With a league of its own and experienced coach at helm, women’s football hopes to hit the targetNewly-appointed Gary Phillips, 57, of Australia has the challenge of bringing home the first international trophy despite Nepal having reached nine finals since 2010.
Nepali women’s football witnessed two new things over the past couple of months.
The first-ever proper domestic league for women, in a double round robin format, was held from January 20 to February 19 and the national women’s team got as head coach an Australian, the first time a foreigner was appointed to the position.
Not only did the league indicate that there is interest in the women’s game with enough talent there among players to have a proper league but also that the players have the desire to play with the spirit that the game demands.
"The main factor to applaud is that all seven teams of the league showed footballing sense which was the major factor lacking in non-departmental teams in the past," said Sanjeev Mishra, the league director at the All Nepal Football Association (ANFA) and a football analyst.
Besides the Nepal Police, Armed Police Force and Nepal Army teams, called departmental teams, four municipal teams—Biratnagar Metropolitan City, Chandrapur Municipality, Chaudandigadh Municipality and Waling Municipality—had participated in the league.
"The players [of the non-departmental teams] exhibited sound footballing knowledge in ball kicks, passing, positioning and even the defenders moved up to attacking third,” said Mishra. “Although one team [Chaudandigadhi Municipality] conceded nearly two dozen goals in one game, they were competitive in other matches and even took the lead in two games.”
The league had a lot of young players who were still at school but there were some promising new players.
Four stood out.
Biratnagar Metropolitan City forward Kusum Khatiwada, Waling Municipality goalkeeper Sabitri Kisan, Armed Police Force midfielder Preeti Rai and Nepal Army defender Bimala BK showed they could stake a claim in the national team.
“For the first time, non-departmental teams played with courage and defeated the likes of Nepal Police, a team that trains round the year,” said Mishra. “More encouraging was the fact that unlike men, they played truly spirited games."
Nepal’s men footballers have at times been accused of not playing games with enough commitment and dedication and sometimes even in a way that is detrimental to the team.
The All Nepal Football Association plans to make the women’s league an annual affair.
But, to be sure, there are areas to improve on, according to Mishra.
The biggest was the lack of consistency in play of the non-departmental teams but this could be because of the short duration of the league with each team having to play 12 games in a month.
“There were also numerous flaws on the part of the coaches,” said Mishra. "The main factor missing on part of the coaches was they lacked quality to study the strengths and weaknesses of their own teams and those of the opponents. Even a team like Chaudandigadhi, who finished without a point in the league, resorted to offensive play after taking the lead instead of defending the lead.”
All the coaches of the seven teams were licensed ones.
However, Gary Phillips, the newly-appointed coach, is sufficiently impressed with Nepali players and sees brighter days ahead for the national team despite it never having won silverware before.
Nepal’s women footballers first played international games in 1986 in the AFC Women's Championship Hong Kong. But it is in the past decade that it has come of age with the national team reaching nine finals since 2010 but have always fallen at the final hurdle.
"Three or four players possess the skills to play at a much higher level,” Phillips told the Post in an interview. “Part of my job is to help these girls get to play at higher levels.”
His first challenge will be to qualify for the AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022. The qualifiers will be held from September later this year.
The fact that the tournament, held every four years, is being expanded to 12 teams from eight in past editions gives Nepal hope.
"With slight changes in what we are doing now, we can qualify for the top 12," he said.
The-57-year-old, who has been in coaching for more than two decades, said that he would try a new way of playing.
According to him, that new style would be with flair and the flexibility that allows all players to move forward to the attacking third while in possession and all behind the ball when the opponent has the ball.
“A 3-4-3 formation would be best for the philosophy, but it can be changed keeping the basic essence of this philosophy,” said Phililips.
That despite the ideas the coach has, it is up to the players on the field who are the main actors is not lost on him.
"Sometimes coaching jobs are overrated. The main thing is we need players who can make better decisions on the field. For this they need to have more experience at a higher level,” said Phillips.
Sadly, Nepal’s star player Sabitra Bhandari, 25, of Armed Police Force, who has a record 38 international goals to her name, will be unavailable for a year with an anterior cruciate ligament injury that she sustained during the league.
"Obviously, playing without Sabitra would be a huge blow to the country. For the national team it is like Barcelona playing without Lionel Messi. Without her, we have to find a different way of playing," said Phillips.
Besides the AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022 qualifiers, the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) is expected to organise the Women's SAFF Championship later in the year.
There, Nepal’s main challenge will be to overcome India against whom it has lost seven finals—three in the South Asian Games (SAG) and four in SAFF Championship finals. Two other finals Nepal have lost are against Myanmar in the Hero Gold Cup of India in 2019 and against Uzbekistan in the Nadezhda Cup of Kyrgyzstan in 2019.
Among the 14 matches played against India, Nepal have won one, lost 11 and drawn two matches. They have scored eight and conceded 36 goals.
Nepal are the second force in the subcontinent behind India and if Nepal are to make a mark in the higher level, they must get the better of India first.
This is a challenge for Phillips, who is taking both the role as technical director and women's head coach, according to Mishra.
"He would definitely have the opportunity to put Nepal ahead of India,” said Mishra. “Though Nepal have defeated India only once in the past, the goal margin reflects that there isn't much gap in the level of the two sides."
The only time they beat India was in the 2019 Gold Cup held in India in which they lost to Myanmar in the final. In the same year, however, they lost all four matches played against the South Asian powerhouse.
But Philips feels he is up to the task.
"The gap [with India] can be bridged,” he said. “India are better than Nepal on the back of their experience. They have longer competitions, better facilities and a coach education system.”
Having similar infrastructure in the country is a prerequisite if Nepal’s women footballers are to bring glory to the country, said Phillips.
“Nepal needs to make improvement in a lot of areas from coach education, longer tournaments, youth football and infrastructure development," said the Australian. “We also need to give girls more experience with higher level teams.”
In the search for the elusive silverware for the women’s national football team the recently concluded league fills a gap.
“We will have 20 new players picked from the league for the upcoming national team camp for the Women's Asian Cup 2022 qualifiers in addition to the 30 players from the last national team,” said Phillips. “Some of the new ones are capable of challenging for a place in the national team.”