05 December 2015

Nepali fans cheated by match-fixers

Nepali football fans in Malaysia
I was at the Shah Alam Stadium in Selangor, Malaysia in October of 2008 to watch the Nepal - Sierra Leone match in the Merdeka Cup. At the time I was an Asian Football Confederation staff member based in Kuala Lumpur. There were another 800-1,000 Nepali fans at the game as well,  most of them laborers working in Malaysia.

Shah Alam Stadium is not the most convenient stadium to get to. About 40 minutes or so from Kuala Lumpur, it is not very accessible by mass transport. A taxi ride there costs around $25-30 from the city center. If you consider ticket, food and opportunity costs, for a Nepali laborer earning between $200-$300 a month, making a trip to watch that game was a considerable investment.

Life in Malaysia can be tough for Nepali laborers. Many have to deal with less than ideal working conditions including hazardous work places, long hours, low pay and years without seeing their family. As a result, alcoholism and drug abuse are quite common. According to the Nepal Embassy approximately 1 Nepali laborer dies everyday in Malaysia (between 300-400 a year).  Many of the deaths are a result of substance abuse and suicide.

A chance to watch Nepal's national team  was certainly an investment for the laborers, but it was also a great reprieve - a chance to escape their daily ordeal and for 2 hours freely, proudly and passionately wave their national flag and support their heroes.

Unfortunately, if we are to believe notorious match-fixer Wilson Raj Perumal's memoirs Kelong Kings, and the recent arrests of 5 Nepali players on the grounds of match-fixing by Nepal Police and subsequent lifetime bans by the AFC would suggest that there is no reason to dismiss his accounts, the  heroes the laborers went to see were actually villains.

Perumal, in great detail, claims in his book that he had paid the Nepal team to lose the match against Sierra Leone U-20 team. Despite facing a youth team of a very weak African footballing nation and being a man up for the majority of the game, due to a Sierra Leone player receiving a red card, Nepal gave-up two late goals, which Perumal says were deliberately conceded, and lost the match 1-3.

The match-fixing Nepali players got paid. The loyal Nepali fans were defrauded. The time, hard earned money, and commitment of the laborers all wasted on what was essentially a bogus match.

The laborers were just one group of loyal Nepali fans that were cheated by the match-fixers. Also hoodwinked were the professionals in America who wake-up in the early hours of the morning to watch the Nepal national team play on a shitty Internet stream, the thousands of students in Delhi and Dhaka that skip classes and go to the stadium with their faces painted red, white and blue, the freelance journalists that fly to the corners of Asia to provide live commentary of Nepal matches to fans across the globe, and of course the die-hards that wait on line for hours and pay thousands to get into Dasharath Rangashala.

Some have expressed their sympathies towards the match-fixing players arguing among other things that they were neglected by ANFA, needed to take care of their families, and are only a product of a very corrupt society where politicians get away with murder, literally and figuratively. While that might be true, being poor does not give anyone the right to rob a bank. My own sympathies - they go out to the millions of passionate Nepali football fans around the world who've been duped for years.

27 September 2015

Youth football gaining momentum

I offer my apologies in advance to anyone expecting this blog post to offer jubilation over the success of Nepal’s Under 19 and Under 16 in the SAFF U19 Championship and AFC U16 Championship qualifiers. If you are looking for those types of pieces I would recommend going over to the official ANFA website or GoalNepal to get your fill. A short commentary on Nepal’s youth national teams’ achievements can be found at the bottom of this article.

There is another element of youth football that I would rather focus on and that Nepali football fans should get excited about. It is the emergence of youth football schools and academies across Nepal. In fairness, it is perhaps happening at a pace slower than the ideal, but for a country that was able to wait seven years for a constitution and used to long queues at government offices to petrol pumps, a bit of patience for sports development should be manageable.
Lalitpur Sports Training Center (Pic: LSTC Facebook Page)

Nepal had a futsal revolution and it may well be that it is on the verge of a youth football insurgency. A combination of factors including the proliferation of futsal halls, a growing urban middle class looking for activities for their children and the glamour of football brought on by the Premier League, Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo have given rise to youth football training centers across Kathmandu Valley and the country.

While Sahara Club, SWSC, MYA and Futsal Arena in Thamel, amongst a few others, were the pioneers on this front, at a recently held youth football workshop that I conducted, a new breed of football schools/academies were in attendance.

They included the hosts of the event, Lalitpur Sports Training Center, which is currently conducting weekend sessions for kids 8 to 14 at the Pulchowk Engineering Campus and hopes to take football training to every corner of Lalitpur district.

There was a group of soccer moms that have started the Kathmandu Kickers training program in Mandikhatar, initially for their own kids, but since open to everyone that meets several criteria including active involvement in the program by parents of the trainees.

Kathmandu Kickers organizers (Pic: KK Facebook Page)
A representative from RC32 Football Academy, a program initiated by national team player Rohit Chand and his brother Rabindra for kids in the Mid-Western city of Surkhet – hardly known for its football prowess, was also there.

The diversity of these training programs, from their geography to proprietors, is a reason for optimism. Youth football programs, once limited to the ANFA Academy, are now much more accessible and also lure talented professionals and volunteers to Nepali football.

With the dearth of structured youth football in the country, producing tangible results for soccer schools/academies is not so difficult. For example, a recent Under-12 national team squad that travelled to Korea Republic featured two players from Oshonik Club of Nepalgunj, a team that only conducts training on weekends. Presuming ANFA selectors are fair in their recruitment, we should easily see players from more of these types of training programs on the youth national team rolls in the near future.

Nepal’s youth national team success

Unfortunately, I cannot get excited about the results produced by Nepal’s youth national teams. We’ve been here before on numerous occasions in the past – Nepal’s juniors apparently producing great results only to later be fined by the AFC for fielding overage players. Until Nepal’s youth national teams are devoid players that have played league football for multiple years before being selected to the junior squads and youth success translates into the senior team winning matches, it is difficult to take Nepal’s youth level results seriously.

My opinion is shared by quite a few Nepali football insiders, but in a country that lacks many legitimate heroes and is desperate for positive news, most of these same people, as would transpire amongst the Roman masses when the Gladiator Games were being held at the Colosseum,  seem to get swept up in the euphoria of the moment. In private they voice their concerns about the legitimacy of the youth teams’ results, though publicly they celebrate the success on Facebook and other outlets. It makes straight shooters like myself come across as a negative minority. So be it.

08 July 2015

An idea to promote local football

ANFA U12 trials

I saw this photo of the kids selected from the ANFA U12 trials and was thinking - why not make a rule that the players that come for the selection have to either wear a Nepal national team or Nepali club jersey. Allow clubs to sell their jerseys right outside the gates of the training field to generate additional income.

At Machhindra FC​ we made it mandatory for all players coming to our open trials to purchase a club jersey as a part of the registration fee. We grossed Rs. 50,000 in revenue from the scheme. MFC ran-out of jerseys during the event and in the end we let a few players join the selection for free and play without a White Lions kit. Surprisingly, those players who were admitted for free and without a jersey were furious. They actually wanted a shirt and were eager to pay the registration fee to get one!

Machhindra FC trials