News 2021: A Mixed Year For Nepal Football (Sr. Columnist Sushil Thapa Writes..)
Sushil Thapa

As always, I look back at some of  the major stories and headlines that unfolded in Nepal football in 2021.

Since the start of Covid pandemic in 2019, our lives have turned upside down and affected all industries, including sports in a big way.

For almost two years, sporting events across the country had come to a grinding halt. As COVID eased up, competitive sports made its return globally in 2021 much to the relief of sports enthusiasts.

However, as a precautionary measure spectators were barred from all venues and games were held behind closed doors.

Domestic football in Nepal came back roaring to life. Postponed and canceled tournaments resumed across the country in a short period of time.

Sharp decline of COVID cases finally paved the way for sports goers to return back to stadiums and other venues.

Despite lingering fear of COVID, football starved spectators packed sporting arenas to watch live action and support their respective teams.

Amid pandemic, 2021 was a mixed year on the pitch for Nepal football in terms of performance and result.

The men’s and women’s teams contested in several international tournaments, but without success. Although some progress has been made in the overall performance, there is  still considerable room for improvement.

There is no denying that players must improve their physical fitness, technical and tactical ability, coupled with strong mental skills.

Also lack of timely and well-organized planning, training and preparation significantly contributed to teams’ mediocrity and poor results in international tournaments.

In fact, in a highly competitive sporting world, the importance of proper planning and  preparation cannot be understated. Unfortunately, the All Nepal Football Association (ANFA) has failed to prioritize it.

National Team show plenty of promises

The national team of Nepal had a hectic schedule. They started off with the 2022 World Cup Qualifiers in Kuwait to complete their remaining matches against Jordan, Australia and Chinese Taipei.

As expected, they were comprehensively defeated by formidable and superior Jordan and Australia. They did themselves proud by notching up an important victory over Chinese Taipei to finish fourth in the group. The win put them into the third round of 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.

Prior to the World Cup Qualifiers, Nepal Football Association (ANFA)  organized the Three Nations Cup featuring Nepal, Bangladesh and Kyrgyzstan in Kathmandu.

The tournament won by Nepal was part of preparation for the qualifiers. Also they played a friendly against Iraq.

Nepal’s superb performance in the South Asian Federation Football Championship (SAFFC) in Male, Maldives was the year’s biggest news.

Nepal entered the regional tournament with high hopes and determination to corner glory. At the end of the day, they almost pulled it off but fell agonizingly short, losing to India in the final.

Nonetheless, it was a gutsy, energetic, and encouraging performance. They deserve a pat on the back for the performance and effort. The  second place was the best ever finish for Nepal in the championship.

Nepal’s Under-23 debacle

By contrast, Nepal’s Under-23 had a disastrous outing in the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

They were completely overwhelmed, outplayed by superior Iran, Lebanon and Tajikistan on all fronts of the game. To say the least, the performance was dismal and unpromising.

They got stuck in the doldrums of mediocrity and failed to win a single match and score a single goal. They ended up conceding 14 goals.

Poor planning and preparation contributed significantly to the debacle. As a consequence, they ultimately paid a heavy price.

New Head Coach for the National Team

The appointment of Kuwaiti Abdullah Al Mutairi as head coach of the national team was another major headline.

Initially he was appointed for a year and later his contract was renewed for 2 years. The Kuwaiti made a promising start leading Nepal to its first ever championship match in SAFFC.

He did what any coach should have done by picking a youthful squad, which included several promising debutants.

Despite the challenges, he seems ambitious and resolute to prove himself. He carries the right attitude, temperament and approach, no doubt.

Having said that, the Kuwaiti must remain one hundred percent focused on his job and refrain from unnecessary and needless controversies. Otherwise, it becomes a distraction and only hinders performance and productivity.

His tiff with ANFA Vice President Pankaj Bikram Nembang was unwarranted. The two could have amicably resolved their dispute.

Instead, he overreacted and was guilty of making a mountain out of a molehill and attracting negative press. He must learn from his mistakes and stay as far away as possible from politics and controversies.

Start of Nepal Super League

The start of franchise- based Nepal Super League (NSL),the first of its kind in the history of Nepal football marked a  new beginning and hope.

Seven teams from Kathmandu, Lalitpur, Biratnagar, Dhangadhi,Pokhara,Chitwan  and Butwal competed in the league cum knockout tourney.In the final Kathmandu RayZrs prevailed over Dhangadhi FC.

Could this be the turning point for Nepal football? Since we are at the very early stage of the NSL, we will have to wait and see how the league shapes up.

Admittedly, it is a very encouraging development and paves the way for professional football development in the country.

Going forward, the competition success will largely depend on how well it is conducted financially and operationally.

Let us not forget that the lack of proper grass roots level development, football academies, stadiums, facilities and playing fields have been a big hindrance for football to grow over the decades. Things have not changed much to date,

The franchises can make a world of difference to the overall development of the sport if they invest in infrastructures, academies and stadiums.

Martyrs Memorial A Division League starts

Finally, the long-stalled Martyrs Memorial A Division League resumed in Kathmandu. Fourteen teams are in the fray for the title, including newly promoted Satdobato Youth Club.

As I write, defending champions Machhindra FC are at the top of the standings and will represent Nepal in the AFC Cup.

Another big news was the opening of Pokhara International stadium to the ongoing League. A handful of matches have been already played and many more will follow.

Women footballers in action

We have seen improvement in women’s football in terms of performance and progress. There, however, remains a lot to be done and achieved.

Women’s football has not received the kind of attention it needs from the football body when it comes to development.

The senior team competed in the 2022 AFC Women’s Cup Qualifiers held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. They put in a fighting performance but bowed out, following defeat and draw against Philippines and Hong Kong respectively.

Prior to the tournament, they played two friendlies against Bangladesh.

Nepal participated in the SAFF Under-19 Women’s Championship in Bangladesh. They failed to reach the final after going down to India by a solitary goal.

In fact, they seemed destined to reach the final, following convincing wins over Sri Lanka, Bhutan and drawing against Bangladesh. Overall, they played pretty well to finish third. Well done ladies.

ANFA plagued by weak leadership and factionalism

To be fair, the football body deserves credit for the start of NSL, resumption of Martyrs Memorial A Division League, new sponsorship deals and a handful of ambitious projects in the pipeline.

On the management front, ANFA, however, continues to be plagued by weak leadership, poor governance, corruption, petty politics, opposition and factionalism. Furthermore, there is no transparency and accountability on their part.

ANFA President Karma Tsering Sherpa has been a huge disappointment. He lacks vision, integrity, micromanagement skills and effective communication.

To make matters worse, he has become a rubber stamp for the faction led by ANFA General Secretary Indra Man Tuladhar.

As a result, he is in the role of a divider instead of a unifier. He continues to face a barrage of criticism from most of his own Vice-Presidents for his poor leadership, missteps and debatable actions.

The problems afflicting grassroots level football in the country remain unchanged. To add, little attention has been given to infrastructure development.

It seems Mr. Sherpa led ANFA is far from committed to transforming the landscape of Nepal football for good. Despite everything, I hope 2022 will be productive and the best year for Nepal football.

By Sushil Thapa, Fairfax, VA, USA

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