Famous for boasting eight of the world's ten highest mountains, Nepal have been unexpectedly peaking on the football field this year. And the Himalayan republic’s progress was rewarded with a 22-place rise to 150th on the latest FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking, which made them Asia’s biggest movers in April.
Having outstripped Lebanon, Laos, Cambodia, Pakistan, Myanmar, Chinese Taipei and Philippines, Graham Roberts’ team are now 28th on the continent and within touching distance of a 146th-placed India side that competed in the prestigious AFC Asian Cup earlier this year.
The admirable climb owed to Nepal’s qualification for the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup, which is Asia’s second-most important international competition and one designed to aid its developing football nations. The South Asians opened up their Group D campaign with a 1-0 win over Afghanistan, and although they fell to 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ participants Korea DPR by the same score next time out, a goalless draw with Sri Lanka ensured their progress to the tournament as section runners-up.
Highs and lows
Nepal’s highest all-time position on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking was the 124th they occupied in December 1993. However, they struggled in the ensuing decade and a half and, 38 months ago, found themselves at an unprecedented low of 188th. That was when the rebuilding mission began, with qualification for the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup helping them make ground on the global ladder.
That steady progress has accelerated following the appointment of Graham Roberts in January. The former defender, who won two FA Cups and a UEFA Cup with Tottenham Hotspur during the 1980s, playing alongside the likes of Glenn Hoddle and Ossie Ardiles, has nurtured Nepal into a competitive team since his January appointment.
The 51-year-old ex-Pakistan coach has benefited from the likes of Kiran Chemzong, who conceded just one goal in their three AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers, influential captain Sagar Thapa, midfielder Nirajan Khadka and forward Bharat Khawas, who scored the only goal in that decisive victory over Afghanistan.
We have very talented boys in this squad. I have made them confident and instilled in them a winning mentality.
“We have very talented boys in this squad,” said Roberts, who was capped six times by England, before explaining how he has turned an ability-rich group into a proficient side: “I have made them confident and instilled in them a winning mentality.”
In their AFC Challenge Cup debut in 2006, Nepal took the competition by storm, sweeping past India in the quarter-finals before losing to Sri Lanka on penalties. Key to emulating that success will be making Nepal more prolific, according to Roberts.
“My first emphasis will be to make the midfield and forward line better," he said. "If you want to do better you should work hard. You should try to take yourself to the next height in every game you play.”