When Nigerian footballer Adewumi Joshua Femi first set foot in Nepal's capital Kathmandu, he had no idea what to expect. "I had never heard of Nepal, let alone of football in Nepal." That was a while ago. Today Femi is one of many African players starring for clubs in the Nepali league, and FIFA.com recently caught up with some of them to see what life and football was like in a country that is so different from their own.
Zikahi Leonce Dodoz says that he was “tricked” into coming to the home of the Himalayas' Mt Everest by an unscrupulous agent who told the striker - at the time playing for Côte d'Ivoire top flight team JCAT - that he had organised a lucrative contact in one of Asia's big leagues. Determined to join the ever-growing list of African players outside of their continent, the 21-year-old accepted the offer. "But when I arrived at the airport, everything was very different. It was nothing like I had expected or been promised."
Dodoz stayed and signed a contract with Friends Club, and after impressing in his first season he was snapped up by the bigger Three Star Club. He says he has no regrets about playing in Nepal. "It took me just a few weeks to get used to the country. I am paid a lot of money by local standards, and I love Nepal and the people. They are friendly, and I have many friends. They like foreigners and they love to communicate with outsiders. I even speak Nepali ali ali [a little]."
It has become a familiar story for Africans, with almost 50 recently on the books in the country, which has welcomed their brand of athleticism and style. Nigerian defender Peter Segan, who is in his third season with Friends Club, says there is more focus on the newcomers and that the money they receive for playing puts some pressure on them. "It’s a huge challenge for us Africans because we are paid more than Nepali players so we need to prove our worth every single day."
Learning from the locals
Femi, who like Dodoz plays as a striker for Three Star, arrived in Nepal via India, where a friend of his was coaching. "He suggested I go to Nepal because the football was good technically, and the players are very skilled. He told me that if I spent some time playing here, my dribbling would become good, and I think he was right. I landed in Nepal and in one of my first training sessions I was asked to play for Three Star."
Dodoz agrees with his team-mate that Nepalese players are very skilful. "There are a lot of talented local players. The players are good technically and are very good with the ball, so they play a fast-paced game."
With Three Star, Dodoz has been involved in the AFC Presidents Cup and played against teams from Bangladesh, Taiwan and Mongolia in qualifying for the final round later this year. "Playing against them was much easier than playing against Nepali clubs in the league, which is tough. The players from other countries just have a physical game, but Nepal players are technically very sound."
Although football is the most popular sport in the country, Nepal’s national team is still ranked just 169th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. The 16-team Nepali league is just three-months long and thereafter clubs are involved in various cup competitions in the capital and other cities. Segan believes that is one of the things that should be tackled to improve the standard of play. "The league here is too short, and I think it should be lengthened to improve the standard of the game."
Another thing all three players agree needs to happen for Nepal to improve is that local players need to play in other leagues. "When you play abroad you become more experienced and get a lot of exposure and confidence. Many players from my country play in Europe, and they bring their experience back home, which is the reason Côte d'Ivoire is a good footballing nation," said Dodoz.
Embracing Nepali life
Like Dodoz and Femi, Segan enjoys the lifestyle in Nepal. "It is a great country to live in. The people are very good and friendly. I feel at home. I have even got used to Nepali food, which is very spicy. Dal and Bhat [lentils and rice] is my favourite dish now. I am happy."
Dodoz, who has a Nepali girlfriend, says when playing in a foreign country it is important to integrate. "I don’t think of myself as a foreigner. I think when a person is living away from his country, he should not act differently. He should do what the locals do. That way you will enjoy your stay abroad."
All three players say they have not come across any racism, which African players at times are confronted with when playing abroad. "When I first arrived, I was called Hapsi and at first I was offended because I thought it meant slave or something like that. But then I found out that it simply means dark-skinned and that even Nepali people can be called that," said Dodoz.
But even if they are content with Nepali life and playing in the local league, they retain dreams of playing in Europe, or, at least, a bigger Asian league. "I think it’s the dream of all footballers to play in the Europe. I want to play in Europe too. I work hard for that every day," remarks Segan.