30 July 2016

Nepalgunj Gold Cup shows glimpse of Nepal's football potential

I wrote the following for the Nepalgunj Gold Cup post-tournament report:
The Nepalgunj Gold Cup is another example of Nepal's football potential. Located in a region of the country where football lacks maturity, this was the first major tournament held in the vicinity for over 35 years and it proved to be highly successful. The crowds were strong, media coverage formidable, and several sponsors such as Yeti Cement and Xiaomi supported the event. Perhaps most impressive was to see Dish Home satellite TV broadcast the competition live on its platform. If Nepalgunj is capable of achieving all of this, the prospects are even greater for the traditional hotbeds of Nepali football in the central and eastern parts of the country which economically also tend to be more robust. 
Undoubtedly, tournaments like the Nepalgunj Gold Cup will help grow football in the local area. If just a few footballers from Nepalgunj and Banke District can then ultimately make an impact on the national stage, already Nepali football will have improved significantly. Now the challenge is for the organizers to give continuity to the Nepalgunj Gold Cup. If they are successful in achieving this, the long-term legacy of the tournament will be formidable.
Opening of the Nepalgunj Gold Cup

13 July 2016

Footballs to Sindhupalchowk

Excited to partner with GoalNepal.com and provide footballs to 12 schools in earthquake affected areas of Sindhupalchowk. I trust that participation in sports will serve as one way to help rehabilitate students from the trauma of the earthquake. Furthermore, I hope the kids at the schools can find the same joy in football and sports that I have found throughout my life and career.



02 July 2016

Iceland’s football style not so unfamiliar to Nepal


Machhindra's former coach Johan Kalin
(This article originally appeared in Republica)

One of the major storylines and remarkable stories of the UEFA Euro 2016 tournament has been the fairytale run of Iceland. A country of just 330,000 inhabitants, long winters and limited outdoor football facilities, is undefeated heading into their quarterfinal match with hosts France.

Iceland’s Euro 2016 journey included a draw against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal side, a victory over the tournament dark-horses Austria and a shocking upset against England.

Coincidentally, there is an obscure link between Iceland’s national team and football in Nepal and it comes via Johan Kalin, the former head coach of Machhindra Football Club, an A-Division club in Nepal. Kalin, who hails from Sweden and continues to coach there at the lower leagues levels, has long been an admirer of fellow countryman and Iceland’s head coach Lars Lagerback.

“My coaching style and philosophy is highly influenced by Lagerback,” claims the 39-year-old, “If you look at the way Machhindra was developed and played when I was head coach it was very similar to Iceland.”

In terms of philosophy, Kalin explains that he sees the game in the same way to Lagerback, who previously coached Sweden from 2000 until 2009.

“We both believe in a foundation of defensive organization, a lot of running, strong team spirit and loyal players. That is what I tried to instill at Machhindra,” says Kalin, who coincidentally resides in the northern part of Sweden which geographically mimics Iceland.

“We played 4-4-2 and started to defend pretty low. We used a zonal defense all over the pitch and our focus was on creating 1 or 2 strong chances instead of 7 or 8 weak ones. Iceland did all this to perfection against England.”

Machhindra’s success under Kalin paralleled Iceland’s achievement of rising from 112 in the FIFA World Rankings to 34th in the latest one.

Perennial relegation candidates Machhindra over exceeded expectations and  finished second in the Martyr’s League A-Division in Kalin’s lone season in Nepal in 2013-14. The White Lions were victorious in all their Super League matches and were only one point adrift of champions Manang Marshyangdi Club in the final accumulated table.

“Like Iceland we did not have the big names in the squad so we had to rely on team spirit and tactics,” Kalin reminisces, “It took some time for the Machhindra players to buy into the concept and we struggled early, but when everything came together we were a formidable force - just as Iceland has become.”

26 June 2016

Ingredients there, but cooks missing

Photo courtesy of GoalNepal.com
I should be used to it by now but I still get chills seeing photos like the one above. Nepal's appetite for football is insatiable. From the capital city of Kathmandu to most rural of villages of the country it is common to see packed crowds at football tournaments and thus fans finding creative means to get a glimpse of the action - whether it is from a rooftop, treetop or mountaintop.

In the last few months, to fill the void of the top level club championship, there have been dozens of tournaments across the country and the crowds, media coverage and sponsorship have been impressive. If all of these assets could be harnessed in a professional and systematic way the potential of Nepali football is massive. The ingredients are all there for Nepali football to flourish, it is just in desperate search for some good cooks. 

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.