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.