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 naïve. 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!