As the curtain comes down on the year 2023, I look back over the past twelve months to reflect on Nepal football’s achievements and failures.
All in all,it was yet another dismal and unproductive year for Nepal football on and off the field. The national teams in all age groups struggled,underperformed and failed to deliver results. No end to ANFA’s apathy Speaking of all round development nothing much changed when it came to bolstering infrastructure,facilities, junior and youth grassroots football.
Besides,little attention was given to make the 48 district football associations affiliated to ANFA spread across the seven provinces financially viable, effective and responsible for the promotion and development of football. All Nepal Football Association(ANFA) spearheaded by Pankaj Bikram Nembang undertook nothing significant to move the goal post in the right direction and earn a pat on the back.
They failed to make sustained, serious, committed and meaningful efforts to change the uncertain landscape of Nepal football Like previous administrations they have been a crushing let down. To top it off,there was no end to factionalism and feuding within ANFA. The poisonous relationship between the rival factions threatened and exposed Mr. Nembang’s leadership . Things got so bad that the rival group registered a no- confidence motion against Mr.Nembang with the intent to end his presidency. However, the president survived.
Obviously, absence of a united front, coupled with poor governance,weak leadership and petty politics are impeding football development. What we are witnessing in ANFA is nothing new.As a matter of fact,it has been ongoing for decades. Struggle for men’s national teams The men’s national football team of Nepal had to swallow yet another disappointment in the South Asian Federation Football Championship (SAFFC) held in Bengaluru, India. They made an early exit from the competition, following defeats against India and Kuwait. However,they rounded off the tournament with a victory over Pakistan.
Let me remind everyone that Nepal is yet to win the championship.Their best finish has been second place so far. It was a sigh of relief to see Nepal finally advance to the second round of the 2026 World Cup and 2027 AFC Asia Cup qualifiers.They prevailed over Laos in round one. Having already lost two successive matches, the second round is turning out to be an uphill climb for Nepal. The defeat against the technically superior United Arab Emirates was no surprise, but losing to a spirited Yemen at home was inexcusable. Clearly they underperformed and made a hash of the opportunity to rebound and redeem themselves. Going by the team’s SAFFC ,World Cup and Asia Cup performances,there is a lot to improve technically, tactically,mentally and physically.
It is increasingly absurd that ANFA continues to turn a blind eye to proper, timely and adequate preparation for major competitions. Also the team needs more international exposure against quality opponents. Yet another foreign coach The list of foreign coaches continues to grow with the appointment of Italian Vincenzo Alberto Annese as the new head coach of the national football team of Nepal. Given the sorry state of football, lack of resources and support,there is nothing much a foreign coach can do to turn things around in terms of performance and results. He got off to an encouraging start guiding the team to a title winning performance in the Prime Minister Three Nations Cup held in Kathmandu. The other participants were Bhutan and Laos.
They drew with Bhutan and got the better of Laos 2-1 to emerge champions. Besides, Nepal played three friendly matches against the Philippines and Myanmar losing two and drawing one. In view of the team’s poor form and declining standards, the football body decided against the participation of the men’s team in the 2022 Asian Games in Wenzhou,China. Men’s Under-16 & Under-19 performance Apart from the senior team, the Under-16 and Under-19 national teams failed to deliver the desired results as well.
The SAFF U-19 Championship was held in Kathmandu and expectations were high. Despite defeat against Pakistan in the group match, the home team made it to the last four. Against India in the semifinal,they put in a stubborn performance but went down in a penalty shootout. Likewise, in the SAFF U-16 Championship held in Bhutan, Nepal faced defeat at the hands of India in the semifinal. Understandably it was a year of setbacks for the men’s national teams.
The only silver lining for Nepal football is that there is no dearth of talent in the country. There is no denying the fact that the talent is being wasted due to ANFA’s inability to take football in the right direction. Women football gaining momentum and attention Women football was in the forefront and limelight throughout the year.After decades of slumber, it has mustered some momentum. Certainly they are showing signs of improvement.They had a hectic schedule throughout the year. They played in a string of friendly matches against India and Bangladesh, which ended in stalemates. They participated in the AFC Olympic Qualifiers round 1 in Kathmandu against Vietnam. Vietnam proved too strong for the hosts as they romped home convincingly in both matches. With the sole purpose to provide women footballers the much needed and deserved exposure, ANFA approved the team’s participation in the 2022 Asian Games in Wenzhou, China. They were in a tough group clubbed with Vietnam,Japan and Bangladesh.
Against superior and dominant Japan and Vietnam they were soundly beaten.They did well to hold Bangladesh to a draw. The women’s Under-20 outfit performed impressively to reach the final of the 2023 SAFF Under-20 Championship in Dhaka,Bangladesh. They registered a comprehensive victory over India to reach the final, however,they got overwhelmed by Bangladesh in the title match.
Likewise,the Under-17 participated in the SAFF Under-17 Championship which was also held in Bangladesh. In the five team event they beat Bhutan,drew with Bangladesh and lost to Russia and India to finish fourth. The number of Nepali footballers playing in the Indian Women’s League,India’s top tier professional football league, is on the rise. This is a positive and encouraging trend and has opened the floodgates for other aspirants to follow suit.
Samba’s history making contract with Israeli club Ace striker Sabitra Bhandari, popularly known by the name Samba was the biggest newsmaker of the year. She made history by signing for Israeli club Hapoel Raanana,thus becoming the first Nepali footballer to play in the European League under the European Football Federation. It is true that women's football has been neglected over the decades and receives far less attention than the men . As a result, women's football has remained in a stagnant state. Women footballers continue to chase football careers despite all of the odds against them. There is no doubt that they are capable of reaching greater heights of success only if women football development is a priority for ANFA and stakeholders.
Martyr’s Memorial A-Division & Nepal Super league kick off finally After several postponements the Martyr’s Memorial A- Division League finally kicked off in March. The league was delayed due to participating clubs' refusal to take the field in protest against ANFA’s failure to give them money to prepare for the competition. Church Boys United dethroned defending champions Machhindra FC to make it three in a row by winning the A-Division title.They were C-Division and B -Division champions in 2021 and 2022 respectively. The kick off of the most talked about Nepal Super League,Nepal’s first professional franchise based competition,put the suspense and speculation to rest. The league was expanded to nine teams. Jhapa FC, Birgunj United FC and Sporting Ilam De Mechi FC are the new teams. Biratnagar FC which featured in the inaugural edition did not compete this season. Players in their prime leaving the country trend There was a sharp increase in the number of players moving abroad for a financially sound and secure future. The uncertainty surrounding Nepal football has lots to do with players' decision to leave the country.
The exodus of players leaving the country has impacted Nepal’s international tournaments roster and overall performance.
Rest in peace Bhim dai. The passing away of 75 year old former head coach of the national football team Bhim Thapa whom I knew personally hit me hard. He was a real gentleman and a true professional with a strong work ethic. Everyone agrees that Mr.Thapa was a high caliber coach and one of the best of his generation. The stability and future of both men’s and women’s football hinges heavily on ANFA’s leadership,governance,policies, and management. Let us hope that ANFA does a much better job to steady the ship and are seriously committed to the all round development of football in the coming year.
By Sushil Thapa, Fairfax, VA, USA
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