The Bootiful Game

Photo: ANFA

Volleyball may be emerging as Nepal’s national game, and cricket may have fans, but football is the most sought-after sport in the country. And in the run-up to the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, there has been a surge of people kicking the ball around on school grounds and community fields across Nepal.

Nepali football has never peaked on the international stage, nor does it have a stable club platform and tournaments nationally. And our chance of making it to the sporting world’s biggest tournament is slim. Some would even say nil. But that does not dull the enthusiasm of Nepalis for the beautiful game.

The Rana elite first started playing football in 1921 in the expansive grounds of their palaces. And the credit for introducing the sport to the public goes to Nara Shamsher Rana, who was later president of the All Nepal Football Association (ANFA).

ANFA itself was founded in 1951, when a Nepal national team was also formed. Before this, several clubs were formed and they played in domestic tournaments including the Ram Janaki Cup and the Tribhuvan Challenge Shield. In 1963, the national team played its first international away game in what was then East Pakistan at the Aga Khan Gold Cup, now renamed AFC Champions League. By 1970, Nepal was a member of FIFA and two years later joined the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). On 13 October 1972, it made its international debut with a match against China, which it lost 2-6.

Since then, Nepalis have lost count of how many more international games the national team lost. But it did win some, and there was relative progress until the turn of the century. Football then went into decline during the conflict years, and has been seeing a comeback in recent years. Nepal’s biggest stadium Dasrath Rangasala built in 1956 has been witness so much of the country’s football history including the tragic death in 1988 of 93 spectators in a stampede during a thunderstorm at a Tribhuvan Challenge Shield match.

The national team’s biggest achievement so far is reaching the final at the SAFF championship in 2021 before it lost to India 3-0. It was the winner of the first-ever AFC Solidarity Cup held in 2016 where it defeated Macau 1-0. But perhaps it is best remembered for the 2019 South Asian Games held in Kathmandu where Nepal defeated Bhutan

2-1 to win the gold for the fourth time (pictured above).  Of the 211 national associations worldwide, Nepal’s FIFA ranking is 175 for men and 103 for women’s teams which says all that needs to be said for the state of the sport in the country.

But despite limited resources and training compared to men, the women's football team has shown much potential having made it to the finals of SAFF in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2019 and 2022. It also made it to the finals of the South Asian Games. More importantly, the team moved up 22 places in the FIFA ranking since 2010.

The fact that sport was never a political priority even after the insurgency was over meant there was never enough money for the game or exposure for the players which has continued to this day. The budget allocated for the Ministry for Youth and Sports this fiscal year is for building stadiums and sports centres, not necessarily for football.

“The government hasn’t announced the budget separately for football, so technically the budget allocated for the sport is zero,” laments Meghraj KC who coaches Nepal’s Under-20 team.

Last year, ANFA was allocated Rs856 million but most of it was funded by FIFA which has time and again requested countries to get local financing to develop the game.

This has discouraged even national-level footballers from continuing to play, and many have left for greener pastures abroad.

Despite the lack of infrastructure and training, Nepali players have shown what they can do given proper encouragement. Most have talent but not enough exposure.

So when will Nepal make it to the World Cup? At this rate, not in our lifetime. We will have to contend ourselves in the coming weeks rooting for other teams in stadiums built by our workers in Qatar.

Read also: Labour rights legacy of the FIFA World Cup, Meenakshi Ganguly and Mohna Ansari

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