While the majority of participants entered the recent 2014 AFC U-16 Championship seeking to make a name for themselves, Bimal Magar was heralded as an established star prior to the competition.
The talented Nepal forward, who is plying his trade with the U-19 side of Anderlecht, had already tasted significant international experience before the Asian campaign. Despite being just 16, he has already represented his country at nearly every age level. He began his international career with the U-14 national team, before graduating into the U-17 and U-23 sides.
It was all the more notable that he made it into the national senior side competing in last September's 2013 SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) Championship. He had a dream debut in the second match against Pakistan, scoring the equaliser with a stoppage-time strike in a 1-1 stalemate which helped Nepal progress to the last four as section winners.
"I thought it was like a dream when I scored my first international goal (against Pakistan)," Magar told FIFA.com. "I was repeatedly asking myself: have I really scored? I was awkward when I entered the field. But I wanted to score in my debut. When the keeper parried the ball, I unleashed a shot and saw the ball fly into the back of the net. It was a historic moment."
It was, indeed, a history-making goal. At the age of 15 years, eight months and eight days, Magar became the youngest player in Nepalese history to score an international goal. A year on, the youngster still couldn't hide his excitement as he recalled the occasion.
"Everyone at the stadium went into rapture, shouting out my name," he said. "The next day was more memorable. My name and pictures occupied the media and newspapers. It was a great moment."
Shining bright at continental level
Three weeks after he scored that famous goal, Magar entered the AFC U-16 Championship preliminary stage tasked with captaining his side. They didn't have a kind draw being grouped together with the likes of Iraq, Bahrain and Turkmenistan. But with Magar spearheading the line-up and playing as hosts, Nepalese fans were expecting their boys to spring a surprise.
The home supporters were not let down. Magar and Co got off to a dream start with a 2-0 defeat of Bahrain. The striker got his name on the scoresheet in the second outing as they drew 2-2 with Iraq which left them on the edge of qualification. Reassured and relaxed, the teenager prodigy completed a treble as they routed Turkmenistan 4-0 to progress.
"The qualification round in Kathmandu was good," Magar said. "We were pitted against tough rivals but we qualified as winners. When I captained the team against Bahrain I was a bit nervous, but from the second game I gained confidence. I finished as top-scorer of the qualifying campaign."
"Before the qualifiers, we used to play against teams from South Asia. So the qualifiers gave us the confidence that we could tackle teams outside South Asia as well. It gave us the confidence that we are on par with them. When we defeated the teams in the qualifiers, we felt we can take on any teams."
Considering their impressive qualifying campaign, Nepal were understandably labelled dark horses heading into this month’s AFC U-16 Championship. However, they failed to progress beyond the group phase despite putting in a series of impressive displays.
I want to establish myself as a good player there and hopefully also help create opportunities for Nepalese players.
Suspended for the first match, Magar could only watch from the sideline as his team drew 1-1 with defending champions Uzbekistan. He then started and scored the match-winner from the spot in a 2-1 victory against Kuwait, but a 4-1 loss to eventual champions Korea DPR proved costly as they missed out on a place in the last eight.
"I was sad that I couldn't play against Uzbekistan," Magar said. "I felt that I could have helped the team had I been on the field to score more goals."
However, Magar is quick to switch his sights to fresh goals. He said: "Our team is good. I feel proud to be part of this. I am hopeful that this team can qualify to the next AFC U-19 (Championship). We have understanding among us and the teamwork and coordination is great."
On an individual level, Magar boasts a standard above most of his Asian peers. As a player who has attracted attention from the likes of Manchester United, FC Twente and Lierse SK before joining Anderlecht, it is natural that young Magar harbours dreams of his own.
"My aim is to become a professional player and to play in Europe," he concluded, "I want to establish myself as a good player there and hopefully also help create opportunities for Nepalese players."