31 December 2012

Rohit Chand: from Surkhet to Sumatra


Rohit Chand’s football career almost came to an end before it even began. In his first two years at the ANFA Academy he failed to show much potential. He was left out of the Under-13 team that travelled to Pakistan for the AFC Festival of Football. He was overlooked for training excursions at Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds club and Qatar’s Aspire Academy.

With the ongoing scuffle between ANFA and the rival NFA there was uncertainty about funding for the ANFA Academy thus the weakest players were about to be sent home – forever! That included Rohit.

What saved Rohit was his vertical length. “Shyam Thapa (the director of the ANFA Academy at the time) asked ANFA not to let go of Rohit because he was one of the few players at the Academy that had any sort of height,” explains Nabin Maharjan, a coach at SWSC and a former ANFA Academy trainee himself. “Coach Thapa knew a player with stature could come in handy down the road.”

The retained ANFA Academy players, including Rohit, were given a few months off for the festival season. When they came back after holidays Rohit was a different player.

“He went from a very ordinary player to an extraordinary one in just a few months,” remarks Maharjan.

A quick rise to stardom

Rohit Chand during his MFC days
Rohit Chand’s career, which remarkably is still in its infancy  – he is still just 20-years-old, soon took off, but it wasn't always smooth sailing.

One could argue that Rohit started at a disadvantage from birth. He hails from Surkhet, an area in MidWestern, Nepal that is seldom scouted by football officials. “ANFA rarely ever gives an honest chance to any players west of Pokhara and Butwal,” argues Bhoj Raj Shahi, a prominent youth football coordinator in Nepalgunj and also Rohit’s uncle. “There is a perception that players from the MidWest and FarWest lack football instincts like those from Pokhara and Eastern Nepal.”

Despite the demographic stigma, Rohit showed enough promise to get selected into the ANFA Academy and after being saved from the axe by Shyam Thapa, Rohit’s career started to blossom.

He was selected for the Subroto Cup team that went to India and the U16 team that participated in the AFC qualifiers in Iran. He was also drafted into the senior National Team at age 16, becoming the youngest player to ever play for Nepal in a FIFA accredited match.

Upon graduating from the ANFA Academy he signed with Machhindra FC (MFC). Three games into the Martyrs League A Division season he was made captain of the team – at age 17. MFC finished in 6th place that season, its highest position ever in Nepal’s top-flight division. Rohit would earn the award for Defensive Player of the Year.

“You could see that he was a special player the moment he arrived at Machhindra,” says Nabin Chitrakar, an official at MFC and also an adviser to Rohit. “His football IQ was at a different level than any other domestic player.”

With the help of GoalNepal.com Founder and CEO Bikram Thapa and a famous YouTube highlights video created by his Brazilian teammate at Machhindra FC - Daniel Baroni, Rohit soon signed a contract with Indian I-League side Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) of Bangalore.

At HAL Rohit started in every game he was eligible to play in. As a defender he even scored a hat-trick in a match against Pune FC. Goal.com named him one of the best foreigners in the I-League. The sky seemed the limit for Rohit.

Broke and without a club

Unfortunately, quite the opposite happened and Rohit’s career came to a screeching halt. Ironically, it was after Rohit was linked with Premier League heavyweights Arsenal and Tottenham and French side Lille that his career stagnated.

With fantasies of playing in the Premier League, Rohit turned down potential lucrative offers from Malaysian and Chinese clubs that were being constructed by a prominent Singapore based player agent. An offer from London – even for a trial, however, never arrived.

“The whole Arsenal, Tottenham and Lille links were a total farce,” says a source with strong links in European Football who asked not to be named. “It was more likely a ploy by Graham Roberts (Nepal’s former National Team head coach and a prominent player at both Tottenham and Chelsea) using his former English football buddies to get himself some media attention back in Britain.”

To make matters worse HAL were relegated and could not afford to keep Rohit on their books. There were also payment issues. Indian clubs, which tend to be obsessed with African and Brazilian talents and East Asians for their Asian quotas showed little interest in signing a Nepali player. Rohit was broke and without a club.

“It was a very difficult time for Rohit and our family,” explains Rabindra Chand, Rohit’s older brother. “There were massive expectations on Rohit. I would get calls daily asking when Rohit was going to Europe, but the truth was he didn’t even have an offer outside of Kathmandu.”

An opportunity in Indonesia

Rohit at PSPS. Photo from Asykar Theking
The Chand family refused to settle on Rohit playing in Nepal. “There were offers for over 1 Lakh Rupees a month from a few clubs in Kathmandu, but we knew for Rohit to develop his game he really needed to play in at least a top Asian league,” Rabindra commented.

Short on options, Rohit and Rabindra turned to an old acquaintance at Machhindra FC, Nabin Chitrakar, who had recently arranged a trial for Santosh Shahukhala at an Indonesian club.

“Ninety-nine percent of Nepali players lack the mental toughness and fighting spirit to play abroad, so I hardly ever bother to forward any resumes to foreign clubs,” claims Chitrakar, the managing director at a prominent cargo company by day and a football agent by night.  “But I had known Rohit well during his time at Machhindra, so I really did not have to think twice before arranging a trial for him. He is one of the few Nepali players that has what it takes.”

Rohit went for trials at Arema Indonesia FC, one of the top clubs in Indonesia. “He played well for them in practice, but he was hampered by a groin injury and they released him,” says Chitrakar.

Rohit fretting having to return to Nepal, then went for another trial at Indonesian Super League outfit PSPS Pekanbaru, a smaller club based in the island of Sumatra. There he played very well in several preseason friendly matches. PSPS’s fan websites were abuzz about Rohit, but the management did not reveal their hand.

“It was really frustrating, Rohit had been there for nearly a month, he played well, the fans loved him, but the club refused to give him a contract,” reveals Chitrakar.

Chitrakar with his counterpart agent in Indonesia then decided to play their own hand. It was a massive bluff! They withdrew Rohit out of PSPS and sent him to a rival club, Sriwijaya FC, for training.  PSPS worried that Sriwijaya might snap up the versatile Gorkhali defender finally presented Rohit with a lucrative contract making him by far the highest paid sportsman in the history of Nepali sports.

PSPS Pekanbaru’s first game of the 2013 ISL season is on January 6th against Mitra Kukar FC and Rohit Chand is expected to be in the starting lineup. Not bad for a kid whose football career almost ended at age 14. 

22 November 2012

Acclimatizing fans


How does a sports entity implement a decision that will be highly controversial with their fanbase? Acclimatize them! Below are two cases.

Barcelona

A few years back when I heard news that FC Barcelona, one of the few soccer clubs that for the longest time had never sported a corporate logo on their jerseys, were going to have UNICEF printed across their kits it was clear to me that this was simply the first step in Barcelona signing a proper shirt sponsorship agreement down the road.

The UNICEF deal actually was kind of a reverse sponsorship in which Barcelona gave UNICEF free publicity by putting the organization’s logo on the club’s kits along with a substantial financial donation. Such a deal made it very difficult for traditional Barcelona fans who ardently cherished the fact that their club never sported any sponsorship logos on its uniforms to protest the move. After all, what type of heartless soul would complain about helping a charity that saves the lives of children across the world?

The deal with UNICEF was a shrewd one. It was a way to acclimatize Barcelona fans to eventually seeing corporate sponsorship logos on their prized jerseys.

Soon after the UNICEF deal, Barcelona had an agreement that placed Qatar Foundation’s logo on the front of their kits. Even though Qatar Foundation, like UNICEF, is a charity, this time it would be the foundation or their backers (Qatar Sports Investment) that would pay Barcelona – a whopping 30 million Euros a year. The partnership of a charity giving money to a club was an odd one, thus it probably left Barcelona fans scratching their heads instead of marching against the club’s directors.

Shortly after the Qatar Foundation deal, the inevitable news that a corporate logo would appear on the Barcelona shirts was disclosed. Qatar Airways would now "conveniently" replace Qatar Foundation as Barcelona's shirt sponsor. See what they did here:  Charity logo (free) à Charity logo (paid) à Corporate Sponsor logo. So in a few short years Barcelona went from a club that would perhaps never sport a corporate logo on their jerseys to one that will potentially have the largest shirt sponsorship deal on the planet. All that with limited fuss from their rabid fanbase because of the club’s brilliant strategy in acclimatizing their fans to the sight of corporate logos on their kits.

Notre Dame

Another fabled football program (be it a different type of football) is attempting to steal Barcelona’s playbook. Notre Dame, a powerhouse in American college athletics, announced that they will move the majority of their athletic programs from the Big East Conference to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). Furthermore, as a part of the deal with the ACC, Notre Dame’s football program, which has long been an independent, will play five ACC opponents annually.

Like Barcelona fans that cherished their clean kits, Notre Dame fans take pride in the fact that their university is an independent in football and not affiliated with any conference. Any move to join a conference in football will most likely be met with great resistance by their fans.

The Notre Dame leadership – who probably feel that joining a conference will be necessary down the road - seems to be using the same acclimatization tactics to get around this sensitive issue. First have most of their non-football teams leave the weaker Big East Conference for the stronger ACC. Tell fans that the condition for joining the ACC is that they would have to play a handful of football games annually against ACC foes. After a few years of fans becoming accustomed to playing ACC teams in football, undoubtedly the endgame is to make a full move to the conference. By then it will be much more palatable to the fanbase.

Update: With the recent Big Ten expansion Notre Dame might be pressured to join a conference sooner than later.

06 October 2012

Good karma?

After completing a 10 day Vipassana meditation course in Budhanilkantha I went to change my Qatar Airways ticket. The ticket agent just so happened to be a former football player and resident of Budhanilkantha and asked me if I could help the kids in the area who were eager to play football. Obviously I had to fulfill my karmic duty :)




05 October 2012

Support for youth football


I feel privileged to be able to provide football equipment worth Rs. 1 Lakh, including over a 100 soccer balls, amongst five different clubs across Nepal that are doing outstanding work in youth football.

I hope the donation brings awareness to the wonderful initiatives of these clubs, motivates them to keep at it and inspires other clubs/grassroots groups to follow their example.

The fabulous five clubs are:

Bansbari Club (Kathmandu) – One of only a handful of ‘A’ division clubs that run regular youth football training, the club has decided to annually set aside 25% of their budget for youth football development.

Biratnagar Sports Club – Around a 100 kids from age 10 and above train regularly at Sahid Maidan. BSC has also helped other clubs around Morang District and conducted coaching and refereeing courses targeted at youths. 

Oshonik Club (Nepalgunj) – Has been conducting youth football training and clinics all across Banke district with a strong focus on girls football.

Social Welfare Sports Center (Nayabazar Dhara, Kathmandu) – Run regular youth football training for boys and girls of all ages. Several of their alumni are now playing for “A” Division clubs.

The Oceans Club (Gorkha) – Conduct youth football training and most recently organized a district wide under-14 tournament.

01 July 2012

The challenge is in the numbers

Approximately 500 schools will participate in this years ANFA Coca-Cola Cup schools tournament. As the event is a knockout competition, that means 250 out of the 500 participating schools will play 1 game in the tournament. 125 schools will play 2 games, about 64 will play 3 games, 32 will play 4 games and so on and so on. The two teams that reach the finals of the tournament will play about 8 matches in total.

Football development experts believe that youth players should play around 40 competitive matches a year. In Japan they play on average a staggering 120 or so games annually!

The Coca-Cola Cup is a great youth tournament. We just need more youth tournaments like it.

Similarly, ANFA Academy is a formidable Academy. We need more Academies like it.

Birat Shrestha is a terrific Coach. We need more Coaches like him.

Himalayan Sherpa Club is an ambitious Club. We need more Clubs like it.

Bhoj Raj Shahi (Oshonik Club director) is a passionate Volunteer. We need more Volunteers like him.

Manju Khadgi (Three Star Club fan) is a devoted Supporter. We need more Supporters like her.

The challenge for Nepali football development is in the numbers. It is not just what we are doing, but how much of it we are doing.

25 June 2012

ANFA needs to Google


Poor ANFA. By far the most active and networked sports federation in Nepal just can’t seem to get it right. Despite all of ANFA’s best efforts Nepal’s national teams continue to time after time come up short in international competitions.

It’s been 18 long years since Nepal achieved a noteworthy result in a tournament of real significance. The AFC Under-22 qualifyiers is but the latest event at which a Nepali national team flamed out on the big stage.

Despite home field advantage, over a months closed-camp training and better benefits than what players of old could dream of receiving, Nepal’s U22s went down to a very mediocre Yemen side and above average Jordanian and Uzbek teams. They did demolish the Bangladeshis, though the fact that all four goals of a traditionally diminutive Nepali side came from headers raises serious questions about the strength of the opposition.

As always after a tournament most are quick to second-guess the coaching, the preparations and the players. Already many are pointing to the lack of friendly matches leading-up to the U22 qualifiers as the culprit. Which is odd because Nepal actually won its first game 4-1 and put on a fairly formidable performance in its second match against Yemen, so it is not like it took a few matches for Nepal to gain its form.

Anyway, these types of micro-analysis are just distractions. What needs to actually be analyzed is not the reasons Nepal failed in this particular tournament, but why Nepali football has been underperforming for 18 years despite an amazing amount of passion and support for soccer in the country.

Why is it that even with the establishment of ANFA Academy, regular club tournaments, several youth competitions and all sorts of rewards and prizes for players Nepal’s international record has not improved?

The problem is that while ANFA may work hard, they do not work smart.  They have been trying to develop a “special sauce” that will take Nepali football to the next level but unfortunately that “special sauce” has been leaving nothing but a bad taste in the mouths of Nepali football fans.

What ANFA needs to do is Google for the right recipe! Instead of trying to create their own “special sauce” it would make far more sense for ANFA to simply choose a tried and tested formula.

In todays information age the best practices in world football are accessible to everyone with just a few clicks on the computer. It is therefore absolutely puzzling to see ANFA so hell bent on doing things their own way instead of just copying what has proven to work around the world.

If ANFA started to Google, what they would find is that:

  • To create top class players you need top class coaches
  • To have a large pool of talents for the National Teams, players need to be training regularly with their clubs
  • Club leagues should be 8-10 months long and played on weekends
  • A football match is a product and fans are the consumers and thus should be treated as such
  • A strong mass base of kids playing football is essential to unearth top quality players
  • Youth football starts as early as age 5 or 6
  • Selection for youth teams needs to be dynamic and not static

On the other hand:

  • Selecting a player at age 12 and hoping one day he will become the next Xavi does not work
  • A 3 month long club league along with a bunch of Mickey-Mouse tournaments does not work
  • A president of a football association sitting on the players bench does not work

Pointing the finger at ANFA is convenient but this argument can easily be extended to all stakeholders in Nepali football including clubs, sports media and fans, all of whom also have failed to adopt many of football’s best practices.

So the next time ANFA or other Nepali football stakeholders start devising their “special sauce” for success hopefully it will be in front of a computer and not on the back of a napkin.

13 June 2012

Journalist vs. Blogger

Lots of times I get grilled by people on why I am not writing about x,y,z topic or going after a,b and c persons. Well, I loved this take by New York Mets blogger Matthew Cerrone on proper journalism versus blogging. It encapsulates my own feelings on the subject.
"I don’t see myself as a journalist. Journalists should always be in the business of seeking more information as they aim to determine truth. I [as a blogger] do that sometimes, but not all of the time. There are some things I just don’t care about. If I don’t care about it, or I’m simply tired of writing about a topic, or if I don’t find it interesting, then I don’t write about it or ask questions about it. There is only so much time in the day and my true love is watching the Mets and hoping they win. That filter and my judgement has done me well in connecting with fans and building the blog. On the flip side, if it’s a topic I do find interesting, I’ll research it and write about it and if that happens to run up against the definition of a journalist (because every one else wants to know about it as well) so be it, but it’s more of a coincidence and a label than anything else."

01 June 2012

High-profile owners unlikely

Photo from Cinesansar.com
The big football news of the day was that of Shah Rukh Khan potentially acquiring a 50% stake in Indian powerhouse side Dempo Sports Club.

Obviously such news immediately gets Nepali football fans dreaming of local corporates and celebrities investing in our own clubs.  Could famed actor Rajesh Hamal make a play for RCT or business tycoon Upendra Mahato start a Roman Abramovich style revolution at NRT?

The quick answer is unlikely. Unless they are truly football ‘pagal’, there are basically only two reasons to invest in a football club – fortune and fame. Neither is really accessible in the current Nepali club football environment.

Fortune

There are four main revenue generators for football clubs – ticket sales, sponsorship, merchandising and TV rights. In the current Nepali football context two of them – ticket sales and TV rights do not really exist (Nepali clubs do not have the authority to sell their own tickets or the TV rights to their matches as everything is centralized with ANFA). Merchandising has limited potential and sponsorship cannot be maximized unless clubs own their own stadium (As they have no rights to hoarding boards, stadium partnerships and hospitality, etc.).

This begs the question, how exactly would a football club plan to break-even? It is not completely impossible but it would require a visionary owner who is willing to make a substantial investment in a club. First and foremost they would need a stadium plan, be it to build a new one or renovate/rent an existing facility as there is absolutely no way a club can be sustainable if they do not have access to ticket revenues.

Fame

One of the big allures of owning a football club is the prestige, networks and perks that come along with it.  Who ever heard of Roman Abramovich or Venkys Group before their takeover of Chelsea and Blackburn respectfully? Today they are hobnobbing with top footballers and have access to many of the most influential businessmen and celebrities around the planet. These are privileges that owning a Premier League club bring.

What exactly would a potential investor get from owning Three Star or Sankata? Dinner with Rohit Chand and Sagar Thapa? Access to Lalit Krishna Shrestha and Indraman Tuladhar?  An exclusive  personal interview in the Kantipur or with GoalNepal? Trust me, just the offer of one plate of MoMo would be enough to secure any of the above benefits. No need to purchase a football club!

So with no fortune and no fame, basically we are left with the third alternative – finding a big-time investor that is absolutely football ‘pagal’ and willing to burn wads of cash on their obsession. Know anyone that fits the profile? 

22 May 2012

Machhindra banner

Here are a few more photos of my Machhindra FC banner:

Banner in all its glory!

The mighty White Lion

My neighborhood is Chappal Karkhana - get it?

Reverse angle

14 May 2012

Strong fan culture needed


Nepalis are some of the most passionate football fans in the world. Where else in the world will you find packed stadiums supporting a national team and club sides that have failed miserably for the last 20 years?

Despite the fantastic enthusiasm we Nepalis have for football, the one area where we come-up terribly short is in terms of fan culture. At stadiums and grounds across the country there is a lot of “Ha-Hoo”, but very little of the sounds and colors that make viewing a football match so entertaining.

A big part of the charm of watching European club football or the World Cup is witnessing the crowds. The Dutch fans all clad in Orange, Brazilian supporters grooving to Samba beats, Manchester City fans celebrating by doing the Poznan and the amazing tifos organized by Italian club loyalists.

It is uncommon to find anything like that in Nepal. Fans wearing team colors, organizing chants or carrying flags and banners is as rare as a Nepali National Team striker scoring a goal in a meaningful game. Thus the atmosphere at many football matches tends to be very bland.

Part of the issue is that many Nepali clubs, even today, do not play in consistent colors. Many times they settle for whatever is available at local sports shops across Kathmandu. Also they do not make club merchandise (jerseys, t-shirts, scarves) available to their supporters or arrange any sort of programs to develop and organize their fan base.

Furthermore, Nepali media have been slow to romanticize football. Other than GoalNepal, media outlets rarely try to create nicknames for players, clubs and derby matches. Until very recently, team logos and uniform templates very seldom were displayed in previews and reviews of matches or on league standings. Therefore fans lacked the impetus to create supporting materials.

Fans themselves also have been quite unmoved to be proactive. Most disappointing are the supporters who spend many hours developing fan clubs devoted to English Premier League clubs yet can’t be bothered to do the same for their local clubs or even the National Team.

Strong fan culture brings with it tremendous benefits to Nepali football. Think of how many more fans would start attending league matches if atmosphere at games went up a few notches – for example Three Star fans all dressed in blue on one side of the stadium waving flags and NRT fans in green on the other side singing for 90 minutes.

With a livelier crowd, the intimidation factor for visiting teams also goes up, giving the National Team or Nepali club sides better prospects to win the match.

Also some of the ills of Nepali football such as match fixing would be potentially curtailed. Imagine the pressure players or club officials will feel when knowing that hundreds of their fans will be at the match rooting passionately for their team. Certainly it should give them pause before attempting to manipulate a match.

Me and Machhindra

As one who likes to put his money where his mouth is, I’ve tried my best to drum-up fan culture at Machhindra FC, the club I root for, whether it is by initiating their Facebook Page (someone else runs it now), wearing club colors to matches and even taking a Machhindra FC banner to Nepal U16 National Team matches in Singapore.

Most recently I created a five meter banner that reads “White Lions” – the nickname of Machhindra FC. I simply can’t wait to hang it up the next time Machhindra plays at Rangashala. 

07 May 2012

Rock bottom

After losing to Afghanistan in the semifinals of the SAFF Championship, Nepal's disastrous AFC Challenge Cup, and now NPC's blowout loss to Dordoi Dynamo, coupled with a loss to Cambodian minnows Phnom Penh Crown in the AFC Presidents Cup, all of which come in some of Asia's weakest football tournaments, it is safe to say Nepali football has hit rock bottom.

And with no sound club, youth, administration, coach and referee development programs previously or currently in place, the future of Nepali football looks terrifyingly bleak.

06 May 2012

Importance of coaching

Today I was reminded once again how important coaching is in sports. I stumbled upon a school level athletics meet at Dasharath Rangashala and was shocked at how poor the running mechanics of the athletes were. There were so many basic things the kids could do that would easily improve their time by a few seconds, but no one must have taught them and I presume even their coaches probably are not informed about proper running techniques.

My guess is that the top athletes in this meet will go on for years using incorrect technique and by the time they are ready to compete in a top class tournament they will be spending their time un-learning their bad techniques, instead of going forward and learning advanced training methods.

That's why I firmly believe the first thing any sports organization should do to raise the standard of their sport is to develop top class coaches who will teach kids from an early age proper techniques in their respective sports.