top against the heavily favoured Indians and Sumeet Passi’s injury-time effort proved nothing more than a consolation. Coached by German Petar Segrt, the Maldives reached the knockout phase of the competition only by virtue of a coin toss after they had finished level on points with Sri Lanka.
But, after seeing off Nepal in the last four, the Indian Ocean islanders stunned the seven-time champions to claim the trophy. They last won it in 2008.
Maldives head coach Petar Segrt claimed his tactical acumen transformed an average Maldives to an indomitable force in the knockout stages that won them the Saff Suzuki Cup title after 10 years.
Player of the final, Ibrahim Mahudhee Hussain didn’t start their opening match in the tournament, against Sri Lanka, while the other scorer in the final, Ali Fasir, along with two more key attacking players, didn’t make the playing XI against India during the second group stage match.
The new champion eventually ended the group stage without scoring a single goal and rode on luck to make it to the knockout, thanks to winning the coin-toss.
But it all changed as they staged a dramatic comeback in front of the goal in the semi-final and final, scoring three and two goals respectively to seal two dominating wins.
“We were playing with completely two different teams. We played with little older players in some different positions in the first two games, we were playing for only results. But in the knockout stage you must play attacking football with young spirited players and it was also tactical reason why we changed the team after two games. It was very big luck (in the group stage) but in the end it was not only luck anymore,” said Segrt, the Croatian-born German coach of Maldives.
“We spent much of our times analysing the videos of India matches. We found the key to win the game, especially the right side of India we see the problems.
“These players of Maldives, I never see so good and so strong and they were working so hard for the country. Maldives people can be so proud of these players to make the dream come true. These Maldivian players deserved it,” added the 52-year old coach.
Despite their first defeat in the tournament, India head coach Stephen Constantine was full of praise for his young charges.
“I don’t think we played the game that we can play. That’s where lack of experience showed [yesterday]. The boys gave everything they have physically in the last 10-12 days and I’m extremely proud of them,” said Constantine.
“This team (are) future of Indian football, that’s for sure. These players will represent the India national team in the next five-six years. It’s a good learning experience for the players,” he added.