‘A’ Division League begins on Saturday, clubs confident ahead of the domestic circuitCoaches and players set their sights on the most coveted silverware.
The brand new season of the Martyrs’ Memorial ‘A’ Division League is set to kickstart at the Dashrath Stadium and the All Nepal Football Association complex in Satdobato from Saturday.
The organiser ANFA (All Nepal Football Association) has re-introduced the relegation system in the league which was absent in the preceding season. However, only the team finishing at the bottom of the points table will find themselves eliminated from the top division.
Machhindra Club take on Brigade Boys Club led by former Nepal captain Anil Gurung in the inaugural match of on Saturday. They themselves boast former captain Biraj Maharjan, Under-23 captain Sujal Shrestha who led Nepal to defend their gold medal at the 13th South Asian Games on Tuesday and Under-19 captain Rejin Subba in their squad.
The Janabahal-based club also have the joint top scorer of the Games for Nepal, Abhisek Rijal, and foreign recruits Peter Segun and Adelaja Somide of Nigeria and Andres Nia of Cameroon. Both Rijal and Shrestha had scored three goals for Nepal at the regional sporting spectacle.
Managed by Anil Shrestha, AFC 'A' license holder Prabesh Katuwal will shoulder the responsibility of the team coach. Machhindra had finished second from bottom in the previous edition of the tournament but later emerged as the major contenders of the title this season with their star-studded squad.
While Machhindra have strengthened their squad, winning the title will certainly not be a cakewalk for them as the Nepal Police Club, Tribhuvan Army Club, Three Star Club and Manang Marsyangdi Club have always been the powerhouses in the country’s domestic football tournaments.
Speaking at the pre-tournament press conference on the eve of the league’s first day at the Dashrath Stadium on Friday, Army coach Nabin Neupane said, “Our objective is to win the title, and we have been preparing well. However, not all of our players have trained together because of their engagements with the national team for the South Asian Games and the World Cup and Asian Cup joint qualifiers.”
“We played a lot of draws last season which hurt our title aspirations. With a strong bench and starting XI, I think we will make amends and emerge as serious contenders as the tournament progresses,” said Neupane.
Army captain and Nepal forward Bharat Khawas said, “As the league is yet to begin, we have not assessed the other clubs. As we train throughout the year, boys in the team are all fit and prepared for the tournament. We will formulate our strategies depending on our analysis of the oppositions.”
Machhindra coach Katuwal who had previously managed Jhapa XI said, “Most of the players from my time at Jhapa are in this squad, and therefore it has been easy for me to work. We have been training for the past three weeks.”
On the players at his disposal, Katuwal said, “The club has heavily invested in providing me with top players. They have also been provided with good facilities, boys are all high on spirit and motivation.”
Their captain Maharjan echoed Katuwal.
“Our squad in itself is a statement. We will play to win the league,” said Katuwal. “Three of our players have yet to train with the squad as they were involved in the Games, but this is not an excuse. We are confident and the spirit is good.”
Brigade Boys Club manager Arbin Gurung said, “We have given continuity to our young players from last season. More than 90 percent of our players are under 18.”
“Lack of experience in the squad was a major issue for us in the previous season and therefore we have added three experienced players to the squad,” said Gurung.
Former Nepal captain Anil Gurung is returning to Brigade Boys while the club has also signed Uttam Gurung and Bijay Gurung. Anil had begun his professional career from Brigade 14 years ago.
“We want to finish in the top six,” added Gurung.
Despite losing a few players to their opponents in the league, defending champions Manang Marsyangdi coach Fuja Tope had no complaints.
“Anjan Bista, Ranjan Bista, Bimal Gharti Magar are in the team, and the boys are in good shape. Jagajit Shrestha who is adored as Nepal’s Messi has returned from Australia, his presence in the team is great for us,” said Tope. “We are a committed side as always and want to add another silverware to our trophy cabinet.”
Former Nepal coach Raju Kaji Shakya who is looking after the New Road Team (NRT) said, “Despite my achievements with the national side, my teams have not been able to produce great results in the domestic circuit. I want to get over with the tag of being an unlucky coach this season. NRT will play with the objective of securing a spot in top six this season.”
While the other clubs in the league include national players, the Armed Police Force do not have much firepower in their squad.
Despite the absence of established players, Coach Rajendra Tamang is still optimistic about the tournament: “We do not have national players in the team but the boys are very motivated. Despite our failure in winning tournaments outside the valley, we recently won the Chandragiri Gold Cup, so the team is in good shape.”
Sharing his pre-tournament thoughts, Nepal Police Club manager Bharat Shah said, “As we are a departmental team, our players train around the calendar. We do not have any foreign players, but the squad is strong and balanced. Our objective is to win the tournament.”
Police player and coach Bhola Nath Silwal said, “Our head coach Ananta Thapa is not with us as he is currently taking the course for AFC ‘A’ license for coaches. His absence has certainly hurt us a little.”
Silwal added, “New players hesitate to join us as we are a departmental team. We once used to be a force in the domestic tournaments, and our aim this season is to reinstate the club as serious contenders.”
Set to debut at the top division as a coach, Bal Gopal Saukhala who will oversee Chyasal Youth Club said, “We do not have many top players, but we still have a lot of aspirations. Santosh Saukhala is returning from Japan to join us and we also have three Japanese players. Despite our boys not being at the same physical level as the other teams, the squad is technically sound.”
Himalayan Sherpa manager Ashok Shrestha lamented, “There are not many grounds in Kathmandu for us to train. Our team trained in Pokhara until a few days back. As the club chaired by the ANFA President, we must do well in the tournament.”