13 September 2013

Nepal did well; however, tough questions remain

(This article originally appeared in Republica)

Any campaign in which Nepal defeats a full strength Indian football team - a feat that has not been achieved for two decades - must be considered a success. Despite bowing-out in heartbreaking fashion in the semifinals of the SAFF Championship to eventual winner Afghanistan, by and large the Nepali team did itself proud in the latest edition of South Asia´s top football competition.

Nepal put on neat displays that consisted of positive attacking football and solid defending in all four of its matches. The team was resolute against Bangladesh in a 2-0 victory, scored when it mattered in a dramatic 1-1 draw against Pakistan, converted its chances in a fairly comfortable 2-1 triumph over India and played attractive football against Afghanistan, though a few infamous blunders led to a 1-0 defeat.

Everyone in Nepal´s defensive line-up - Biraj Maharjan, Sagar Thapa, Sandip Rai and Robin Shrestha were probably in their best form to date. Nepal´s wingers Bhola Nath Silwal and Bharat Khawas were menacing and strikers Anil Gurung and Jumanu Rai finished their chances.

Head Coach Jack Stefanowski, who unfairly has had to live in the shadows of his predecessor Graham Roberts, deserves much praise for the play of the national team and some of the bold decisions he made during the SAFF Championship. The Polish-American switched Sandip Rai to defense and brought Rohit Chand up to midfield - a strategy that seemed to be effective. He was daring enough to give an opportunity to 15-year-old Bimal Gharti Magar who ultimately netted the tying goal against Pakistan. His substitution of Jumanu Rai for Jagjeet Shrestha worked to perfection as Rai stuck the winning goal in Nepal´s match against India.

Nepal´s twelfth man - its fanatical supporters, also merit high acclaim. They consistently filled the national stadium, Dasharath Rangashala, to passionately support the home team. Fan culture took a great leap forward during this tournament. There were far more fan groups, fan gear and fandom than at any pervious national team matches. Foreign players and media heaped admiration on Nepal´s fanatical following. Pakistani international and former Premier League player Zesh Rehman called the football atmosphere in Kathmandu the best he has witnessed in Asia.

While certainly there are many positives to take away from Nepal´s performance at the SAFF Championship and the nation as a whole is proud of the way the team competed, at the macro level, the fact remains that Nepal still has not won an international tournament in twenty years and has not reached the finals of the SAFF Championship in all ten incarnations of the event.

With Afghanistan reaching back-to-back tournament finals and winning the trophy this time and the Maldives having played the final game four out of the last eight editions and winning it on one occasion, the age old excuses for Nepal´s early exits no longer fly. If Nepal is small, poor, corrupt and politically unstable, then what exactly are Afghanistan and the Maldives? What do Afghani and Maldivian players have access to that Nepali players do not?

India never seems to hit top form during the SAFF Championship but somehow seems to always reach the finals and has claimed the tournament title on five occasions. No matter how well Nepal plays it always bounces out early.

Perhaps we need to wake up to the reality that Nepal´s best is simply not good enough. Maybe the lively play of the team is simply cosmetic. The popular sentiment is that Nepal played very well against Afghanistan while India performed poorly, but India had at least half-a-dozen shots on goal in the final that were more fierce than any Nepal could muster in the semifinal.

Everyone seems to be using the phrase “bad luck” when referring to Nepal´s loss in the SAFF Championship. Was it bad luck or bad skill? Goalkeeper Kiran Chemjong´s drop of a routine cross, Rohit Chand´s feeble penalty kicks and Bharat Khawas´ rushed header in the penalty box when there was no defender in sight of him have little to do with luck and more to do with their shortcomings as players.

Ultimately, Nepali football needs better standard players and no amount of visits to the Pashupatinath or Pancha-Bali prayers will make that happen. It will only come about if ANFA, clubs and grassroots football community start getting serious about football development.

Among a whole host of deficiencies, a three-month league solely concentrated in Kathmandu, top-level clubs that refuse to invest in their training and coaching staff and an academy system that trains no more than 100 kids in a country of 30 million is not a formula for winning international tournaments, but a recipe for continued heartbreak or “bad luck” as many insist on calling it.

Expecting more from the current crop of Nepali players is a tough ask - they played to their potential, kudos to them. It is Nepal´s football administrators that need to start raising their game.