Exclusive: The former Woodlands coach making waves in an island paradise
The Maldives has long been established as one of the world’s most idyllic destinations. Its crystal clear waters, technicolour reefs and five-star resorts are synonymous with luxury travel, while opportunities to visit are usually reserved for those with deep pockets.
Most people are only left to daydream about the alluring atolls from afar.
It’s a real honour to lead a country – you have a whole nation’s hopes resting on you – but that’s the kind of pressure any coach or player should relish
If vacationing is restricted to the few, expat employment in the Maldives is reserved for even fewer still. But in July 2016, a year after leaving S.League side Woodlands Wellington, Darren Stewart found himself booking – in the immortal words of English rocker Ian Brown – a one-way ticket to paradise.
Appointing Stewart appeared a left-field decision by the Football Association of Maldives (FAM), who had just parted company with Ricki Herbert, the man behind New Zealand’s 2010 World Cup qualification.
Despite being an international novice, Stewart vowed to succeed where Herbert and others before him had failed – by taking the Maldives into the main qualifying draw for the Asian Cup.
“Being a national coach is an opportunity I always hoped I’d ge, but I was never sure it would necessarily happen,” Stewart tells FourFourTwo.
“It’s a real honour to lead a country – you have a whole nation’s hopes resting on you – but that’s the kind of pressure any coach or player should relish.
“I’m lucky to have a president here who lets me get on with my job. There is no interference from above – something that is very rare in Asian football!
“I knew a little bit about football in the Maldives before taking the job as the teams have been playing in the AFC Cup for years against S.League opposition.
I have no hesitation in saying that any one of my Maldives team could walk into an S.League or Malaysia Super League side tomorrow
“I’d been here before, football-wise, but obviously didn’t have detailed knowledge of all the players. My assistant Imma [Ismail Mahfooz] was a godsend in that regard. His local knowledge is immense and he helped me know the character of the players and more about them beyond football.”
Stewart quickly set about building a team around irrepressible captain Ali Ashfaq, the most famous Maldivian export who has spent a number of seasons playing in Malaysia in his long and successful career.
Three months after the Australian coach’s arrival, a two-legged playoff against Laos brought a 4-0 home victory and 1-1 away draw. The Maldives stepped into Asian Cup qualifying proper; Stewart had delivered on his promise.
“From the start, the players impressed me hugely – they really are outstanding; good people, with great commitment and a wonderful attitude.
“I have no hesitation in saying that any one of my Maldives team could walk into an S.League or Malaysia Super League side tomorrow. I told them that.
“If any club in the S.League asks me ‘are there any players over there who might be of interest’, I could recommend guys in every single position. There is no question in my mind that they are capable.
“A few people in Singapore have already asked questions but nothing has quite worked out yet.
“Of course, you have to remember that a lot of the players are happy in the Maldives. They are paid well and are near their families so don’t want to leave.
“Still, I believe there are plenty of Maldivian players who are hungry to test themselves elsewhere and leave their comfort zone. With or without my contacts, it won’t be long before they follow Ali Ashfaq in playing around Asia.”
He’s the best player I’ve ever coached and anyone in Asia would be lucky to have him in their team
Ashfaq unquestionably remains the poster boy for Maldivian football. The forward is his country’s all-time leading scorer with 52 goals and has genuine continental pedigree having shone during a spell in the Malaysia Super League with PDRM FA.
“Ali has been the pioneer for Maldivian football abroad and it’s been a pleasure to work with him,” Stewart explains.
“He is a national hero, a superstar who could play in the A-League in Australia with his eyes closed. No doubt. He’s the best player I’ve ever coached and anyone in Asia would be lucky to have him in their team.
“He’s a freak, a man with an outstanding talent and a real once-in-a-generation player. He does things that you cannot coach and what makes him an even better player is he is very down to earth and a great lad whom everyone respects.”
With promising players and a favourable climate, it is easy to consider the Maldives’ national team job one of the most appealing in world football. But the role is not without its challenges.
A crackling phone line during the interview is indicative of communication difficulties, while the myriad islands that make up the Maldives are certainly more conducive to honeymoon hotspot than football hotbed.
The majority of the action on the pitch is focused on the densely populated capital island of Male.
“Of course we are blessed with great weather here but I assure you I don’t live on a resort spending my days sunbathing and swimming in the sea! I go to every league game in Male, but there are more than 200 other islands.
“That presents problems as there is some unbelievable talent out there but because of the isolation they are not seen. The FAM technical director and I are now starting search beyond Male – we are confident we can unearth some players who may not have been given a chance before.
“There are challenges from a personal perspective, too, of course. Football coaching inevitably takes you away from the place that has become home and being away from my wife and my dog in Singapore is tough. Particularly when phone lines, and Skype, aren’t always the most reliable here.”
After 23 years in Southeast Asia, Stewart is embracing his new opportunity in the Indian Ocean. It has been a change in culture both on and off the pitch, but the Australian feels he has stayed true to his approach and is confident it will breed further success.
“I don’t think I’ve changed, no. My biggest strength at club level was always getting players to play for me and it is exactly the same with the national team.
“I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m stronger in man-management than tactics because for me, it is at the heart of everything. If the players don’t want to play for you, each other, the country, then you can have the best tactics and video analysis in the world but it won’t matter.
“The players and I seemed to gel straight away and although we lost our first Asian Cup qualifier to Palestine, I’m really hopeful for our next games against Bhutan and Oman.
“Against Palestine we had six days together – they had spent five weeks as a team in Qatar preparing for the game. And it showed. I’m not making excuses, but it is obvious. More time equals a better prepared team and that will be the case before we play Bhutan.
“I really do hope to have a long, successful stay here in Maldives and I think so far it feels right. One day I would love to coach in the Malaysia Super League where I played for eight years with Johor, but right now it’s my job to help build football in the Maldives and develop the national team into something we can all be proud of.”
Photos: Ibrahim Faid/Maldivesfootball.com