Year Ender 2016: Glory in despair2016 has been a historic year for Nepali football, but with many on and off field challenges ahead, players and fans need to remain grounded
With a string of historic titles, football remained the most successful sport in the country in 2016. Beginning with the Bangabandhu Gold Cup in January, the national men’s team claimed gold in the South Asian Games in February and capped a memorable year with the AFC Solidarity Cup triumph in November. After what was a horrid 2015, these unprecedented victories have undoubtedly filled players and fans with hope, but until concrete steps are taken to build on the recent gains, 2016 will have been just one more flash in the pan.
Not very long ago, Nepali football was in tatters. A match-fixing scandal involving national footballers and a 10-year ban on disgraced All Nepal Football Association (Anfa) President Ganesh Thapa on bribery and corruption charges had brought the game into disrepute. On the field, Nepal was on a barren spell—the team hadn’t scored a single goal in 28 months. The country had slipped to the 196th position in the Fifa World rankings, the lowest in its history. With problems persisting both on and off the field, the need for an overall facelift of football had become dire.
Emerging from 22-year title drought—the last international silverware being the 1993 South Asian Games gold—Nepali football went through a complete turnaround on the field in 2016. After the 1993 glory—when Nepal bagged its first ever international gold medal in football, we saw generations of footballers come and go but our search for a title was never realised. Instead, football continued to remain mired in controversy and plagued by inefficient administration. But this year, with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) slapping a life-ban on five footballers—including three from the playing squad—on match-fixing charges and some of the older players retiring, a new crop of national players had an opportunity to prove themselves in the international arena—an opportunity they grabbed with both hands.
Nepal won all of the three competitions that they participated in 2016.
No time to bask
Nepal had headed into the Bangabandhu Gold Cup in Bangladesh with a completely new-look squad with under-19 or untested players making up the ranks. A victory against the Sri Lankans and draws against Bangladesh and Felda United sent Nepal into the semi-finals, where they beat the Maldives in a 4-1 thriller. Coming up against a u-23 Bahrain side in the final, Nepal emerged victorious with an emphatic 3-nil drubbing.
The unofficial tournament helped Nepal break the 22-year title drought and more was on its way as the resurgent young team left for India to compete in the 12th South Asian Games (SAG) in Guwahati and Shillong.
Nepal won the gold, defeating archrivals India 2-1 in a pulsating final. The gold also helped Nepal salvage some pride during what was otherwise a disappointing Games for the country—its worst in the last 21 years. For the disappointed fans at home, the football gold, and that with a win against India, was a huge consolation.
When Nepal travelled to Malaysia after the win, they were tagged favourites for the AFC Solidarity Cup. The tournament was put to test for the first time, so that the teams making early exit from the joint qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup had tournaments to play in.
Though Nepal began with a drab goalless draw against Timor Leste, a 3-0 win against Brunei set up a nail-bitting semi-final duel with Laos, which the team edged past on penalties. Nepal lifted their third trophy with a 1-0 triumph over Macau.
The three titles have leased a new life in Nepali football and concurrently raised the expectations among fans. But titles of two unofficial tournaments and a U-23 tourney should not get football lovers carried away. Nepal’s real test lie ahead, starting with the Saff Championship in Bangladesh in the new year.
The biggest take-away from the uplifting year, however, has been that this new-look national team is not a one-man-show. Nawayug Shrestha, Bimal Gharti Magar, Bishal Rai, Anjan Bista, Prakash Budhathoki and Ananta Tamang, all of whom who have come the u-19 ranks and are below 23 years of age, have contributed to Nepal’s recent upturn.
If Nawayug has proved himself as a big finisher, the entire team has gone through a face-lift. Forgotten are the likes of Anil Gurung, Jumanu Rai and other established names; Nepal has found a new attacking trio. The new sleek midfield has yielded great results, and the control and calm they have displayed in difficult matches have been a breath of fresh air. The 25-year old skipper Biraj Maharjan led the Nepal defence in the tournaments and his experience has served young defenders Ananta Tamang, Aditya Chaudhary and Dinesh Rajbanshi well. Bikesh Kuthu, the 22-year-old goalkeeper, is also a rising star and was the stand out performer in the South Asian Games final, denying India several clear-cut goal scoring opportunities.
Long road ahead
But despite 2016 bringing much joy and hope, deep-rooted, systemic problems remain. Following the recent general assembly, All Nepal Football Associaion (Anfa), football’s governing body, saw its first ever election for the president to fill the vacancy created by Thapa’s 10-year suspension. The democratic election brought Narendra Shrestha, a close ally to Thapa, to the helm of Nepali football. Questions linger about the how influential the former president still remains.
After the 2015 earthquakes, Nepal’s only international-standard and home to the football team, Dasharath Stadium, has not been able to host any competitive events. The first-ever National League this year had to be played at the low-capacity Anfa Complex, whose astro turf is now the nation’s only training facility.
In the absence of a proper stadium, it is all but certain that football will not see the double-legged round robin ‘A’ Division League of the past. The multiple knock out tournaments organised outside Kathmandu Valley will remain the only saving grace for domestic football unless a solution is found. Good infrastructure is a basic requirement for any sport to flourish. And until concerted efforts are made towards that end, it is all but certain that as glorious a year as 2016 has been, it will almost certainly become just another false dawn.