Subject: AP: East Timor coach says world's newest nation on road to soccer greatness

East Timor coach says world's newest nation on road to soccer greatness

By SLOBODAN LEKIC Associated Press Writer

DILI, East Timor (Sept. 29, 2003) (AP) _ Ivan Cengic knew he was facing a daunting task when he took over as the soccer coach of the world's newest nation three years ago.

East Timor had just been devastated by withdrawing Indonesian troops and thousands of civilians were still camped out at the main stadium in the capital Dili, under protection of U.N. peacekeepers.

None of the stadium's facilities were working, the pitch was a disaster, and most of the half-island territory's best players _ along with hundreds of thousands of their countrymen _ were still living in tents provided by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.

The country of 750,000 was strapped for cash and totally dependent on international aid. There was very little money to spare for soccer.

But after a chance meeting with President Xanana Gusmao, himself a former goalkeeper who in the 1960s dreamed of playing for Lisbon's Benfica, Cengic accepted an invitation to take over the national team _ an unpaid position in Asia's poorest country.

``I did it because the Timorese are crazy about soccer, it's more than just a passion for them,'' said Cengic, who first got involved in helping the Timorese independence cause during the 1990s from his adopted home in Canberra, Australia. "But I am also convinced they will quickly progress and become a regional powerhouse."

After Indonesia invaded in 1975, the staging of football matches became an expression of resistance to the occupation. Stadiums were used for clandestine meetings where underground groups exchanged information about military operations.

Cengic, a Croatian who gained renown in the 1980s as a tough, no-nonsense defender for FK Osijek, acknowledges that the team faces long-term challenges.

They still lack the most basic equipment, including boots, balls and shin-pads.

``My players literally go hungry if I don't feed them,'' said Cengic. ``Creating a completely new national team in such dreadful conditions is incredibly difficult, but it has also been a very rewarding experience,'' he said.

Still, Cengic, also responsible for developing the country's youth teams, believes East Timor will quickly progress and that within 4-5 years it will play a major role in regional competitions such as the Tiger Cup, the national championship of Southeast Asia.

``All those centuries of Portuguese colonization left Timor with a Latin flair for the game," Cengic says, adding that it makes East Timor unique in this part of the world.

He is now focusing his efforts on developing the under 21 squads and the Olympic team as the nucleus for the future national side.

In 2001, at the biannual Arafura Games in Australia that bring together athletes from countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, East Timor's U-19 team won first place after defeating Australia's Northern Territory, Brunei and Macau in its first international foray.

In the organizational sense too, much has been achieved over the past three years.

East Timor now has a national soccer body _ the Federacao Football de Timor L'Este _ which gained membership in the Asian Football Confederation and hopes to be admitted next year to FIFA, world soccer's ruling body.

They have received financial and other assistance from AFC and expect to get more from FIFA's Goal Project, focused on promoting soccer in developing countries.

Equally important, the national federation is now set to launch the world's newest soccer league next year, said Amandio Sarmento, secretary general of the FFTE.

It is hoped that the league, consisting of 12-14 teams, will help lift the general level of the game in East Timor, despite the daunting challenge presented by the severe lack of funding, Sarmento said.

And there are plans to refurbish Dili's 15,000-capacity municipal stadium and bring it up to the standards demanded by FIFA and AFC in order to host international competitions.

``That's our true problem,'' Sarmento said. ``As an emerging country we don't have the facilities to play at home, nor the money needed to play abroad."

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