Nepal win gold in men's football, earning hard-fought victory over BhutanNepal continued their unbeaten run in the tournament to match Pakistan’s record of four football golds in the South Asian Games.
Hosts Nepal defended their football gold after brushing aside a spirited challenge from Bhutan on the concluding day of the 13th South Asian Games. Nepal’s under-23 team secured a 2-1 win against the Dragon Boys in the title clash at Dashrath Stadium on Tuesday.
Nepal had beaten Bhutan 4-0 in the league stage of the tournament and reached the finals as the only unbeaten side.
Nepal head coach Bal Gopal Maharjan made an early substitution in the 14th minute, replacing captain Sujal Shrestha with striker Rajesh Pariyar. Before leaving the grounds, Shrestha handed his captain's armband to Bikram Lama, the central defender.
Shrestha was also substituted in the 78th minute in the previous clash against Bangladesh as he had suffered a series of rough tackles.
Three minutes after the early substitution, midfielder Abhishek Rijal put Nepal ahead after he found the back of the net from inside the area. The goal put him at par with Shrestha as the top scorer of the tournament with three goals each.
Bhutan had a freekick in the 33rd minute from just outside the box, but their effort from the set-piece ricocheted off the wall and they could not produce anything from the resulting corner.
Four minutes later, Bhutan equalised, as their captain and star forward Chencho Gyeltshen swiftly managed to break the Nepali backline and shot off from the left edge of the box, sending the ball flying past Nepal goalkeeper Bikesh Kuthu.
The visitors came close to leading in the 42nd minute from a similar situation but Kuthu managed to comfortably block this attack.
Chencho thereafter was marked well by Nepali defenders and he was barely able to exercise his authority in attacks.
Midfielder Sunil Bal reinstated Nepal's lead shortly after the first half, converting in the 54th minute. He, however, earned a booking for taking his shirt off while celebrating his goal.
Rijal could have had a brace in the 58th minute but he failed to score in a one-on-one situation as Bhutanese keeper Gyeltshen Zangpo saved his effort.
Maharjan had been stressing on the need for his team to make the best of their dead-ball opportunities. However, as in their previous matches, Nepal failed to capitalise on their set-pieces.
Nepal had a freekick in the 70th minute but Mikchen Tamang, who had earlier in the tournament converted from a similar spot, hit the bottom of the wall.
Bhutan's number 10 Kabi Raj Rai was close to scoring an equaliser in the 83rd minute to bring Bhutan level, but his attempt went just wide.
With the final whistle drawing close, Bhutan resorted to getting physical in their attempts to steal possession while Nepali players appeared to be wasting time to seal the win.
Despite a few attempts from either team, neither of them found the net and the match ended at 2-1 after a close call near the goal line of the homeside in stoppage time.
With Nepal's win, Maharjan became the first Nepali to win gold as both player and coach. He was a member of the Nepal squad when they won gold at the 1993 edition of the Games in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
"When we won in 1993, it was the only gold for Nepal at the Games," he said. "However, levelling Pakistan’s record of four gold medals and marking the 51st for Nepal at home has its own significance.”
According to Maharjan, Nepal's performance throughout the tournament was better than he expected.
“We played five matches in a very short span of time so there was no recovery period for the boys,” said Maharjan, his voice hoarse from shouting instructions to his players. “Today, we led and should have put ourselves in a comfortable position, but we lost the ball to Chencho in quick transition and given the kind of player he is, he doesn’t miss out on opportunities.”
Bhutan’s performance and sporting spirit throughout the tournament earned them a huge roar of support from the home crowd upon the final whistle. The Bhutanese players themselves reached the corners of the stadium and bid farewell to the spectators.
The two South Asian nations had played 14 matches before the Games’ final with Nepal emerging as the winners on all occasions. However, Bhutan’s U-18 team had shocked Nepal’s U-18 outfit 3-0 at the South Asian Football Federation Under-18 Championship in Kathmandu three months ago.
“These are promising players," said Maharjan. "The state must now proceed with proper plans to further develop football in Nepal. Focus now has to shift on ensuring a regular league, youth structure and sound facilities for players. The craze for the beautiful game among Nepali followers is a call for the state’s attention.”
The men’s football tournament, despite drawing controversy for changes in schedule on three separate occasions, was attended by thousands of Nepali fans, with the stadium filled to the brim.