and meeting Bob Houghton – only Billy Harper can compare.

I saw a bit of a logistical nightmare in my trip to the Maldives. I knew India were due to play at Male, which is the capital of the ocean paradise known as the Maldives in the Indian ocean. The dates, 3rd, 5th and 7th were the game dates in a regional competition known as the South Asian Football Federation Championship. I thought there was no way we’d be able to sort out a holiday for a good price and in those dates.

Amazingly and resourcefully, it was sorted and we were due to land on the 3rd. Problem was the travel to and from our resort island (Summer Island Village – proper paradise) to the main island. The person who sold me the holiday was full of shit. Travelling to and from the main island is not easy. We were only 22 miles away, but with oil prices rising, it wasn’t cheap. Figures of $300 to $400 were being quoted. Not good. I managed, with the wonderful world of email, to get a return back to our resort on the day we landed for $335. We landed with a bit of a delay. It was a massive 10 hour flight (along with me driving 3 hours to Manchester). I had arranged tickets for the opener against Nepal on the 3rd, kicking off at 4pm with a local chap called Shimaz Ali, who runs the excellent website. The dippy announcer at Monarch Airlines gave the wrong time. I thought we landed at 3pm, but in reality it was 2pm.

India v Nepal

Out of customs we met the wonderful Cosmo Tour Rep, who arranged for our suitcase to go to our resort and then helped us on to a quick ferry to the main island. The ferry conductor tried to rip us off (wife snarled at him – change returned). The car taxi dropped us outside the corner of the stadium where we met Shimaz. A very pleasant chap. We had a quick chat and took the tickets for the Nepal game and Pakistan game off him ($10 for four tickets). Into the stadium then and in a perfect position behind India’s dug out. The stadium reminded me of a low key QPR / Norwich style venue before the Taylor report. The seats on the other stands were simply concrete steps while we were offered the luxury of a set of seats which were essentially plastic garden furniture seats. We were seated next to the VIP area alongside some reasonably fancy birds, who must have been the India WAGs.

We arrived in time to see the India team warm up wearing their away kits. I watched the game in bits really. I was taking constant photographs in the manner, i.e. take loads and you’ll get a few good ones. Bobby Houghton came out early, inspecting the pitch and chatting with the Nepal manager. I took some of the training and generally enjoyed the atmosphere, which was exceptionally humid.

Indian team being put through it's paces by Suresh Babu.

The game kicked off on time with all the usual FIFA fanfare. I’ll briefly run through it in the same manner I do my 11-a-side reports. For details on the scorers, I’d recommend going to the excellent website, as I really couldn’t remember who scored apart from the second goal. No fancy replays here, just the basics. As the game developed, just as I was extolling the values of Bob Houghton’s decision to obtain more taller India players for set pieces, etc. A ball centred from the left was headed in beyond the height of the tiny Nepalese team. The opponents were actually more enthusiastic in the opening moments before goal went in, while India seemed to bulldoze over them with their much taller and stronger players. Baichung Bhutia, he of ex-Bury fame, was a genuine star on the field. He was constantly clobbered and hounded by the Nepalese until a moment of glory saw him power an overhead kick, similar to Dave Simpson’s away to Mountain Daisy. Unlike Dave “Simma” Simpson, Baichung leapt several feet into the air and the sheer power of the kick saw the ball palmed into the back of the net by the Nepalese keeper. I was reserved for the first goal and happily listened to a row of excitable Nepalese in front of me. However, for India’s second goal, I leapt up in the same manner I greeted Muer’s and Swinhoe’s wonder strikes against Washington Colliery. The Nepalese chaps didn’t really say much after that.

Bhutia challenges for the ball.

So 2-0 at half time and clearly game over. Can’t remember much about the third goal, while the fourth goal was a tight cross which was bundled into the back of the net. Job done. There was a mini monsoon in the second half. Players slipping and sliding all over the place. Bit like when we played Cauld Lad away (but a tad bit warmer). We left after the fourth goal in a panic as we needed to get to our boat, but there were only around three minutes left. Our journey back was delayed, even though we walked to the jetty. Howver, the speedboat bouncing off the waves back at high speed back to the island was an experience itself.

Bob Houghton, Thomas Flath and the India team prior to kick off.

Getting away for the game on the 5th was going to be a problem. An early boat was leaving the island at 5:30am, while the later one was at 3:00pm. The later one was chosen and Mohamed Waheed, the very helpful island resort manager managed to arrange a free return on a boat going to a different island (Maldives are essentially a set of islands dotted around the different atolls). So logistical worries over. But, I knew we’d struggle to get there for the first half. The 3:00pm boat was delayed to 3:15pm due to a set of German tourists casually wandering around the island before getting on to the boat. I was frustrated, but I’d saved well over $200 so no complaints. Originally we were to stay on the main island overnight, but the hitch hike back solved it. The boat was slower as well and instead of around thirty minutes, it took an hour and a half.

We got there just in time for the second half and I was the only person within the stadium wearing the new India shirt (apart from the players). The thought did cross my mind to bring my shorts, socks and boots as well to try and sneak on the pitch while they were training to see how long it’d take for them to realise I was an imposter. The scoreboard showed 2-0 to India, so job done. The second half was relaxed and, as in the first game, Bhutia was taken off. But we did have the pleasure of the exotically named Bungo and Climax Lawrence playing. The Indian Barmy Army to the left of me was in full swing when Pakistan brought on a little short arse (Farooq I think he was called). The India fans basically started taking the piss, but his Ronaldo type step overs and darting runs led to a late Pakistan goal. India held on well to keep the score at 2-1 to secure a Semi Final berth with the final group game against the hosts.

We managed to get a photo with Bobby Houghton at the end. He obliged with the photograph and commented on the shirt I was wearing, “Nice shirt.” he said, while I mumbled something about coming all the way from the UK to watch the game. Obviously in the presence of a man who’s managed Malmo to a European Cup Final (against Forest in 1979), along with managing Toronto Blizzard in the NASL, China and many others, I felt a bit humbled. I’ve only taken 11-a-side to the Mingers Cup Final where we lost to the horrible Low Fell FC (who played a bunch of ringers as we beat a completely different team 4-0 a few weeks after). I feel the same way when I’m talking to Billy “Tash” Harper. My words never seem to to make sense and all I can say is, “miss me out.” Click here to see Bob Houghton’s Wikipedia Biography.

The India dugout.

We got back to the island in time, but unfortunately I couldn’t get the tickets sorted for the main event, which was the final group game against the hosts, the Maldives, on the 7th. I did manage to watch it on local television (while the rest of the guest were being bored by Czech v Switzerland). The Maldives were desperate not to lose, while India put out a complete reserve side. Their reserve goalkeeper was flinging himself like Simma does on the 6-a-side for the whole game. India were defending a 1-0 lead (another header), while Samir Naik was sent off for a second yellow card. Baffles me how the Maldives didn’t score, but who cares. Three out of three for India and a great holiday. I’m going to suggest to the AIFF (All India Football Federation), that they arrange a few games in the Bahamas, Florida or Hawaii in the next couple of years. The next SAFF Championship is in December 2009 in India. Looks like I’ll be paying a visit to the homeland then…(and not to visit relatives – sod that!).

India v Nepal