27 September 2013

Nation-building through sports

(This article originally appeared in Republica)

The 8th SAFF Championship presented a great boon to at least two countries. The Afghanistan national football team brought about immense joy and unity to a battle-scarred nation by claiming the tournament title.
SAFF Champions Afghanistan

After the final whistle of the competition was blown at Dasharath Rangashala stadium in Kathmandu, Afghans of all creeds, sexes and ages poured on to the streets of their country to celebrate the victory.

There were euphoric scenes across Kabul on the return of the football national team to Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of people, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai, were on hand at the airport, on the streets and in the national stadium to greet their returning national heroes.

Afghanistan´s SAFF Championship triumph was well documented by the international news media and was one of the rare occasions where Afghanistan was in the news for positive reasons.

Meanwhile, Nepalis also had much to celebrate during the SAFF Championship. While the final outcome was not what fans would have wished - Nepal lost in the semifinals of the competition, the national team played an attractive brand of football and defeated arch-rival India creating enormous jubilation across the country.

Nepal´s tournament performance was a much-needed reprieve from the dysfunctional government, dilapidated infrastructure, and nauseating pollution that Nepalis must endure on a daily basis.

In a country where ethnic politics, cronyism and nepotism rule the roost, a determined and exciting national football team that consisted of players selected on merit, from diverse ethnicities and who come from varying social and economic backgrounds provided a standard that most Nepalis long for.

The SAFF Championship is an example of how sports can play a powerful role in nation building. The passion, energy, and buzz that accompany sports and sports events make it a unique and influential platform for development and for a country like Nepal that is yearning for a formula to modernize itself politically, economically and socially, sports has the potential to be an effective ingredient.

Political development

From the Ping Pong Diplomacy that thawed frosty relations between China and the USA to the international sporting boycott of South Africa that played a significant role in ending apartheid, sports and politics have long been intertwined.

As the national football team showed at the SAFF Championship, sports can really unite and bring a “feel good factor” to a nation. It might thus be prudent for the country to invest in sportspersons and sports infrastructure to increase the odds of Nepal doing well in international competitions.

On the heels of India and Pakistan publicly testing their nuclear arsenal bringing about much celebration amongst their citizens, Nepal won 32 gold medals at the 8th South Asian Games in Kathmandu creating mass elation in the country. Former Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala wittily commented that unlike India and Pakistan who spent billions on their nuclear weapons, Nepal only needed to win a few gold medals to heighten national pride.

Economic development

Sports can be a great economic engine. Sports event usually require extra accommodation, food and transport thus stimulating the economy. Nepal´s geography and existing tourism setup lends itself well to hosting smaller sports events especially in the realm of adventure sports.

Sports events also afford a city or country a great opportunity to brand itself. For example, the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona played an important role in transforming it from an industrial city to one that is now known for its art, culture and commerce. Imagine if Nepal were to host a cricket match between India and Pakistan. What would it say about Nepal´s capabilities? It would make an enormous statement internationally about Nepal´s security, accessibility and infrastructure.

Social development

Sports generate many social benefits. Foremost, a healthy nation is a more productive nation. Unfortunately, parks and spaces to play are at a premium in Nepal. Building public areas for sports should be amongst the priorities of the nation. It would be a great investment in health and ultimately help reduce long-term health care costs.

Because sports has the power to bring people together and unite them as a team, it is also a powerful teaching tool that institutions are using to help bring about social change. The United Nations even has a department named The Office on Sports for Development and Peace. The government, NGOs and social organizations would do well to follow suit and use sports to raise awareness for various social issues.

As a member of the Rotary Club of Jawalakhel reminded me when I was invited to give a presentation to them on this topic, perhaps the greatest benefit of sports is the spirit of sportsmanship, something that unfortunately is sorely lacking from the halls of power to our congested streets.

If politicians carried a little more sportsmanship in their veins, perhaps the country could finally have a constitution and if micro drivers had a little more sportsmanship in their brains we could all drive our vehicles without fear of getting run off the road every time we leave the garage.

12 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.