When Maldivians first began to play football in the 1940s, much of the game was improvised. For the most part, it involved kicking around a makeshift ball, crafted by wrapping a balloon with cloth, as high as possible in the absence of rules and goals, much less any supporters.
All this changed drastically when Mohamed Ameen Didi, the first president of Maldives, initiated national football tournaments, created sports clubs in each ward of capital Male’, invited Sri Lankan coach Michael De Silva to train football players, and coloured the Maldivian football dream a reality.
The foundation of Maldivian football was laid in 1948 when football clubs were established in the four wards of Male’ -- Maafannu ‘Fiyaathoshi’ (pink) Club, Galolhu Green Club, Henveiru Sports Club and Machangolhi Sports Club. The establishment of these teams paved the way for the youth in all the areas of Male’ to play sports and entertain themselves, according to the latest ‘Novelty’ Ali Hussain’s writing.
Ahmed Yoosuf (Haivakaru Ahmedfulhu), who started playing football in the first generation of football players, remembers the memories fondly although 65 years have passed since.
He recalled that at the time, the empty football pitches would be packed up with rivalry between the teams of four wards.
Mohamed Ameen’s main aim in forming these teams was to increase enthusiasm for the sport. He decided to train Majeediyya students to fill team positions and afterwards, the then-Secretary General of the Lanka’s Referee's Association who was skilled in football, cricket, hockey, badminton and tennis De Silva was brought in to provide training.
De Silva, a senior student at Saint Joseph College when Ameen himself was schooling, went on to become Maldives' first ever ‘teacher of football’. Under his tutorship, a single man, from each island across the archipelago, was taught playing and refereeing skills.
As such, a total of 24 individuals were to take part in his coaching classes. Selected from Majeediyya School in 1950, they were the first Maldivian youths provided with proper football training including Ahmedfulhu.
However, more victorious than this feat was the way that, at this particular point in history, sports acted as a key vessel that brought about development and discipline to society.
Ahmedfulhu’s 28-year service in the military and 30-year service as a state employee following his football training is a testament to the invaluable lessons gained in his youth through sports.
His son, Mauroof Ahmed (Maatteey) went on to follow in his footsteps, becoming a renowned goalkeeper who built an exemplary life around football.
Ahmedfulhu expressed remorse over the fact that the progress of Maldivian football was not properly recorded and has become lost to the times. He believes that, in order to revolutionize football in the archipelago, Maldivian youth of today need to learn of Mohamed Ameen’s efforts in the past.
“Majeediya hosted [theory] classes. [Practical] skills were taught in Henveiru football pitch. Sails were spread on the grass and we would practice catching the ball by falling on it. The sails were cautionary, to avoid injury when we fell”, Ahmedfulhu recalled.
De Silva made the teams play in the W-M Formation introduced by Arsenal’s British Coach Herbert Chapman. A centre back and two fullbacks along with two halfbacks in the centre comprised as the defence. Two inside forwards would attack from the centre. Also, two more guards the wings while a centre-forward stays on the attacks.
“When the two forwards on the outside pass to the centre, players inside will enter the middle. If they cannot make it in time, the centre half will go for the ball. One back will always be there to guard the goal”, Ahmedfulhu said.
While De Silva held training sessions and developed the skill sets of the players, Mohamed Ameen acquired football boots, footballs and necessary equipment. Ahmedfulhu described their excitement and joy of getting their new sporting gear.
After De Silva’s training ended, Ahmedfulhu joined the Machangoalhi Fiyaathoshi Club. As part of this team, he won the national football tournament and was first dubbed best goalkeeper. He was also part of the ‘best 11’ which was, arguably, the first-ever national squad chosen in the Maldives. Although they did not compete in any international tournaments, they wore a special jersey kit when playing matches in the capital.
“The team consisted of the best players from each team. We also had a similar sort of volleyball team. De Silva even wanted to take the volleyball team to Lanka for a tournament. He asked us to send the team to Sri Lanka and said he would take care of additional finances -- but we lacked the funding.”
Sports in Maldives slowly developed this way with the introduction of cricket and hockey tournaments. Although a cricket team already existed under the captainship of Faamudheyri Kilegefaanu and Mohamed Fareed Didi, Mohamed Ameen was the first to host official cricket tournaments.
After Ameen Didi, the father of Maldivian Sports Mohamed Zahir Naseer, continued his legacy and love for the sport.
These three anticipated sports tournaments -- football, cricket, and hockey -- were organised for three different periods of the year.
However, conscripted by the military in 1953 Ahmedfulhu did not get the chance to continue to play in the team and showcase his unparalleled enthusiasm for long. Nevertheless, his luck had not yet completely run the ground, as new clubs started popping up to compete against the wards. In addition to Maadhee Thamaddhun Sports Club and Muskulhi Thaalibunge Sports Club was one particular club - from the military.
For the time being, this was to be Ahmedfulhi’s team whilst competing at the national level.
He narrated that the most unique experience he enjoyed during his time as part of the military club was the chance to play rugby -- a sport never played in Maldives at the national level. Ameen Didi was known to join in on matches played between the military and Maldives Customs Services and sometimes, even for the military team. However, the problem was that when Ameen Didi was in possession of the ball, all the other players stepped back and gave him space.
“Ameen would insist [we] stop doing so. [He would say] he is also a player and we must attempt to steal the ball from him”, Ahmedfulhu said. “If Ameen is on the field, there would be a loud music accompanying [us]. People would gather [to watch] when they hear it. He was a very sporty person.”
Shifting into the military after being an integral part of the sports scene did not seem to be a difficult adjustment from Ahmedfulhu, who started at the bottom and climbed to the highest Captain’s rank at the time before retirement.
When questioned about the experience he gained in the military he repeated, “For someone seeking to become skilled, every instance is an experience.”
Reflecting on his time in the military, he said, “You learn discipline, punctuality, respecting your elders and good manners.
The military does and always will, hold a special place in my heart.”
Ahmedfulhu left the military in 1978 because the government wished to utilise his expertise in other areas. Following his retirement, he served as Atoll Chief in Lhaviyani, Meemu and Addu Atoll. This required him to spend long periods of time away from his family and Ahmedfulhu largely credits his wife, Najuma Hussain, with having raised their children into respectable adults.
Najuma, whose lilting voice won Maldivian hearts the atoll over during her time at the national radio station ‘Dhivehi Raajjeyge Adu’, shares a total of 8 children with Ahmedfulhu, all of whom are notably serving the country in differing capacities across various sectors.
Of all his children, as expected, Ahmedfulhu identifies uniquely with his son Mauroof Ahmed (Maattey). The second-generation football star went on to become a renowned goalkeeper who secured many a trophy for Victory Sports Club -- first as a player, then as coach. Maattey was also a key player in the team that earned the first biggest victory in an international tournament, winning silver in the 1991 SAFF games.
Proud father Ahmedfulhu expressed his happiness “or Mauroof’s achievements on this path”, which just happened to have taken a fairly similar route as his own journey.
Today, Maattey runs an academy to train youngsters to excel in the sport. Having had his life revolve around sports and lessons he gleaned on and off the field, Mattey now focuses on passing on that expertise to the ‘ballers’ of tomorrow.
Speaking of the valuable lessons that Ahmedfulhu has to share, the expert highlighted the importance of obeying referees, upholding rules and regulations and though it may only seem simple - listening to what is being told.
“A person who doesn’t know how to work with solid gold will not be able to create anything of value from it,'' he quipped, followed quickly by another original but perhaps more locally-inspired adage, “unrecognized, even ambergris have floated away because it was not recognised.”
Ahmedfulhu’s words are linked the historic words left in Mohamed Ameen’s will, published in ‘Sarukaaru Khabaru’, which divulged the main purpose driving sports advocacy and the founding of sports clubs - to establish a favourable code of behaviour amongst the youth. At the time, there were many upturned noses, scoffing at the former president’s efforts.
The retaliation, however, only served to reaffirm Ameen Didi’s belief, that he would be able to prove the Maldivian community that young people can be taught discipline through this medium.
Today, we are all witness to the reality his hope has become.
Ahmedfulhu is living proof that Ameen Didi’s vision was fulfilled, birthing a generation of enthusiastic, driven and well-mannered individuals fated perhaps to grow further beyond his initial dream and unto achieving greatness in all aspects of life.