Nepali football team leaves a lasting mark at Norway Cup

Text: Mallika Aryal

They are spread across the green field in their red jerseys on an unusually cold and grey summer morning in Oslo. Loud cheers in Nepali come from the groups in the sidelines and a man in a red windproof jacket is yelling frantically, “You absolutely cannot lose your focus now, boys,” he shouts at the players. He is Ameer Karki Bisunkhi, the coach of the football team representing Nepal at Norway’s annual championship, Norway Cup. There are 20 minutes left in the game between Nepal and Lebanon in the pre quarter finals, and tensions are running high, “My players are giving their best, but the Lebanon team is very strong,” says coach Bisunkhi. The score is 3-0 and time is fast running out.

Thirty minutes into the game, Nepal scores the first goal. The cheering gets louder. Another three minutes and there’s the second goal—the Nepali players are finally beginning to look less stressed. But that is short-lived as Lebanon scores another goal. “There’s no need to panic, keep playing the game like you are, you are doing so well,” yells Bisunkhi. He says that he is not giving up hope yet, there are still seven minutes left. He continues to encourage his players: “Great shot, fantastic defense, beautiful kick….”. Lo and behold, three minutes to the end of the game Nepal scores the third goal.

When the game finishes, the players hold their heads high and shake hands with their opponents. They smile and clap as the coach hugs them. “Lebanon was a very strong opponent, you boys did a great job,” says Bisunkhi as he pats the players on their backs.

Nine 13-15-year-old boys have travelled from Nepal to participate in Norway Cup this year. It is the second year for some of them, but for most this is the first time. “First time to have travelled internationally on a plane, first time to have competed and played with international players,” says 15-year-old Pramodit Pradhan.

Football is a popular game in Nepal, and it has been so since the 1920s. However, it was when Nepal gained membership to FIFA, the international football governing body in 1970, and Asian Football Confederation two years later that Nepali players started playing internationally. In the 70s, 80s and 90s, Nepali team saw success at home and internationally. The national team saw a steep decline in the 90s due to internal politics and Nepal’s civil. When the decade-long Maoist war ended in 2006, the game saw a resurgence again. Nepal has done well in regional competitions winning a gold medal in 2016 at the South Asian Games. However, in global FIFA ranking, Nepal is at 166— behind countries like Singapore, Dominican Republic and Liberia.

“The reason why our Nepali team lags so behind in the global rankings and why we have not been able to do better is because football is still not a culture Nepalis have totally embraced” says Beni Bahadur Karki, manager of Rosebud School in Kathmandu who has been training boys at his school and is one of the Nepali team chaperons.

Meanwhile, Bisunkhi argues that if Nepali team is to leave a mark, there have to be more resources available to the players. Urbanization of Kathmandu means that there are no more open spaces where players can train. “Where are they supposed to go and play when every piece of land is walled off, turned into parking lots and used to build high rises?” he asks. The option to venture out to the suburbs is also challenging as it is difficult to coordinate with the families of all the players. The All Nepal Football Association, the national football body, does have a professional football pitch but not all players have access to it. Public schools do not have such facilities and private schools are off limits. Meanwhile the national stadium, at the heart of the city, has been shut and under reconstruction to repair the damage caused by the 2015 Nepal Earthquake . “Children do kick around football in the back allies of the streets of Kathmandu, but it is not safe,” says Bisunkhi adding, “You can’t make a star player out of someone who kicks around football in narrow allies amidst traffic and pollution.”

Interestingly, the team that competed in the Norway Cup trained as futsal players in a 38-25-meter pitch. “We could have fit four futsal courts in this Norway Cup field where Nepal is playing Lebanon today,” explains Karki to give a sense of the size difference.

About nine years ago Bisunkhi, himself a former football player, saw that the free land around the Valley was disappearing. He decided to do something about it, and started Goals Football Academy in the capital. He set up a futsal court and welcomed the community to join as members for a small monthly fee. His academy has 100 players who train with five coaches.

Both Bisunkhi and Karki argue that the Nepal team was at a slight disadvantage at Norway Cup because they are futsal players. However, they are very happy with the way the Nepali players have played and say the games have been a confidence boost for the boys. Some of the team members who participated at the Norway Cup were also playing at the Dana Cup in Denmark last week. The Nepali team reached the quarter finals at Dana Cup.

Resources and equipment aside, coach Bisunkhi says that the biggest challenge he faces with his players is the lack of priority given to sports such as football by the players’ parents. “Kids are encouraged to focus on academics, because they see no future in football,” says Bisunkhi adding, “So training regularly, nutrition, exercise of the players are not encouraged.” Unlike in Norway, parents do not become a part of the football social community. They don’t have the culture of taking kids for training or championships. Training after or before school is unheard of and weekends are  too short. “In Nepal we only get Saturdays off, and parents do not want to spend time ferrying children from training to training,” says Karki.

Coach Bisunkhi is doing what he can to encourage young people, but says that unless young people can see football and sports as a path that they can choose as a career where they can support their family and make a living, youth will continue to think of football as a hobby. Bisunkhi notes, “Over the years I have trained many boys, 99 percent end up giving it up as they get older, and majority of them leave Nepal to go abroad because they just don’t see a future in their country.” On his way to Norway, Bisunkhi and his team transited at Doha Airport in Qatar. He ran into a Nepali football player there, who was employed at the airport. “He was a very good player—passionate and motivated. He could have gone far, but it broke my heart to see that he was not allowed to do what he loved and had to instead leave his country so he could earn more and support his family,” says Bisunkhi.

But the young Nepali players representing their country in Norway are more optimistic. When asked how many will want to play football as  professional players representing Nepal, all hands go up quickly.

For the 13-year-old star player Abiraj Singh, it is a no-brainer. He believes he can be a professional player and represent Nepal. He says with a smile, “I have always loved kicking ball and cannot think of a life without football.” He argues that he has  learned focus, discipline, team-work, respect and hard work through football. “I have made lasting friendships, I get to travel and meet new people, and I love football—why would I ever want to give that up?” he asks.