30 December 2011

National League = Champions League

If you think about it, the Nepal National League is actually a Champions League. The top 8 teams  in the Martyrs League 'A' Division are joined by the champions of the East Zone and West Zone. This is similar to how England, Spain and Germany get 4 bids to the UEFA Champions League, while countries like Ireland only get 1 bid.

There is no promotion/relegation and next year all clubs will have to start from scratch and qualify for the tournament again.

Eventually ANFA should combine the National League with the Martyrs League. Create a Premier division and then have an A Division, B Division and C Division below it. B and C Divisions can be regional to reduce costs and travel.

By the way - this is actually Nepal's 3rd National League. First two were held in 1998 and 1999. In 1998 Valley Sporting (Pokhara) and Munal Club (Jhapa) participated. In 1999 The Boys Group (Dharan) and a club from Rupandehi were the non-Kathmandu clubs. Mahendra Police Club (now NPC) won the League both times.

27 December 2011

Best fans in the world?

Photo courtesy of NepalSportsPhoto
Despite Nepal’s ineptitude in international sport, it is amazing how passionate Nepali sports fans are. There was no better demonstration of this than in the beginning of December (2011) when simultaneously  Nepal’s National Cricket and Football Teams were participating in the ACC Twenty20 Cup and the SAFF Championship respectively.

The TU Cricket Ground was packed to the brim for each one of Nepal’s cricket matches and thousands of Nepalis made their way to Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi, India to root for Nepal’s Football Team. While thousands of fans at sporting events is nothing out of the ordinary, the greater context of these events would suggest otherwise.

The ACC Twenty20 Cup is a tournament for Asia’s cricketing minnows. In a day and age when even Test sides struggle to draw healthy crowds, for tens of thousands of fans to cram into the TU Cricket Ground, an absolute bare bones stadium, for matches against obscure opponents is impressive.

Similarly the SAFF Championship is a tournament for the weaklings of international football (i.e. South Asian nations). Attendance for the 2011 edition of the tournament was abysmal, the one bright spot being the Nepali contingent at all the Nepal matches. At least in the group stages, Nepali fans even outnumbered those of the host nation - India.

All this is nothing new. I’ve been fortunate enough to watch Nepali athletes and teams across the globe and seen the passion of Nepali sports fans on many occasions. Here are but a few examples:

1997 SAFF Cup (Kathmandu)
Dasharath Rangasala had an overflowing crowd of around 30,000 for the finals of the tournament, a match which did not even feature Nepal. India and Maldives were the finalists.

1998 Asian Games (Bangkok)
There were dozens of fervent Nepali fans at the Karate and Taekwondo events, more than any other nation except for the hosts Thailand.

1999 AFC Asian Olympic Qualifiers (Hong Kong)
Thousands of Nepali fans attended Nepal’s three matches at the Hong Kong Stadium. They outnumbered locals in the match against Hong Kong. In one of the most infamous events in Asian Soccer, hundreds of Nepali supporters invaded the pitch and then chased and beat-up Malaysian players after a Malaysian player became aggressive against a Nepali player.

2006 AFC U16 Championship (Singapore)
Nearly 2,500 Nepalis attended each one of Nepal’s matches in this youth competition. The non-Nepal games were lucky to even draw 500 fans. The Nepal-Singapore match drew a greater number of Gorkhalis than Singaporeans.

2008 Prime Ministers Cup (Kathmandu)
Virtually every game was packed in this meaningless football tournament where foreign teams disguised as Senior National Teams (ONLY IN NEPAL!) participated. The final match between Nepal and Sri Lanka saw ticketless fans climb trees and scale to the rooftops to catch a glimpse of the action.

2008 AFC Presidents Cup Qualifiers (Kuala Lumpur)
Hundreds of Nepali fans, most of them laborers with little disposable income, showed up to watch Nepal Police Club’s three matches in a tournament that was not marketed at all. AFC staff at the tournament were in shock as they did not expect any fans to turn up as the matches were supposed to be a closed doors affair.

These examples beg the question – are Nepalis the best sports fans in the world? Just imagine how much fan support we would bring if our athletes and teams actually had a good shot at winning something! 

17 December 2011

SAFF Championship 2011: ANFA needs to get real about player development

In preparing for the SAFF Championship ANFA checked all the correct boxes.

They started preparing for the tournament months in advance, they hired a competent foreign coach, they sent the National Team abroad for training, they arranged friendly matches and they enticed players with all sorts of bonuses and rewards.

Despite ANFA’s best efforts and some inspired performances from our players, Nepal was only able to win one match out of four and went out to Afghanistan in the semifinals of the regional competition. It’s now been 18 long years since Nepal has won a senior tournament of significance. Most times, we struggle to even get out of the group stages.

Furthermore, Nepal continues to fail to defeat teams that at least on paper have no business being competitive against us. The Maldives is a tiny island nation with a smaller population than Bhaktapur District. Afghanistan has been ravaged by decades of war. Pakistan is best known for sewing footballs, not kicking them. India is a country solely obsessed with cricket.

Nepal should not just be competitive against our South Asian neighbors, we should be dominating them!

Football is king in the Himalayan Republic. The media attention, fan support, sponsorship (per capita) and passion for the Beautiful Game inside our borders is unrivaled in the region, and even in the continent there are only a handful of countries that can match our enthusiasm.  

So what seems to be the issue? Why do we struggle to even just reach the finals of a South Asian tournament?

To answer this, I refer you to a comment made by Indian football legend Bhaichung Bhutia in a recent interview. When asked what facilities Indian National Team players need to be able to compete with the better Asian sides, Bhaichung said that Indian players did not require better facilities, but that India required better players. He confessed that even his own standard was not good enough to compete with the likes of a Japan and South Korea or even a Qatar and Bahrain.

Nepal is in the exact same boat. To consistently win in SAFF and catch-up to mid level Asian football nations such as Malaysia and Lebanon we simply need to produce better players. (And for our cricket brothers at CAN, it’s the exact same scenario).
Will these boys become better players than what we've currently got?

Here is one way to look at it. Pretty much every Indian and Maldives National Team member would be able to play for Nepal’s best clubs, such as MMC or Nepal Police Club, yet according to a well respected South Asian football player agent, there are only two or three Nepali players good enough to play for even a lower level first division Indian or Maldives side.

Unfortunately, right now ANFA, our clubs, and football backers have no pragmatic plan to produce higher quality players. The words “football development” rings completely hollow to clubs, while sponsors/backers are still writing blank checks and have shown little vigilance in how their sponsorship rupees are spent.

As for ANFA, they basically have two failing strategies. One is the ANFA Academy and the second is cash rewards. Neither really is much of a strategy at all.

Selecting 40 boys at the age of 12 and expecting them to transform into world class players is na├»ve. There are too many variables that factor into player development and that is why you need a system where tens of thousands of kids are receiving high quality training and not just 40. Nirajan Malla is the classic case. At an early age he was billed as Nepal’s next great striker. He went to Japan for a short training stint with Asian giants Urawa Reds. It is rumored that Qatar’s Aspire Academy was also interested in signing him. As he grew older Nirajan was not able to live up to the hype and as we all know he was not even able to break into Nepal’s SAFF Championship side, a team that was weakest at the attacking positions.    

As for cash rewards, simply put you can’t turn lead into gold, no matter how much money or mutton you have on offer. Players are not suddenly going to be able to shoot better or have greater tactical awareness because a few notes are being waved in front of their faces the night before a match. If it was that easy, oil rich countries like Qatar and Brunei would be winning the FIFA World Cup every time.

ANFA needs to quit with the gimmicks and get real about player development. Churn out thousands of youth coaches that can mold future stars, create a proper scouting network that identifies promising talents, mandate clubs to adopt youth academies, require every tournament to run a parallel junior competition, foster a professional football environment by implementing a club licensing system and have a zero tolerance policy on match fixing. Only after such strategies are implemented can we realistically expect top caliber players – ones capable of competing against the best in Asia - to be born.

One of the most repeated phrases on Internet forums after Nepal’s loss to Afghanistan was “Bad Luck”.  We need to get to a point where our players are just so damn talented that neither “Good Luck” nor “Bad Luck” makes any difference in the final outcome. We’ll win no matter what!

10 December 2011

SAFF Championship: The pride is back

When you play poorly and lose you get a sick feeling. When you lose but play well, your heart sinks. Today most Nepalis are suffering from football heartache and not headache.

The 2011 SAFF Championship in New Delhi was a big step in the right direction for Nepal’s National Team.

Before the tournament many reputed South Asian football pundits were lumping Nepal in the same category as perennial minnows Sri Lanka and Bhutan opposed to the masters Maldives and India. Who could argue with them?

Nepal’s only recent victory against a senior national team came against Bhutan and East Timor the punching bags of Asian football. Nepal was humiliated 9-0 by Jordan in the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers and lost the majority of its friendly matches in their South East Asian tour including 4-0 to perennial strugglers the Philippines. Was there really any reason to be optimistic?

However something remarkable happened in New Delhi. The team not only came to play, but they turned on the style. With quick, short-passing, attacking football Nepal overran all three of its opponents in the group stage and comfortably qualified for the semifinals of the tournament. In the knockout round Nepal unfortunately missed chance after chance in the first half and ultimately went down to a resilient Afghanistan side. You win some, you lose some.

What was most impressive about Nepal’s performances was the intensity and focus they showed - two traits that have often gone missing for the National Team. Nepali players in the recent past have a history of football load shedding, basically the lights going out at inopportune times, thus making careless mistakes, giving up silly goals and then sulking and conceding even more goals!

The Gorkhali spirit and bravado that was the hallmark of Nepali teams in the 1980’s has also long been absent. These days our players easily get nervous during matches and that extra bit of fight to win the ball, make a tackle, stand-up to the opponent has been a rarity.

This time however things were different. The Gorkhali spirit was back! The team was composed, they were determined, they had grit and they played some very attractive football. All this was perfectly encapsulated in the 96th minute wonder strike by Sagar Thapa – perhaps the most dramatic goal in Nepali football history.

Graham Robert and his coaching staff deserve much credit for developing the team and getting the tactics right. ANFA, sponsors and well-wishers also did their part by leaving no stone unturned in preparing this team for the tournament. The SAFF Championship was truly a great team effort – players, coaches, officials, sponsors and not to forget - media and fans!

There have been very few times recently where we could genuinely be proud to be Nepali football fans. The last week was certainly one of those occasions.

We felt proud to see the resolve of our players.

We felt proud to witness the positive approach of our coaches.

We felt proud to hear foreign teams and commentators call us the best side in the tournament.

We felt proud to know that our fans totally kick-ass - in the stadium, online and at home.

It just felt great to be a proud Nepali football supporter once again.

03 December 2011

SAFF Championship 2011

Semifinal: Nepal vs. Afghanistan (December 9)

Nepal had the possession, but Afghanistan had the goal and earned a 1-0 victory in extra time. Nepal had plenty of chances to score, but the strikers were blunt as was the case this entire tournament.

I'll have lots of articles on the SAFF Championship in the coming days. Stay tuned!

 Nepal vs. Pakistan (December 6)

With their quick, short passing game, for the third consecutive match Nepal were the better side. They took the lead on an inspired side volley by Bharat Khawas in a goalmouth scrap after a Nepal cornerkick. Pakistan equalized at the start of the 2nd half on a penalty kick, but hardly troubled Nepal thereafter. Nepal's attack itself was fairly blunt in the second period save a Sandeep Rai freekick that bounced-off the post.

The match ended in a 1-1 draw and its on to the semifinals for Nepal.

For all its enterprise Nepal seriously has lacked any sort of cutting edge in their attack throughout the SAFF Championship. Nepal's forwards neither have the virtuoso nor the strength and power to get past the oppositions' last line. It's no surprise therefore that all three of Nepal's goals in the tournament have come from set pieces.

Off the pitch, Nepal's hardcore football fanbase kicked-butt as usual. One again thousands were at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium creating a ruckus.

Nepal vs. Bangladesh (December 4)

Nepal continues to impress at the SAFF Championship. Though it took 90 minutes to find the winning goal versus Bangladesh, on an inspirational free kick by Captain Sagar Thapa, for the second game in a row they dominated the opposition.

Nepal has been the most impressive team at the SAFF Championship thus far. With India in disarray, could this be the year?

Nepal vs. Maldives (December 2)

The Boys came to play! Nepal was easily the better side in its first match against the Maldives. From the opening whistle the Maldives were on the back foot, unable to match Nepal’s fitness and intensity. With crisp one touch passing, Nepal attacked in waves. Unfortunately, poor crossing and a lack of shooting power in the final third saw the match end in just a 1-1 draw.

Most impressive was Nepal’s midfield which overwhelmed Maldives and hardly let them within 35 yards of Nepal’s goal. Constant pressure saw Maldives quite flustered and rarely were they able to string together more than 3 or 4 passes. Bharat Khawas in midfield and Robin Shrestha on the wing were a constant threat and could stake claim to the Man of the Match award.

Historically, in pressure situations Nepali players seem to get very tight and nervous and tend to wilt during crunch time. Not today. The players looked very confident from the start and despite going a goal down on a blinder of a shot at the end of the 1st half, stayed composed and were able to level the game in the early part of the 2nd period and kept attacking until the very end. Looks like the ANFA's motivation classes are paying off.

Cash rewards 2.0

I received quite a few emails about my post on Cash Rewards. I quickly wrote the piece immediately upon reading about ANFA’s announcement that they will award Rs.10,000 Rupees a month to players. Reflecting back on my original post I readily acknowledge that I did not articulate myself very well. So let me try to be more clear.

ANFA and Nepali sports associations in general have a long tradition of offering big cash rewards to players before high profile events such as the South Asian Games, Asian Games, SAFF Cup, etc. This is actually not unique and something that almost every sports association in the world does.

There is a big difference however on the reasoning behind the cash rewards. The more sophisticated sports associations across the globe offer cash rewards as a bonus to players for achieving an objective. In Nepal the cash rewards are basically a sports associations’ STRATEGY to win medals and trophies. That is to say that our sports associations actually believe that offering money will increase the chances of winning. 

One way to look at is that we use cash rewards as a carrot while most countries offer it as a dessert. Our way of thinking is flawed. Here is why:

Cash rewards basically serve one purpose – to motivate a player. Cash rewards will not make a player technically more proficient, increase their strength, expand their Game IQ (i.e. “Football IQ”), or develop their tactical awareness. Those are things that can only be developed and improved with years of top class training, coaching and playing. Training habits and game play will not magically get better in a matter of 24 hours, no matter what the incentive.

Nepali players are not underperforming because they lack motivation, they are producing poor results because of inferior training, coaching and access to competitive matches (“playing”).

When Nepali players attend meaningful international events where they have a realistic shot of doing well, I believe that they are very motivated. Contrary to what cynics say, our athletes do take a lot of pride in representing their country. I really don’t believe they suddenly think – “Oh wow! I’ve been offered an extra 1 Lakh Rupees if I win a medal, so now I’m really going to step it up and give an extra 5%”.

On the other hand our sports associations instead of devising sound long term strategies to develop our athletes tend to resort to gimmicks such as these financial incentives and then quickly absolve themselves of complacency and incompetence when results don’t go their way. “Well we offered them 1 Lakh Rupees, what more do you want us to do?” would be a typical response from them.

The proof is pretty much in the pudding as Nepal has miserably failed to make a mark in international sports, so clearly these motivational cash rewards aren’t working.

A parallel I like to draw is that of a parent that desperately wants their child to get First Division in the SLC exam. Do you believe offering a cash reward to a kid one night before the SLC exam is going to make any difference on the results? Perhaps the parent should have enrolled their child at Budhanilkantha School and instilled a good work ethic and discipline many years back if they were truly serious about their child doing well on the SLC exam.

This is not to say that these cash rewards might not have an impact on future athletes. Maybe there is a kid in Jhapa who is now inspired to become a footballer on hearing about ANFA’s generous rewards. If that’s the case – wonderful! But let us not be naive either. ANFA’s announcement has nothing to do with inspiring future footballers. It is clearly about winning the 2011 SAFF Cup, a prize that Ganesh Thapa desperately covets after failing to win a single meaningful tournament in his 15 years as ANFA President.

Nonetheless, whatever the motivation may be, I applaud ANFA for leaving no stone unturned in the last half-year to try and win this edition of the SAFF Cup. The cash rewards on offer will certainly be a great bonus for the players if they are able to fulfill the aspirations of Nepali football fans.