New-look Nepal harbouring fresh hopes

  • Nepal slumped to all-time low in 2016 Himalayan side have bounced back to sit 169th Now in the hunt for maiden AFC Asian Cup qualification

August's edition of the FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking saw Nepal, sitting among the lower reaches of the global ladder, regain the place they lost a month ago to return to 169th.

This slightest of moves may look humble compared to the South Asians' 38-place climb in December 1993 when they achieved their highest ranking of 124th. However, it comes as a reflection of their solid progress made on the world pecking order over the past twenty months.

They have been navigating an impressive upward spiral of late, which has seen the mountainous nation bounce back from their all-time low of 196th. That journey began in January 2016, in the wake of their disastrous campaign in the 2015 SAFF Championship.

Under Bal Gopal Maharjan, the Nepalese began last year with a bang, remaining undefeated to win the 2016 Bangabandhu Cup – their first regional title in 23 years. An eight-place ascendance to 188 saw their upward trajectory begin to take shape.

After Japanese manager Koji Gyotoku took over, the team’s progress did not hasten. Notably, under the former Shimizu S-Pulse and Bhutan boss, Nepal made history in last November's inaugural AFC Solidarity Cup, clinching their maiden Asian title.

Hopes of maiden Asian Cup qualificationThat success sealed their place in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifying third round, where they are grouped with the likes of Philippines, Yemen and Tajikistan. Despite losing to the Philippines by 4-1 in the opener, Gyotoku's charges stood firm and held Yemen to a goalless draw to grab their first point. With the leading pair advancing to the continental finals in the United Arab Emirates, the Nepalese, who have never appeared at the Asian Cup, are suddenly nurturing realistic hopes of a maiden qualification.

Bimal Magar, a 19-year-old goal-scoring prodigy and seen as the country's hottest prospect, could be the one to guide them there. Despite his tender age, the teenager joined the national team five years ago and has since racked up five international goals, two of which during their triumphant Solidarity Cup campaign.

Behind him, fellow teenager Anjan Bista has been providing the driving force in midfield alongside young Heman Gurung. But campaign-hardened defender Biraj Maharjan continues to sport the captain’s armband, while 29-year-old striker Bharat Khawas lends his notable experience too. With a team finely threaded by old and new, Nepal are more than capable of springing a surprise or two in their quest to reach UAE.

Next up is the double-header against bottom side Tajikistan, with Nepal playing host on 5 September before heading north on 10 October. To prepare for the crucial back-to-back meetings, the team travelled to Japan last week for an overseas training camp. A series of warm-up matches have been arranged, including friendlies against Gamba Osaka’s U-23 and Vissel Kobe’s U-18 teams.

"Since I took charge of the Nepal National team, I have always thought of training camps in Japan," said Gyotoku. "Now my hopes have finally materialised. I am confident that Nepal will put in good performances against Tajikistan."