Ashfaq, Maldives’ evergreen goalscoring great


20 Jul 2020

Maldives top-striker Ali Ashfaq looks on
© Others
  • Ali Ashfaq is Maldives’ all-time top international scorer with 53 goals
  • Striker has scored 14 World Cup qualifying goals in an 18-year international career
  • He recently returned to help the national team in their Qatar 2022 campaign

The Maldives are perhaps known globally for stunning coastal waters and luxury escapes. In the football realm, however, the island nation, with a population of less than half a million, remains an enigmatic force on the international stage.

It therefore came as a surprise when the South Asians were suddenly thrust into the global spotlight in 2013, when ace striker Ali Ashfaq was named the ‘World’s 2nd Best Top Goal Scorer’ of the year by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS).

With only goals in international and major continental club competitions taken into consideration, Ashfaq, with 23 such goals that year, trailed global leader Cristiano Ronaldo by just two, but was five goals clear of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and eight clear of Lionel Messi.

For the first time in history, a player from Maldives was being compared to the world’s top marksmen. The Maldives No7 managed to score 14 international goals that year, including a ten-goal haul as top-scorer at the 2013 SAFF Championship. At the club level, he struck nine times for New Radiant in the AFC Cup.

“It was indeed one of the best years of my career,” the 34-year-old told “To be mentioned in the same breath as those great players was unbelievable for me. It was achieved through hard work by not only me, but also the team-mates of the national team as well as New Radiant.

“At New Radiant, we had a great squad under an amazing manager in Velizar Popov. We won everything on the domestic front that year,” continued Ashfaq, who scored an incredible 44 goals in all competitions for the club that season. “We won the league title with an unbeaten record and we reached the last-eight in the AFC Cup.”

From street football to national star

For most observers, Ashfaq is the best footballer Maldives has ever seen. It was, however, almost by accident that his love affair with the beautiful game commenced. Ashfaq was nine years old when his brother, Ashfan, played for a school team. There was a player missing one day and Ashfaq was asked to fill the void as a makeshift.

“That was how I started playing football and from there I began my football career,” he said recalling his early years. “I received my early training by playing with neighbouring boys – they are still my friends today and we hang out together occasionally. I was never an academy product.”

Despite his low-key background, Ashfaq maintained high hopes of a bright footballing future. In 2001, he was signed by local giants Valencia at the age of 16.

From there, Ashfaq began his remarkable journey as an unpolished diamond and became the country’s scoring great. He exploded with the capital-based club scoring over a century of goals across four seasons, before stints at a series of clubs, including Malaysian powerhouses PDRM FA. For nearly two decades, Ashfaq has remained amazingly consistent and prolific in front of goal.

At international level, Ashfaq has since scored 53 goals from 80 appearances in an 18-year international career, making him the country’s all-time top-scorer.

With exceptional speed, agility and technique, Ashfaq is renowned for his dribbling skills, and his penchant for taking the ball around opposition goalkeepers has become something of a trademark.

“Since I was young I have been obsessed with dribbling,” explained Ashfaq, a fervent Diego Maradona fan. “Dribbling past a goalkeeper gives me an added thrill and helps build my confidence as a forward.”

“I always wanted to surprise the rivals. I used to do everything with my left foot, but later I worked hard to improve my finishing with the right foot. I want to score using every means.”

His unique talents and outstanding form didn’t go unnoticed even by European giants with the likes of Benfica, Porto and Bursaspor all expressing interest. Ashfaq, however, rejected all these offers.

“I did receive offers from clubs across Europe and Asia. It was the Benfica offer which I seriously thought about. It was a chance which I should have taken because I could have played with some of the world’s best players had I joined them.”

Ali Ashfaq (R) competes for the ball
© Others

Return to World Cup qualifying

Ashfaq is no stranger on Asia’s FIFA World Cup™ qualifying scene, having scored 14 times across multiple attempts to reach global football’s extravaganza. Two of these goals were scored last year on the road to Qatar 2022 with strikes in a 2-1 loss to Syria and in a 3-1 victory against Guam. 

“You know, scoring for the national team in World Cup qualifying is so special. The FIFA World Cup is the holy grail for all footballers. 

“To me, it is the ultimate dream to compete in some way relating to the World Cup, even playing in the qualifying campaign. Maldives are a small nation but we also dream big, dreams that some day we will be able to play in the World Cup.”

With two wins garnered across five outings, Maldives are trailing second-placed China PR and Philippines by just a point. Hopes of progressing as one of the best runners-up remain alive and they can secure a place among the heavyweights in Round 3 should they take maximum points from the remaining three matches.

“It is a hard group but every team, except for Guam, still have hopes. So we are not written off. If we prepare well in advance and try our best, anything can happen.” 

As one of the veterans of the current Maldives squad, however, Ashfaq dismissed the idea of winding down his career. “I still feel fit. I am working twice as hard as before to maintain my form and strengths. I want to continue to play a couple more years for both club and country. Because if I don’t play football, I don’t know what I would do.”

Back at the training pitch after a long time! 🇲🇻— Ali Ashfaq (@AliAshfaq07) July 9, 2020

Eric Abrams Reference Letter / Recommendation


MFF Myanmar Football Federation Eric Abrams ex-Technical Director

To Whom It May Concern:

Mr. Velizar Popov, since January 2019 appointed as the MFF U23 National Team Coach at Myanmar Football Federation and now preparing the new generation U23s for the Sea Games 2021 after a very successful Sea Games 2019 in the Philippines rewarded with a bronze medal behind finalists Vietnam and Indonesia.

When I internationally advertised the job vacancy at MFF, Mr. Velizar Popov was amongst a 100 of candidates the one, who impressed in his overall knowledge of international football and the latest tendencies. He showed a very professional way of approaching players as a coach. Having experienced in Asia different professional environments, he understands well how cultures can have impact on player and team performances and what’s the best way to lead them. His football approach is ingrained by a very positive playing philosophy, wherein possession of the ball is critical to play a good brand of football and to be successful.

Further I experienced that his way of acting is meticulous and consistent, which impacted the U23 Myanmar National Team performances very positively and guaranteed progress in every game. Important underlying factors for his achievements are his good eye for potential talented players, his game-analysis and his quality to transfer to effective practical sessions, which made the players easy to understand the objectives and applying the playing principles. Finally on the basis of the success was a clear strategy plan, taking in account all factors and good corporation with his coaching staff. Aiming the highest professional approach, he understood in the same time the limits of the MFF and always managed this in a positive way. I appreciated Velizar’s open and also positive critical mindset, which was always looking for improvement as a coach, and looking further than only the result.

I can profoundly recommend Mr. Velizar Popov as a professional coach for professional Senior Club Teams, Senior and U23 National Teams.

Sincere regards,

Eric Abrams

Charyl Chappuis-Velizar Popov is the best coach I have worked with in Thailand Premier League

Myanmar preliminary squad for AFF U-22 Championship 2019 announced

Myanmar preliminary squad for AFF U-22 Championship 2019 announced

The Myanmar Football Federation has announced the preliminary list of players selected for its U-22 national team that will participate in the AFF U-22 Championship 2019.

The championship is scheduled to be held form February 17 to 26 in Cambodia with eight ASEAN nations fighting it out for the youth title.

Myanmar are pooled with hosts Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia in Group B while Group A will consist of Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam and Timor-Leste.

Top two teams from each group will qualify for the semifinals followed by the final to be held at the Phnom Penh Olympic Stadium on February 26.

Myanmar will be lining up at the AFF tournament under new coach Velizar Popov — the Bulgarian who has previous experiences at Suphanburi FC, Kelantan FA and Sisaket FC.

Myanmar preliminary squad for the AFF U-22 Championship 2019

Goalkeepers: Phone Thitsar Min (Shan United), Sann Sat Naing (Yangon United), Soe Arkar (Magwe FC), Tu Nanda Oo (Myawady FC)

Defenders: Win Moe Kyaw (Magwe FC), Soe Moe Kyaw (Ayawady United), Aung Wunna Soe (Zwekapin United), Ye Yint Aung (Yadanarbon FC), Hloo Khant Lwin (Yangon United), Thu Rein Soe (Yangon United), Ye Min Thu (Shan United), Zin Ye Naung (ISPE), Hein Phyo Win (Shan United)

Midfielders: Nan Hitke Zaw (Ayawady United), Lwin Moe Aung (Ayawady United), Zayar Naing (Magwe FC), Myat Kaung Khant (Yadanarbon FC), Aung Naing Win (Yadanarbon FC), Myat Htun Thit (Magwe FC), Zin Min Tun (Magwe FC), Zwe Thet Paing (Shan United), Aung Ko Oo (MFF U-19), Zaw Min Thein (MFF U-19)

Forwards: Hein Htet Aung (Hantharwady United), Htet Phyoe Wai (Shan United), Win Naing Tun (Yadanarbon FC), Kaung Htet Soe (Yangon United), Hlwan Moe Oo (Yangon United)

Head coach: Velizar Popov
Assistant coaches: Chit Naing, Soe Myat Min

Myanmar appoint Velizar Popov for 2019 SEA Games

Bulgarian coach Velizar Popov has been handed the reins of the Myanmar Under-22 team for this year’s 2019 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Manila.

Still only 42 but with plenty of managerial experience under his belt already, Popov’s appointment was announced by Myanmar Football Federation (MFF) on Wednesday evening.

The Bulgarian – a UEFA Pro Licence holder – is no stranger to the region, having had spells in Thailand with Suphanburi and Sisaket as well as in Malaysia with Kelantan.

In fact, Popov has coached solely in Asia since 2012 with stints in Oman and Maldives as well, the latter of which involving being in charge of the national team in 2015.


Myanmar are widely regarded as an emerging force in Southeast Asia but have seen their progress stagnate recently, highlighted by their group-stage exit at the last year’s AFF Suzuki Cup following a semi-final appearance in 2016.

The Under-23s also finished runners-up at the 2015 SEA Games, which was followed by a fourth-place finish two years later – when the tournament was converted to an Under-22 competition.

There is certainly no shortage of outstanding talent for Popov to work with, although inconsistency and indiscipline are often recognised as two factors preventing Myanmar from reaching the level of regional powerhouses Thailand and Vietnam.

But, with six players from the AFF Suzuki Cup 2018 squad eligible for this year’s SEA Games – Phone Thit Sar Min, Sann Sat Naing, Soe Moe Kyaw, Ye Yint Aung, Htet Phyo Wai and Lwin Moe Aung – Popov will definitely have some youngsters with valuable experience to build his side around, along with fellow bright prospects Myat Kaung Khant and Hein Phyo Win.

Photo credit: Myanmar Football Federation

East Bengal in talks with Velizar Popov for vacant head coach role

The Red and Golds are in talks with the Bulgarian to succeed Khalid Jamil as head coach of the club
Vrinda Chopra

What’s the story?
After dismissing Khalid Jamil from the position of the head coach of the club, the authorities at East Bengal are on a hunt to find a replacement for their former coach. The Kolkata giants are amid talks with Bulgarian national, Velizar Popov to take over the job at the club.

In case you didn’t know…
With almost two decades worth of experience in football coaching across the world, Popov makes a highly qualified candidate as Jamil’s successor at East Bengal, and the club would be lucky to have a mind like Velizar’s at their fortress. The 42-year-old has had stints in Europe, Asia and the Middle East – having participated in almost a couple of hundred official games as head coach in international competitions. Popov has also been a part of events such as the AFC Cup, UEFA Europa League, and the Asian World Cup Qualifiers as well.

In January 2013, he was appointed as the manager of Maldivian side, New Radiant SC (NRSC), where he went on to win the domestic championship on an unbeaten run. The manager also guided NRSC to Maldives FA Cup wins as well as the Super Cup Charity Shield, completing the treble for the season.

Heart of the matter
East Bengal have a vacancy at the club for the position of the head coach after sacking Khalid Jamil from the job following his string of poor performances and EB losing out to Bengaluru FC in the Indian Super Cup finale recently. Jamil had also said to have had a tiff with their technical director Mr. Subhash Bhowmick, as the latter refused to work with the then coach.

Sportskeeda has learned that Bulgarian manager Velizar Popov is the leading aspirant to take the coaching position at East Bengal.

What’s next?
Since Popov is available, East Bengal have shown interest in order to acquire his signature for the job. Though, the Kolkata giants are yet to name the man for the head coach role at the club.

Author’s take
Velizar Popov would bring in loads of experience from in and around Asian football. Having tasted so much success in the continent, it will be interesting to see the kind of impact he makes on the East Bengal squad, in a case in which he is appointed as the coach of the club. While the fans wait in anticipation of the appointment of the new coach of the side, Popov will sure be on the radar to be a fan favourite candidate.