BY NARAYAN UPADHYAY
Football scaling the heights in Nepal? Given the topography of the Himalayan Kingdom where 83 per cent of the land is covered by mountains and hills, such an idea may appear rather far-fetched. Nevertheless, football is indeed Nepal's most popular sport
The valleys and flatlands of Nepal often play host to football matches, and the beautiful game is played with more gusto and enthusiasm than any other sport. Indeed, the capital city of Kathmandu, itself situated in a vast valley, hosts many major tournaments the whole year round.
In terms of popularity and the number of people playing the game, football occupies the number one position over other sports in Nepal, a country home to some 23 million people. It is perhaps even more surprising that football is so popular in in this predominantly Hindu nation as the Himalayan Kingdom was only opened to foreigners in the late 1940s. With the first influx of foreigners to the City of Temples, as Kathmandu is known, a number of football fans started to play the game in an organised manner. Seven teams from the Kathmandu Valley played in the first tournament, which was to be the prelude to Nepal's domestic championship - the "Martyrs Soccer League".
The league celebrated its golden jubilee this year and in just five decades, Nepal has witnessed an astronomical rise in the number of football clubs and tournaments around the country. Since the establishment of the All Nepal Football Association (ANFA) in 1975, a number of other tournaments have complemented the domestic league championship. For example, Nepal's top ten first division clubs go head-to-head with the Nepal Police and Army Teams for the national league title every year, while the second division and third division clubs do battle for their respective league titles.
The 36 district-level FAs, various corporations and local government bodies provide most of the assistance that comes ANFA's way, helping Nepalese football's governing body to organise nationwide tournaments all year round for senior clubs and different age groups, thereby maintaining football's position as the number one sport. ANFA recently introduced an annual football calendar, with tournaments for the first division clubs, as well as for the U-19, U-17 and U-14 youth teams. The number of football tournaments in Nepal has always surpassed the number of events for other sports.
For the 2003-2004 season, ANFA organised 24 tournaments across the country, and prepared the national and youth teams that took part in the World Cup qualifying matches and the Asian Youth Championship. In this season's final tournament, 425 clubs, mostly amateur, participated in the Khukuri Cup at district, regional and senior level. Almost 8,000 players, half of whom were registered, played in the nationwide tournament in the space of two months.
USD 236 INCOME
Despite the popularity of the game, the lack of appropriate footballing infrastructure and the dearth of trainers, technicians and other facilities have always been obstacles in the way of the Nepalese FA's endeavours to raise the standard of football among the players of a nation that has an official per capita income of just USD 236.
The woes of Nepalese football, however, have been immensely relieved by FIFA's determination to promote football in Nepal through youth programmes. In the mid-1980s, FIFA provided financial assistance and sent a number of coaches to help Nepal launch its first youth programme, which was geared towards spotting talent at the grassroots level (such as in schools, for example) and providing young players with the necessary know-how, both on and off the pitch.
The initial five-year plan helped half the players groomed under the first youth programme to find a place in the national side, and the team that won the gold medal in the sixth South Asian Federation (SAF) Games mostly consisted of the players from that youth programme. However, Nepalese football failed to build on that success at subsequent international tournaments as the players lacked the technique and skills to meet football's ever-changing challenges.
ANFA asked FIFA for financial assistance to check the downslide of Nepalese domestic football and in 1998, FIFA agreed to donate funds through its Financial Assistance Programme (FAP), thereby allowing ANFA to construct a secretariat along with a football pitch and a hostel in Kathmandu to launch its youth development programme. The two-year intensive training period for the youth players selected in 1998 produced a number of skilful players, who recently participated in the ninth SAF Games (Pakistan, 29 March - 5 April). The same team had earlier topped its group in the Asian Cup preliminary round in March 2004.
In 2002, endeavours to develop football received a further fillip when FIFA awarded a Goal programme to Nepal. Thanks to this project, ANFA has constructed regional football centres that include hostels, office secretariats and playing grounds in three major towns in three different regions.
ANFA built these centres to focus on spotting hidden talent in villages or schools around the nation. These centres will also provide the necessary coaching and physical training, and in the long-term, the nation as a whole will benefit with more regional football sides on a par with the clubs of Kathmandu.
Despite many attempts to raise the standard of football, the players of the resource-strapped nation have not been able to make their mark in international football beyond South Asia. Indeed, Nepal's "A" national team recently suffered a number of heavy defeats in international matches outside of South Asia. In a match during the Asian Cup qualifying round in Korea Republic, the hosts scored 16 goals to no reply. In their six matches, Nepal conceded 45 goals and failed to hit the back of the net even once.
Nepal's disappointing showing at international level can largely be attributed to their lack of international exposure, as well as to the poor standard of training and other facilities. Currently in 171st position in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking (April 2004), Nepal had their first glimpse of international football in the 1982 Asian Games but they had to wait four years for their first international goal, with the national side finding their opponents' net in the Seoul Asiad on 26 November 1986. But Nepalese football's greatest moment undoubtedly came in 1993, with the national team defeating hosts Bangladesh en route to securing the gold medal at the South Asian regional sports meeting, the South Asian Federation (SAF) Games.
ALL NEIGHBOURS DEFEATED
Nepal celebrated their 100th international football match in January 2003 when they played Bangladesh in the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship. Sadly, Nepal failed to make any real impact at the tournament. During its 22 years of international participation, the Nepalese team has only played 26 nations outside of South Asia, but it has defeated all of the country's South Asian neighbours during various regional tournaments. The qualifying competition for the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ witnessed one of Nepal's best performances in international football, with the Nepalese securing two wins in four matches and scoring 13 goals in two matches against Macao and Iraq.
But with the Nepalese national and youth teams failing to achieve any noticeable success at international level and FIFA introducing new age restriction systems in several international tournaments, Nepal recently decided to compete only in the FIFA World Cup™ and Asian Cup qualifiers as well as the SAFF Championship.
EUROPEAN FOOTBALL ON TV
The disappointing showing at international level notwithstanding, ANFA is doing its utmost to keep the game at the top. FIFA's assistance in developing young players is being used purposefully and the efforts to hold tournaments the whole year round from the district to the central level are still on the rise. Football has clearly reached the summit of popularity in this Himalayan Kingdom. Even the bloody Maoist campaign and political unrest have failed to diminish Nepalese passion for football, which has kept the game at the very top, even during troubled times.
Hordes of people visit the national Dashrath Stadium, the only stadium in Kathmandu, or the open grounds in other parts of the nation when domestic or international matches are played held. Crowds including priests and Buddhist Lamas are often seen in football grounds when certain national or international teams play.
The Nepalese people's love and care for football has turned Nepal into an Indian subcontinent nation where football is safely perched at the top, despite the rapid growth of cricket in the other nations of the region. Their passion for football often transcends the national borders as the young Nepalese fans, whose numbers are growing fast thanks to live broadcasts of European football, are known to idolise international stars such as David Beckham, Ronaldo, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Zinedine Zidane and Raúl.