Present Perfect: Future Uncertain?

When AFC U -14 Festival of Football concluded this week, Nepali boys stood out. The boys played some outstanding football, in a twin-format football championship – playing in 30-minute-a-match and 60-minute-a-match – remaining undefeated throughout.

Of course, Festival of Football is a format where there is no declared winner, but performances at this level show what the football future of the country is likely to be. In that case, Nepal has done well, remaining at the top, where 5 South Asian countries participated.

There is a joy in watching youngsters play. The purity of their play, the innocence and raw skill on display is a delight to watch. They show you the hope, the prospects, the anticipation of what could be tomorrow.

However, given the record, yours truly would take the present success with guarded optimism. For we have seen some brilliant performances in the past which did not translate into performances at the senior level. The players of ANFA Academy – who generally play in this format – have performed brilliantly at this level only to fizzle out later, as senior players.

Consider an example of Academy players like Prabin Manandhar, Sishir Adhikary and Saugat Subba, who were touted as brilliant strikers in age-group level during the turn of this century. Not many know their names now, as they are not in the football system of the country. Had they continued playing, these players would have been in their late 20s now – the age where most players are at their peak performance. Sadly, Nepal is still searching for that elusive striker who could score in international matches.

Why did it happen? Introspection is a must. Catching raw talent at around the age of 12 and nurturing them is a good concept and that’s what ANFA academy is expected to do. However, the problems start after getting the raw talent in. Right after exposure at the age of 13-14, these players remain in the Academy, playing among themselves. The problems do not end before these boys are sent out after playing U-19. Nepali football has dearth of coaches who specialize in nurturing young talent.

Circa 2000, former Chelsea player and erstwhile Yugoslavian national Bojan Milosevic was in charge of the Academy players. He had said then, “5 of these boys have the talent to play in an English Premier League (EPL) side.” That would rank as a generous praise for Nepali football talent. The point here is not why our players are not in the EPL. The point is that we have the raw talent but they’re not being transformed into potent force that Nepali football needs.

The diet that these youngsters are given and the training that they receive cannot be called sufficient. Cabbage soup is hardly the diet that produces international footballers. You can visit the ANFA academy during the monsoon season and see the ground condition. Making these youngsters play in those condition would be tantamount to risking their career altogether.

To avoid these problems, football will have to be decentralized too. Not many would forget players like Hari Khadka (who ranks among Nepal’s best) and Basanta Thapa, who had come to national scene through U-16 national championships, as raw talent. Those were inter-district championships, which have not been held for one and half decades now. These two names – coming from Jhapa and Rupandehi – make strong cases for decentralization of the sport.

Till a few years ago, ANFA used to organize U-14 championship for A division Clubs, with the support of Nepal Bank Limited. That was a good initiative, bringing in diverse players. ANFA should try and revive such championships.

Take an example of EPL, where every premiership team has the main team, a reserve team and a youth team. The youth teams play league competition among themselves, which makes players out of youngsters. And in time, when these players graduate to reserve team and thereafter the main team, they are match-ready. If we adopt measures like these and give it a few years, there is no reason why we cannot have strong national team.

Or else we’d have to remain content with glory at age-group tournaments alone.

This write-up appeared in Yours Truly’s weekly column in The Kathmandu post – OFFSIDE – on 26th May, 2012

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