Food vs football

Unable to make a living, Nepali footballers are migrating for greener turf

Photo: ANFA

Although cricket is the rage right now, football is by far the most sought-after game in Nepal. However, the national team has never made it anywhere close to the World Cup.

Yet, when Argentina won the tournament this winter, Nepalis celebrated as if their own team had won. English Premier League, LaLiga and Serie A all have a mass following in the country of 30 million.

The latest season of Nepal’s homegrown Martyr’s Memorial (Sahid Smarak) A Division football league is just a week away but there is not much excitement, neither among players nor fans.

The Covid-19 pandemic has played a part in dampening the enthusiasm but the inconsistency of the league is a bigger factor. Nepal’s professional footballers are so undermotivated to play that they are not just quitting the game, but the country as well.

The league was to start on 10 January earlier this year but after a meeting with 14 competing clubs, the All Nepal Football Association (ANFA) postponed it to 3 March. Football clubs complain that the ANFA is not providing preparation expenses, thus delaying the league.

The annual Martyr’s Memorial ‘A’ division football league began in 1954, but since 1987, the tournament has been held only 16 times. There are many reasons: the Maoist insurgency, financial hardship, unstable governments, strikes, lack of infrastructure, the Covid-19 pandemic and the earthquake.

And when the league does happen, the matches are tightly scheduled, allowing players limited time to rest and recover before the next game. The league lasts only a couple of months and players are only paid for those months.

“We players have to look for local games to keep us afloat,” says Askoh Khawas, a footballer from Biratnagar who plays for Three Star Club. “This is the only thing that keeps us going physically and financially.”

The 2023 league is returning, but some 45 players who used to play for the ‘A’ division will not because they have either quit football or Nepal. Just last month, five players from major clubs left for Australia: Tej Tamang, Dinesh Rajbanshi, Gautam Shrestha, Nitin Thapa and Ranjan Bista.

Only a handful of Nepali players have got an opportunity to play football outside Nepal, the rest have migrated, possibly for good.

A Nepali footballer’s lifestyle is not lavish, players do not get the opportunity to train, the games are not played all year round, and training isn’t all year round either. Players do not get offered millions of dollars and are signed into clubs which do not have money even to sustain themselves.

Ironically, the Nepali players who have left have been replaced by foreign players some of whom are making good money. “Players from Nepal are going abroad and foreign players are coming to Nepal to play football, it is happening more and more and that is sad,” says national team player Bikram Lama.

Until recently, players and clubs from Kathmandu Valley used to dominate even the limited number of footballing tournaments in the country because talent outside the urban centres did not have the platform or exposure. But this is now changing: most of the players are now from outside Kathmandu.

“The primary reason for this shift is that youth in major cities like Kathmandu and Lalitpur now have various other sources for entertainment and do not look forward to playing outside as much,” says Megh Raj KC who coaches Nepal’s Under-20 team. “Children in cities these days also do not have open space to take up football or other team games. But that is not the case in the rest of the country.”

But lack of infrastructure continues to be a problem. The passion for football has not allowed for stable income: in the past three years, Nepali footballers have had the opportunity to play for only 10 months, which means they got paid only for that time.

Nepal does not lack talent but players are not given optimum opportunity. Newcomers and foreigners might take on spots left by players in domestic leagues, but that does not fill the gap in the national team.

Says Megh Raj KC: “At this rate, we will continue to be a footballing country to have never made it anywhere internationally.”