30 August 2013

Nepal needs to win SAFF title

(This article originally appeared in Republica)

As the 2013 SAFF Championship kicks-off there is tremendous pressure on Nepal’s national team to win South Asia’s premier football tournament.

With a familiar home ground, a rabid fanbase supporting them and an adoring media in their corner, the pressure to win the biennial competition is more than justified. Unlike age-group contests, at the senior level results do matter and it is time Nepal ends its twenty-year trophyless run in major international tournaments.

While minor faults can always be identified, by and large the All Nepal Football Association (ANFA) has done its part to prepare the team for the SAFF Championship. It has brought in foreign coaches which fans have been clamoring for, organized a three month closed camp, and sent the team on what most football observers perceive to have been a very successful pre-tournament tour in the Gulf region.

Now the onus is on the coaches and players to deliver the results the entire nation has been waiting impatiently for two decades. No excuses please.

No generation of Nepali national team players has ever had it as good as this one. In today’s depressed economy almost all of the current national team players are earning salaries well over 50,000 Rupees a month. They are racking up so many two-wheelers they could probably open a motorcycle dealership. Players seem to be getting bonuses for even the pettiest of accomplishments.

Furthermore, the current squad has the talent to win matches. Rohit Chand has been putting on formidable performances and scoring spectacular goals as a defensive midfielder in the respected Indonesian league. Mercurial attacking midfielder Bharat Khawas, who sacrificed opportunities to play abroad to join Nepal Army Club, has been in high form for the past few years. Midfield maestro Jagjeet Shrestha ran circles around Indian powerhouse club Mohan Bagan in a recent friendly and by all accounts could be a star player overseas if his discipline matched his panache.

Apologists will always point to the many shortcomings that exist in Nepali football, but in the SAFF Championship Nepal is going up against Asian minnows Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, not heavyweights like Japan, Iran, South Korea or Australia. The countries Nepal is matched up against have just as many deficiencies in their football sector. Quality football facilities in Bangladesh are non-existent, Pakistan’s league is still primarily amateur and Indian football blogs complain about the lack of preparation its national team has had in the lead up to the tournament.

Regardless of nationality, most of the players in the SAFF Championship pretty much grow up on the same diet of dal bhat, Maggi noodles and cups of tea. They learn the beautiful game barefoot in neighborhood gallis and go on to showcase their talents at dilapidated stadiums.

No country in the region really has a structural advantage over Nepal when it comes to football. Conversely, in contrast to Nepal where football is the premier sport of the masses it is at best a distant second to cricket in terms of popularity in most other South Asian countries.

It is thus quite pitiful that in nine editions of the SAFF Championship and its predecessor the SAARC Gold Cup Nepal has not even been able to reach the finals of the tournament. Only Pakistan and perennial whipping boys Bhutan have a similar blight on their record, though Pakistan does have two recent South Asian Games (2004, 2006) gold medals to brag about.

With home field advantage, a strong crop of players and evenly matched opponents Nepal right now has a golden chance to finally lift the SAFF Championship trophy. So to Nepal national football team Head Coach Jack Stefanowski, his assistants and players - the pressure is on boys. The nation is counting on you. Best of luck.

16 August 2013

Determined entrepreneurs boosting sports

(This article originally appeared in Republica)

When Nawang Nima and Tshering Norbu Lama approached investors about financing what would be Nepal’s first futsal hall they were given many reasons why their project would fail. Perhaps the most memorable one was a relative asserting that when ten hot-blooded males are under the same roof, as is the case for a typical futsal match, there are bound to be fights and the facility would quickly be ruined.

Despite the naysayers, eventually the two brothers got the funding they needed and opened Futsal Arena at the GAA Hall in Thamel. Two years after establishing the futsal facility, close to twenty more futsal halls have popped up across Nepal. Many football aficionados are hailing the rapid rise of futsal in Nepal as a massive boon to the much more famous 11-a-side version of the game, as futsal greatly helps strengthen a player’s fundamental techniques in football and the facilities allow for uninterrupted play year round.

The story of Futsal Arena is one of a growing number of examples of how determined sports entrepreneurs and enthusiasts are boosting sports in Nepal. With a dysfunctional national government and sports associations short on cash and high on politics it is these resolute sports buffs, whether they are of the for-profit or non-profit variety, that are helping Nepali sports move forward.
Screenshot of GoalNepal.com
GoalNepal.com is another example of gritty sports entrepreneurs providing the impetus for sports development. It could be argued that the highly popular website might be the most influential force in Nepali football. With millions of hits from Nepali football fans across the globe, close to 100,000 ‘Likes’ on Facebook and a recently launched mobile app GoalNepal has played a leading role in promoting and developing Nepali football.

The site has turned little known players into celebrities, given robust exposure to football sponsors and provided a spotlight to tournaments and football related activities across Nepal that are normally under the radar.

It has not always been smooth sailing for GoalNepal according to its founder and CEO Bikram Thapa. Nepali companies are still tepid about venturing into online advertising thus the financial challenges for the football portal have been constant.

Despite the cash crunch and also overzealous football fans, officials and media members - including this blogger, giving it shtick on a regular basis, GoalNepal has persevered. The company employs twelve staff and is involved in a wide range of football initiatives. Leveraging its popularity GoalNepal launched the highly popular “I ♥ Nepali Football” campaign, assists many football development projects and is active in various charitable endeavors.

Like GoalNepal, many other private sports ventures have overcome numerous obstacles and transformed themselves from startups to kickstarters that are strengthening Nepal’s sports ecosystem.

The NSJF Sports Award has risen from a friendly gathering of sports journalists at a local party palace to a can’t-miss event in Nepal’s sports calendar that has helped motivate and inspire athletes and coaches especially in the less glamorous sports.

ATTSH has gone from a small T-shirt store to a sports brand that sponsors a multitude of players and clubs.

Adventure sports events that mostly consisted of local participants are now attracting more and more international ones thus bolstering Nepal’s sports tourism sector.

A common thread between most of these sports ventures is that they have largely stayed independent from government and official sports bodies who in the upside-down world of Nepali sports tend to create far more hurdles than solutions. For example futsal tournaments, which according to football’s world governing body –FIFA, are under the jurisdiction of national football associations, do not care to ask for recognition or clearance from the All Nepal Football Association (ANFA) and hardly any of the futsal halls have bothered to invite high-ranking sports officials for their inaugurations or prize ceremonies.
Sahara Club Pokhara training facility
Sahara Club's training facility

In a recent trip to Kaski district, Bikram Thakali, President of Sahara Club, took me to their newly built football training facility on the outskirts of Pokhara. He told me that the entire area where the facility resides used to be a jungle and many people who saw the then proposed site felt there was no way a training complex could be built there and perhaps Sahara Club was running a scam to solicit donations.

Mr. Thakali said the club quickly learned there was no point talking about what they were going to do and the only alternative was to work round the clock to make their dream a reality and prove the doubters wrong. Today the Sahara Club training facility is the only proper football training complex owned by a club and it easily rivals any of the ANFA facilities built through FIFA grants.

In a sports landscape that is rife with pessimism, it is the tenacity and resolve of these types of sports entrepreneurs and enthusiasts that give us a reason to be optimistic about the future of Nepali sports.

03 August 2013

A few lessons from the Bhutanese sports scene

(This article originally appeared in Republica)

There is something quite charming about sports in Bhutan. Maybe it is the mix of quirkiness and Corinthian ideals that make it so adorable. Grown men dancing and singing after a target is hit on the archery range, members of the Bhutanese royal family fully engaged in a local basketball tournament, and the president of the Bhutan Football Federation (BFF) blowing a vuvuzela during a match his club was playing in are some of the sights witnessed by this columnist during a one week visit to the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.

Bhutan is still a long way off from leaving a competitive mark in the international sports arena. Among a number of different factors, Bhutan’s small population (around 750,000) and economic size (GDP is ten times smaller than Nepal’s) puts its sports at a distinct disadvantage at the global level. The country’s sports sector largely depends on foreign handouts and expertise to sustain itself.

Despite the challenges and its relative low profile, there are a couple of takeaways from Bhutanese sports that its Nepali counterpart would do well to notice. 

Branding a nation through sports

Archery is the national sport of Bhutan. A traditional version of the sport is very popular across the country. Bhutan has parlayed the sports popularity to develop a host of Olympic archers in the international version of the sport. The Bhutan Olympic Committee (BOC) has made developing archery a priority and gives it extra attention and funding according to Sonam Tshering, general secretary of the BOC.

Despite mediocre results, through archery, Bhutan has made a name for itself in the international sports community. During every Olympic Games there is sure to be a handful of media features on archery in Bhutan and many sports enthusiasts have come to know Bhutan because of the country’s archery tradition.

Contrast this with Nepal, which in the guise of political harmony spreads its resources thin amongst various sports and tends to arbitrarily send athletes to international events and thus has failed to carve a niche or command attention in any sport at the global level.

Quality fields

Anyone that has followed the ongoing King’s Cup football tournament in Bhutan will have likely seen images of the gleaming artificial pitch at Thimphu’s Changlimithang Stadium. While constant rainfall forced the SAFF U-16 Championship in Kathmandu to be played on less than ideal pitches, possibly hurting Nepal’s technically gifted under-16 side the chance to win the tournament, the King’s Cup tournament has been going on without a hitch and seen attractive play because of the durable synthetic surface.

Thimphu's Changlimithang Stadium
In fact, every training session of all the participating clubs has been held at Changlimithang Stadium. Furthermore, after a match in the tournament is finished, locals of all ages play under the floodlights on the same field until as late as 1AM in the morning.

Along with several synthetic mini-pitches, the BFF just completed installing a second full-sized artificial field in Thimphu.

“Our focus is on installing high quality pitches over building stadiums or adding seats,” explained BFF President Ugen Tsechup Dorji, who also is the president of local side Thimphu City FC.

“With quality artificial pitches we can really develop our grassroots and youth football and maximize the number of people playing football in Bhutan.”

Enjoying domestic competition

Basketball is hugely popular with a section of Bhutan’s population. Word on the street is that Bhutan’s 4th King, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, was a big fan of the NBA and  as a result quite a few Bhutanese, mostly in the higher strata of the country – including the King’s sons, gravitated towards basketball.

This is quite evident at the Monsoon Basketball Tournament in Thimphu. The parking lot outside the basketball hall is regularly packed with SUVs.  Inside there is intense competition between local basketball clubs and a healthy crowd on hand to witness it. The fact that the tallest player on the court is 6’3” and there is not a single player close to being good enough to play at the American college level, never mind the NBA, is moot to the fans. It is their local competition and they enjoy it.

Similar tournaments in Nepal are often written-off as having no scope. If a sport does not have international potential it is not worth the time.

Perhaps the Bhutanese might not realize it, but sports in Bhutan can teach us that there is much more to sports than merely winning at the highest levels. It can serve as great tool to help brand a nation, it can simply be about creating spaces where people can play the sport they love and it can provide an entertainment option for the community. This line of thought is quite fitting for a country that subscribes to the ideal of Gross National Happiness, a philosophy that values quality of life over commercial indicators.