RICKI HERBERT took over as Maldives coach in September, midway through their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign. Here he tells ESPN his plans for a third FIFA World Cup finals campaign …
Playing and coaching for New Zealand at different World Cups – Spain 1982 and South Africa 2010 – and now starting a new role with the Maldives national team provide evidence of what can be possible in football, no matter where you are from.
As a central defender, I appeared in all three games in New Zealand’s first World Cup finals’ appearance more than three decades ago, which would help me earn a dream move to Wolverhampton Wanderers in England.
But I am probably best known for coaching the All Whites to an unbeaten campaign in South Africa five years ago, including a 1-1 draw with holders Italy in Nelspruit – and for being Wellington Phoenix manager in the A-League for more than six seasons.
I’ve signed a two-year contract with the Maldives and have been on this Indian Ocean island nation, southwest of Sri Lanka, for the past three months. And I will be spending Christmas in India, coaching the team in the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Cup.
Already, I’ve had a taste of the highs and lows of 2018 AFC World Cup qualifying.
The Maldives are in the same Group C as regional giants China and Qatar. Having watched the away fixture against the Chinese prior to starting my role in September as the Maldives lost 3-0, I could see how far apart the two teams were and how much work was going to be needed over the next couple of years.
First up was an away game against Bhutan, a country that I had never coached against or visited.
Playing on an artificial surface, in front of a great home crowd and at altitude, provided the recipe for an exciting contest. We played extremely well to lead 3-0 at half-time.
It was important for me that we continued to attack and we scored again soon into the second period, providing the chance to introduce new players into the match. But given the altitude, and the fact that the physical conditioning of the players was quite low, there was always going to be a fatigue factor for my players.
We still led 4-0 until the 80th minute when Bhutan scored. This really injected life into the home team and the crowd reacted strongly. Two more goals for Bhutan late in the game had the match on a knife’s edge but we held on to win 4-3.
It was closer than I would have liked, but an excellent result for my team ahead of the next qualifier, away to Qatar.
Facing a nation ranked in the FIFA top 100 was always going to be a mammoth challenge.
But, keeping an attacking frame of mind, we started very well and didn’t concede until just before the half hour.
Midway through the second half, it was still only 1-0, but once again fatigue kicked in. Qatar scored two quick goals around the 70th minute mark and another in added time as we ended up losing 4-0.
The most recent qualifier was a home match against Hong Kong in November. Sitting second in the group, they were a team who had convincingly beaten the Maldives 2-0 earlier in the campaign and had recently drawn, home and away, against mighty China.
After conceding an early penalty, we dominated the game in all areas with 71 percent possession. Missing goal scoring opportunities was the sole disappointment in the 1-0 defeat because we played very well and passed the ball far more efficiently than in previous matches.
Compared to my previous New Zealand squads, the Maldives players are very good technically but they need to get stronger and fitter. So providing a better physical component over the next few months will be a priority.
Given that the players are part time and the majority have day jobs, I am convinced that there can be a big improvement in performances over the next two years. Supporting a comprehensive sports science programme to all the clubs is something that I believe would assist immensely.
I am living in an apartment in the Maldives FA complex in the capital city of Male, next to the training pitches, which is handy to see most of the teams on a regular basis.
Male has a population of around 150,000 and it takes about 15 minutes to travel the full circumference by motorcycle, which is the main use of transport. It’s great fun, but with narrow streets and buildings closely aligned and so many people – this is one of the most densely populated cities in the world – interesting tactics are sometimes required to get to your destination.
The sea is all around you, with a man-made beach on one side, which is great for swimming. The international airport is only two minutes away by speed boat.
Male is so different to my hometown of Auckland where I set up my own junior academy in 2007 for aspiring young footballers, with the help of my son Kale and father Clive. And Male is also a big change from Port Moresby where I worked earlier this year with Papua New Guinea U23 side at the South Pacific Games.
The SAFF Championship will keep me busy over the Christmas-New Year period. It will be good to coach on Indian soil again, having managed NorthEast United in the inaugural Indian Super League in 2014.
There is a strong historical background to the SAFF Championship, with Maldives winning it in 2008. Afghanistan are reigning champions and they have been drawn in the same group as us, alongside Bhutan and Bangladesh.
I would never have imagined spending the festive period preparing my squad for a Boxing Day match against Bangladesh at the Trivandrum International Stadium, but such are the joys of being a professional coach in Asia and Oceania.
A challenge has been presented to me and I am thoroughly enjoying it so far, not to mention the culture and the people of the Maldives. Whether it is my academy back in New Zealand, or on a small island in the Indian Ocean, my mission will always be to open pathways and progress talent in football.
- Ex-Wellington Phoenix boss Ricki Herbert, who guided New Zealand at the 2010 World Cup, is Maldives head coach and runs his own academy in NZ.