Can Nepali women qualify for football World Cup?Compared to men’s team, women’s national team shows a lot of promise and character, say analysts and insiders. Statistics back them up.
As the world is captivated by the ongoing Women’s World Cup football and eagerly awaits the Spain-England final on Sunday, the global stage is still far away for both men’s and women’s Nepali national teams.
The men’s team, one of the perennial underachievers in Nepal’s sporting history, has been hit by a continuous exodus of players: almost five dozen national players have left the country in search of better futures, and the newcomers are following suit.
Compared to the men’s team, the women's national team has shown a lot of promise and character, say football analysts and insiders. Statistics show the same thing. While the men’s team ranks 175, the women’s team are in the 101st position in the FIFA World rankings.
Though the Nepali women’s national team has a shorter history than men’s, its prospects look brighter. The men’s team embarked on its official international journey in 1982 and has been continuously competing in various international events. In 2016, it won the AFC Solidarity Cup, the lowest tier inter-country football tournament that featured four teams, which can be considered its biggest achievement thus far.
The women's team played its first international tournament in 1986 AFC Women’s Championship and featured twice in the same event three years later, and again in 1999. After playing their first official international tournament, the women’s team took part in only three tournaments in the next 24 years. This was before women’s football was included in the 2010 South Asian Games (SAG). In the same year, South Asian Football Federation started the biennial SAFF Women’s Championship.
The unorganised and scattered women’s football in Nepal took off after the first Women’s SAFF.
In 14 editions of the SAFF Championship, the men’s team has entered the final of the biennial sub-continental tournament only once since its inception in 1993. It got to the semi-finals on six occasions and crashed out of the group stage on seven occasions. Only the first edition in 1993 and 13th in 2021 was held in round-robin league format while others were played in league-cum-knockout formats.
The women’s team has secured second place finishes in five out of six SAFF Championships and once lost in the semi-final.
“The women’s national team has a more realistic chance of playing World Cup football than their counterpart. However, it all depends on the national football governing body’s ability to come up with and implement proper plans,” said former national women’s team coach Kumar Thapa. “The international football governing body FIFA has been pushing for gender equality in the game and expanded the Women’s World Cup to 32 teams for the first time in 2023.”
In the past two years, Nepali women’s football team played against two FIFA Women’s World Cup finalist sides including Vietnam and the Philippines.
Nepal played twice against Vietnam in the Paris 2024 AFC Women’s Olympic Qualifier at Dasharath Stadium in April. It lost both the games, with scorelines of 5-1 and 2-0. Nepal had played against the Philippines in the 2022 AFC Women’s Asia Cup Qualification.
In that game, Nepal was tantalisingly close to victory after scoring an early goal, but conceded an equaliser three minutes from time. They went on to lose the game following another goal in stoppage time. Had Nepal won the match, it would have qualified for the Asia Cup finals for the first time. Instead, the Philippines secured a place in the final from the three-team group.
Sanjib Mishra, the ANFA competition director, who returned from Australia after watching three World Cup matches, also sees good prospects for women’s football. “We played against Vietnam and the Philippines in the past two years. Though Vietnam beat us by a big goal margin in the first game, they were never too dominant and the game against the Philippines was a tight contest as well,” recalls Mishra.
“Our women’s team could soon play at the World Cup if we have good plans and robust development programmes. The massive presence of spectators in the ongoing World Cup gives a positive message about women’s football,” added Mishra.
The men’s World Cup will be expanded to 48 teams for the first time in its 2026 edition, from the 32-team contest in the previous editions. “The women’s team could also be a 48-team contest after a few editions, maybe in 2031 or 2035. With proper planning, we could be there at the global stage,” added Thapa.
But, despite the optimism of Nepal’s football loving fraternity, the dream could well turn out to be an illusion given the pathetic situation of football in the country.
Unlike the case with their male counterparts, there is no women’s football league in the country and no professional setup. The existence of the national women’s team is wholly dependent on security forces—Nepal Police, Armed Police Force and Nepal Army—who have had women’s football teams for over a decade.
Though ANFA under former president Karma Tsering Sherpa had initiated to organise first-ever double leg women’s football league in March last year, the tournament stopped after completion of the first leg and leaders Nepal APF Club were declared winners almost after half a year.
The All Nepal Football Association (ANFA), the country’s football governing body has not held a single tournament of any kind for women in the past year and a half.
Former women’s team coach Thapa says investment in women's football as well as the involvement of fans and media are increasing. In this light, the Nepali women’s football team has a realistic chance of competing at the highest level, especially given its neck-to-neck performance against some finalists of the current World Cup. “But there is no conducive environment for the growth of women’s football in Nepal.”
“The women’s team should have a professional setup and there should be age-group tournaments. Only the teams of the security forces cannot sustain women’s football in Nepal for long. The scenario will be even worse if women footballers also start leaving the country in droves like their male counterparts,” added Thapa.
The condition of the men’s football in the country is only marginally better. Though the ANFA managed to run the top tier ‘A’ Division League last season, they are yet to pay the promised preparation fees to the clubs.
Despite the existence of ‘B’ and ‘C’ division leagues in the men's football structure, “we are unable to fix the tournament dates owing to a budget crunch,” according to ANFA General Secretary Kiran Rai.
While the bottom two teams of all three tiers get demoted to a lower tier, the top two teams of ‘B’ and ‘C’ divisions get promoted by a tier. But if the ‘B’ and ‘C’ Division football are not conducted on time, the entire tier structure could collapse.
As Thapa, the former coach, puts it, only “serious commitment from the football governing body, political leadership, corporate houses and most importantly parents and players will get Nepali teams up to the World Cup status”.
“It is impossible for our men’s team to qualify for the World Cup in a few decades even in the expanded 48-team tournament due to tough competition. But it will be a different story for our women’s team if the same number of teams play in the future women’s World Cups,” said Mishra, the ANFA competition director.
ANFA had hastily announced ‘Mission 2027’ at a function a couple of months before the kick-off of the Women’s World Cup. On paper, the mission was aimed at Nepali women’s team’s qualification for the 2027 Women’s Cup.
“But almost three months have passed and ANFA has not even started drafting a plan for the mission,” said an ANFA insider who did not want to be named.