Nepali spectators in massive numbers surprise hosts in CanberraDespite a 5-0 thrashing down under, Nepali fans had a lot to cheer about in the qualifier clash.
When team Nepal left for Australia for their joint FIFA World Cup 2022 and Asia Cup 2023 Qualifiers Group ‘B’ match against Australia, many had expected Nepal to concede plenty of goals even suspecting a double-digit demolition. Despite a comforting 2-0 win against Taiwan in their second away match of the group stage, Nepali wounds were fresh from the 7-0 humiliation in Kuwait in the first match of the campaign.
Nepal had conceded two goals within 13 minutes against Kuwait while letting in the five other goals in almost equal intervals in the second half. Temperature and playing conditions could certainly have been the major reasons for Nepal’s failure in coping up with the demanding situation out there. In their third match, Nepal were playing against Australia who had kept a clean sheet against Kuwait, winning by three first-half goals and therefore the build-up was more about Nepal producing a result, a draw or a defeat by less margin that they could be proud of.
But despite mustering only one shot against Australia in the entirety of the match, that too off-target, the performance was not met with ravaging criticisms that Nepali football is familiar with after disappointing performances. Given the magnitude of the gap between the two sides in terms of FIFA rankings where Australia is 117 places ahead of Nepal, resentment was certainly not the sentiment among the supporters of Nepali football fans.
Every touch of the ball, clearance and the rare moves forward by their national players were met with loud cheers and patriotic songs, audible in the television screens of those watching back home in Nepal. In addition to the initially allotted 5,000 tickets, more than half of the total 18,563 spectators at GIO Stadium in Canberra have been speculated to be Nepali supporters. Nepal has only rarely witnessed the support of such magnitude in an away fixture at any Qualifiers before and despite the 5-0 drubbing, the visiting fans did not complain about the defeat.
Bhumika Sharma and Utsav Baral who have been in Australia for almost six years said, “People flew to Canberra even from Darwin, 4,053 km away for the match to watch their country play. The atmosphere was electric even before the match started as the fans were in their national team shirt, waving their national flags of all sizes, even running around the stadium during the play with the iconic flag painted on their faces. It was more than just a football match for Nepalis while the Australians were surprised to see such a massive presence of Nepali supporters.”
It was not just the numbers of Nepalis that caught the Aussie eyes as Shalailah Medhora, an Australian journalist tweeted about Nepal’s commitment and the unique national flag. Another Australian Twitter user wrote, “Away support was pretty incredible last night, Nepal fans were loud and in numbers but also totally friendly.” In what we have observed from Nepali spectators at home matches when the team suffers a defeat, discipline is often lacking with the disgruntled fans even pelting water bottles against the Nepali players and team staff.
Barun Pandey, an ardent follower of football and another Nepali in Australia who drove for two and a half hours with his family of three to Canberra speaks of the exuberant Nepali fans, “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity for us to attend Nepal’s match against Australia, that during the festival of Dashain. The entire stadium felt like a big home for us as such was the atmosphere.” About Nepal’s performance in the match, Pandey adds: “We are not much disappointed as we were expecting Nepal to concede in double digits. Despite a lacklustre play from Nepal, the resilience was praiseworthy.”
Sabina Karki, a Nepali sports journalist who travelled to Australia to report on the match shared her interactions with Nepalis settled in Australia who had made it to the match, “International football tournaments are rarely held in Canberra and therefore the Nepalis and Australians in Canberra felt very lucky. The turnout of the spectators could have been higher had the match been played in Sydney or Brisbane.” Karki shared that Australia themselves did not appear as strong as expected given the fact that their team were studded with familiar names in European leagues. Despite the contrasting physicality of the teams and victory margin, the Socceroos coach Graham Arnold reiterated his pre-match call for more ruthlessness from his team, an indication that Australia could have done better.
In expressing his gratitude to the Nepali fans who had reached the GIO Stadium in Canberra to support their country, star Nepali defender turned midfielder Rohit Chand in his facebook post shared, “I thank all Nepalis for their presence in the match against Australia, the nation that is placed way above us in the FIFA rankings. Despite the result not being favourable for us, your love, support and motivation have made us proud. We will contribute more to the country through sports in days ahead. Jaya Nepal.”
Commentators during the match and international media were quick to note the condition and structure of domestic football in Nepal. Troubled and irregular domestic ‘A’ Division League, low payment to Nepali footballers and absence of a proper national stadium were spoken of live on-air by the commentators which must have been a pinch to the national football governing body, the All Nepal Football Association (ANFA).
Despite the result, the enthusiasm and contentment of the away fans at the stadium and back home was a unique occasion for Nepali football as for resentments, there were less while learnings must have been plenty for team Nepal and ANFA.