01 March 2016

A few thoughts on Asean football

Super cup between Buriram and MTU in Bangkok
As the start of the various leagues in the ASEAN region are around the corner, I thought I would share my thoughts on some of them.

Thailand

With formidable results by its national teams and Buriram United's performance in the last edition of the AFC Champions League, it looked like Thailand was ready to graduate to the next tier of Asian football. Chonburi's 9-0 drubbing by FC Tokyo in the 2016 ACL playoffs however was a big reality check (MTU's 0-3 scoreline to Shanghai SIPG, despite a good performance, also did not help), showing that Thailand still has a ways to go to join the elite of Asian football.

That does not take away from the emergence of the Thai Premier League Premier League Thailand as one of the livelier leagues in Asia. In terms of marketing and fan culture, Thailand is right up there with any league in the continent. There are also plenty of websites, blogs and social media channels that provide information that make the league quite easy to follow. If the level of play on the field can catch-up with the off-the-field successes of the league and its clubs, and the constant politics in Thai football  were to finally subside, the PLT has a chance of being one of the top Asian leagues.

Buriram United and Muangthong United will battle it out for the domestic crown, though it seems Buriram is still at a higher tier than MTU. Buriram's exploits in Asia will be should have been interesting to follow. Unfortunately, they have self-destructed from the get-go.

Malaysia

I was about to write a blog post titled "Malaysian football's Malaysian problem". The gist of the piece was to argue that until the level of Malaysian players improve, Malaysian club football will be stuck at the AFC Cup level. With the AFC's 3+1 rule at a minimum 7 players on the pitch have to be Malaysian, therefore no matter the quality of the foreigners it is hard to see Malaysian clubs play in the AFC Champions League. After JDT's solid performance against Muangthong United of Thailand in the ACL qualifying round, I thought it was a bit unfair to publish such an article - because not just Malaysia but the entire region has the same issue.

Malaysian football has the fans and kind of has the money, but what they are seriously lacking is a large pool of quality players. That is why credit must be given to JDT and the vision of HRH Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim in heavily investing in youth development in the state of Johor through a serious and credible partnership with Borussia Dortmund.

The other thing missing in Malaysian club football is professional management. The off the pitch drama is a total soap opera and that certainly has an affect on what happens on the pitch.

Selangor and Felda look set to be near the top of the table but it is hard to pick against JDT. They will likely lift multiple trophies this season.

Singapore

I had lost my enthusiasm for the S-League a few weeks back. The team I keep an eye on, Geylang International FC, had a miserable season in 2015. Home United moved out of Yishun Stadium, which is right next to my residence, and FAS provided a poor vote of confidence to the S-League by announcing it was going to be a development league for the mysterious Asean Super League - which only FAS seems to know about.

Things however changed in a hurry. Lions XII were kicked-out of the Malaysian tournaments thus most of their players dispersed to S-League sides. Tampines Rovers signed Jermaine Pennant and several prominent sponsors partnered with the league and clubs.

The S-League became interesting again and early season crowds have been quite good. Hopefully, this will bring some stability to the league and perhaps a few defunct local clubs will consider joining the league again in the near future.

Tampines look like the title favorites. Albirex could make some noise.

Vietnam

I had the privilege to tour Vietnam at the beginning of the year and meet the V-League management and visit with all the clubs. It feels as though the V-League and Vietnamese football is in the ascendancy. While it cannot be compared to the more mature football nations in Asia, I was relatively impressed with the marketing and management of the V-League. Also Vietnam has a strong crop of youth players, several that are training Korean and Japanese clubs.

Becamex Bin Duong was very impressive against Muangthong United of Thailand (This team is everywhere! Third reference in this blog post) in a preseason friendly in Ho Chi Minh City. They have gotten off to a respectable start in the AFC Champions League as well. They should easily win the V-League.

Bonus: Laos

Afraid I'm not too familiar with Laotian football, but I did stumble upon the Lanexang United website the other day. Quite impressive for a developing football nation.

05 December 2015

Nepali fans cheated by match-fixers

Nepali football fans in Malaysia
I was at the Shah Alam Stadium in Selangor, Malaysia in October of 2008 to watch the Nepal - Sierra Leone match in the Merdeka Cup. At the time I was an Asian Football Confederation staff member based in Kuala Lumpur. There were another 800-1,000 Nepali fans at the game as well,  most of them laborers working in Malaysia.

Shah Alam Stadium is not the most convenient stadium to get to. About 40 minutes or so from Kuala Lumpur, it is not very accessible by mass transport. A taxi ride there costs around $25-30 from the city center. If you consider ticket, food and opportunity costs, for a Nepali laborer earning between $200-$300 a month, making a trip to watch that game was a considerable investment.

Life in Malaysia can be tough for Nepali laborers. Many have to deal with less than ideal working conditions including hazardous work places, long hours, low pay and years without seeing their family. As a result, alcoholism and drug abuse are quite common. According to the Nepal Embassy approximately 1 Nepali laborer dies everyday in Malaysia (between 300-400 a year).  Many of the deaths are a result of substance abuse and suicide.

A chance to watch Nepal's national team  was certainly an investment for the laborers, but it was also a great reprieve - a chance to escape their daily ordeal and for 2 hours freely, proudly and passionately wave their national flag and support their heroes.

Unfortunately, if we are to believe notorious match-fixer Wilson Raj Perumal's memoirs Kelong Kings, and the recent arrests of 5 Nepali players on the grounds of match-fixing by Nepal Police and subsequent lifetime bans by the AFC would suggest that there is no reason to dismiss his accounts, the  heroes the laborers went to see were actually villains.

Perumal, in great detail, claims in his book that he had paid the Nepal team to lose the match against Sierra Leone U-20 team. Despite facing a youth team of a very weak African footballing nation and being a man up for the majority of the game, due to a Sierra Leone player receiving a red card, Nepal gave-up two late goals, which Perumal says were deliberately conceded, and lost the match 1-3.

The match-fixing Nepali players got paid. The loyal Nepali fans were defrauded. The time, hard earned money, and commitment of the laborers all wasted on what was essentially a bogus match.

The laborers were just one group of loyal Nepali fans that were cheated by the match-fixers. Also hoodwinked were the professionals in America who wake-up in the early hours of the morning to watch the Nepal national team play on a shitty Internet stream, the thousands of students in Delhi and Dhaka that skip classes and go to the stadium with their faces painted red, white and blue, the freelance journalists that fly to the corners of Asia to provide live commentary of Nepal matches to fans across the globe, and of course the die-hards that wait on line for hours and pay thousands to get into Dasharath Rangashala.

Some have expressed their sympathies towards the match-fixing players arguing among other things that they were neglected by ANFA, needed to take care of their families, and are only a product of a very corrupt society where politicians get away with murder, literally and figuratively. While that might be true, being poor does not give anyone the right to rob a bank. My own sympathies - they go out to the millions of passionate Nepali football fans around the world who've been duped for years.

27 September 2015

Youth football gaining momentum

I offer my apologies in advance to anyone expecting this blog post to offer jubilation over the success of Nepal’s Under 19 and Under 16 in the SAFF U19 Championship and AFC U16 Championship qualifiers. If you are looking for those types of pieces I would recommend going over to the official ANFA website or GoalNepal to get your fill. A short commentary on Nepal’s youth national teams’ achievements can be found at the bottom of this article.

There is another element of youth football that I would rather focus on and that Nepali football fans should get excited about. It is the emergence of youth football schools and academies across Nepal. In fairness, it is perhaps happening at a pace slower than the ideal, but for a country that was able to wait seven years for a constitution and used to long queues at government offices to petrol pumps, a bit of patience for sports development should be manageable.
Lalitpur Sports Training Center (Pic: LSTC Facebook Page)

Nepal had a futsal revolution and it may well be that it is on the verge of a youth football insurgency. A combination of factors including the proliferation of futsal halls, a growing urban middle class looking for activities for their children and the glamour of football brought on by the Premier League, Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo have given rise to youth football training centers across Kathmandu Valley and the country.

While Sahara Club, SWSC, MYA and Futsal Arena in Thamel, amongst a few others, were the pioneers on this front, at a recently held youth football workshop that I conducted, a new breed of football schools/academies were in attendance.

They included the hosts of the event, Lalitpur Sports Training Center, which is currently conducting weekend sessions for kids 8 to 14 at the Pulchowk Engineering Campus and hopes to take football training to every corner of Lalitpur district.

There was a group of soccer moms that have started the Kathmandu Kickers training program in Mandikhatar, initially for their own kids, but since open to everyone that meets several criteria including active involvement in the program by parents of the trainees.

Kathmandu Kickers organizers (Pic: KK Facebook Page)
A representative from RC32 Football Academy, a program initiated by national team player Rohit Chand and his brother Rabindra for kids in the Mid-Western city of Surkhet – hardly known for its football prowess, was also there.

The diversity of these training programs, from their geography to proprietors, is a reason for optimism. Youth football programs, once limited to the ANFA Academy, are now much more accessible and also lure talented professionals and volunteers to Nepali football.

With the dearth of structured youth football in the country, producing tangible results for soccer schools/academies is not so difficult. For example, a recent Under-12 national team squad that travelled to Korea Republic featured two players from Oshonik Club of Nepalgunj, a team that only conducts training on weekends. Presuming ANFA selectors are fair in their recruitment, we should easily see players from more of these types of training programs on the youth national team rolls in the near future.

Nepal’s youth national team success

Unfortunately, I cannot get excited about the results produced by Nepal’s youth national teams. We’ve been here before on numerous occasions in the past – Nepal’s juniors apparently producing great results only to later be fined by the AFC for fielding overage players. Until Nepal’s youth national teams are devoid players that have played league football for multiple years before being selected to the junior squads and youth success translates into the senior team winning matches, it is difficult to take Nepal’s youth level results seriously.

My opinion is shared by quite a few Nepali football insiders, but in a country that lacks many legitimate heroes and is desperate for positive news, most of these same people, as would transpire amongst the Roman masses when the Gladiator Games were being held at the Colosseum,  seem to get swept up in the euphoria of the moment. In private they voice their concerns about the legitimacy of the youth teams’ results, though publicly they celebrate the success on Facebook and other outlets. It makes straight shooters like myself come across as a negative minority. So be it.

07 July 2015

An idea to promote local football

ANFA U12 trials

I saw this photo of the kids selected from the ANFA U12 trials and was thinking - why not make a rule that the players that come for the selection have to either wear a Nepal national team or Nepali club jersey. Allow clubs to sell their jerseys right outside the gates of the training field to generate additional income.

At Machhindra FC​ we made it mandatory for all players coming to our open trials to purchase a club jersey as a part of the registration fee. We grossed Rs. 50,000 in revenue from the scheme. MFC ran-out of jerseys during the event and in the end we let a few players join the selection for free and play without a White Lions kit. Surprisingly, those players who were admitted for free and without a jersey were furious. They actually wanted a shirt and were eager to pay the registration fee to get one!

Machhindra FC trials

26 November 2014

Sports in South Asia needs to raise its game

(An edited version of this article originally appeared in Republica)


A short while ago I was asked to write a tribute for a silver medal winning South Asian sportsman for a local organization about to honor him. When doing research for the homage, I stumbled upon a rather peculiar fact that most media members must have missed-out on or chose to ignore. It turns out there were only two people competing in the competition. The silver medal was assured!

Unfortunately, these types of sporting anomalies or lucky breaks, however you want to look at it, are what South Asian sports fans most times must hope for to see their fellow countrymen find a place on the medal podium of major international tournaments.

South Asia’s track record in high level sports is abysmal. A South Asian team has never made the FIFA World Cup and in the past half-century has not come anywhere close to qualifying. After capturing 11 gold medals over the span of 13 Summer Olympic Games, South Asian field hockey sides have failed to even medal for the last 22 years. With 1.7 billion inhabitants, a quarter of the world’s population, Indian shooter Abhinav Bindra is the sole person from the region that can claim an Olympic gold medal in the past 3 decades. In that period, India has won a paltry 3 silver and 8 bronze medals, Sri Lanka 1 silver, Pakistan and Afghanistan 2 bronze each, while Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal have not won a single medal at the Olympics.

Based on per capita, the regions results at the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games are nothing to boast about either. Thank god for cricket!