Bhandari's journey from barefoot dreamer to Nepal dazzler
Sabitra Bhandari, just 23, is Nepal’s all-time top scorer
She has fired two clubs to league titles in India
Bhandari dreams of helping Nepal conquer and playing in Europe
Sabitra Bhandari has, at the age of 23, realised her childhood ambitions. And then some.
Years back, the youngster, from a small village in the Lamjung District of Nepal, used to play football barefoot with neighbouring boys. The ball they played with was made of socks, but it didn’t stop her dreaming big. She wanted to become a team-mate of then Nepal women’s stars Anu Lama and Jamuna Gurung.
Now Bhandari is an established member of the Nepali Chelis alongside her idols. Furthermore, she has eclipsed them in terms of accomplishments. Bhandari, who turned 23 last month, is Nepal's all-time leading markswoman with 34 goals from 38 internationals.
"When I was young, I often heard on the radio that Lama or Gurung scored for the national team," she told FIFA.com. "From then on I had the dreams of playing with them one day. When this came true, I set new goals of becoming the top scorer, which I have also fulfilled.
"To be honest, I never expected that all this would come so quickly. But now I feel there is more responsibility and expectation on my shoulders. I'll try to stand up to it as time goes."
Indeed, when Bhandari lived with her parents and five siblings in their village, no-one dared to dream that she would have achieved what she has. A local girls' competition in 2014, however, changed the course of her fate.
Bhandari finished as the tournament’s top scorer and her eye-catching skills impressed a national referee, who helped give her a trial with Nepal Police Club (APF). Unsurprisingly, she earned a contract with the Kathmandu giants. The barefooted ace’s career was born.
"I never asked [my parents] for a pair of football boots,” Bhandari explained. “I knew it was unaffordable for my family.
“When playing for NPC, though, things began changing. I never had proper football training back in my village. But with APF I have made big progress.
“The club features many national team players, including my idols Lama and Gurung. It was a great experience training and playing together with them. They have taught me a lot."
That same year, Bhandari made the Nepal team for the 2014 South Asian Football Federation Championship and made her international debut against Bhutan, coming off the bench and sealing an 8-0 victory as a 17-year-old.
"I didn't expect to play that day," she said. "It was around the 86th minute when I was sent on, replacing Krishna Khatri. [Two minutes later] I scored the goal.
“I had dreamed of scoring for my country for so many years, but it felt quite different scoring in such a fashion. Even today I have chills reflecting on that memory."
If few knew who Bhandari was in 2014, then she was on every one's lips in the next edition two years later. Bhandari finished the 2016 regional championship as top scorer with 12 goals as Nepal reached the last four.
Bhandari was the tournament’s joint-top scorer in the 2019 SAFF Championship, where her side reached the final as hosts. However, a 3-1 loss to India saw their hopes of a maiden title shattered.
"We played well on home soil,” she said. "But we lost and we are aware that we are not there yet.
“Individually, I have improved over the years. But my records will mean something only to me until we prove we are the best in our region."
Despite the loss, Bhandari's prolific form on the regional scene didn't go unnoticed. She was signed by Indian giants Sethu FC last year and won the Indian Women’s League title.
After joining Gokulam Kerala FC this season, she continued her phenomenal prolificacy, managing 31 goals, including five hat-tricks, to fire her club to league glory.
"I have learned a lot from playing in India,” Bhandari said. “It was a new experience for me playing matches for a month-long period. I was lucky enough to have played a part and won the league with two different clubs. It was the teams’ joint efforts that counted.”
Those two titles haven’t quenched Bhandari’s thirst.
"My first goal is to work hard and help Nepal become the champions in South Asia," she said. "At the club level, I have thought of pursuing an overseas career in Europe if the chance comes.
"Football has changed my life completely. Nobody knew me back then but now, football is my identity. The country believes in me. I am proud to be known as a footballer for my country."