Reclaiming the top spot – Nepali Football

Nepal has lost grounds in global football, according to the latest FIFA rankings. We are now placed at 174th position, having lost four spots. In the meantime, Pakistan, to whom Nepal lost two matches in a row, has climbed 19 steps and is four places ahead of us now.

I don’t read too much into the slight changes in FIFA rankings as it is a function of how well or how badly the team has done in past as well as how did it perform lately. It also takes into account what kind of opposition has it played and the results. So, Nepal beating Pakistan (who were well below us) would have changed our fortunes only marginally while Pakistan beating us changed their fortunes dramatically. Moreover, with AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers just around the corner, there is enough opportunity for Nepal to improve its ranking in months to come.

Yet, it’s not a piece of news that we would like to welcome, as football enthusiasts.

The day when we lost four places in the world rankings ladder, there was another piece of news that football enthusiasts should have welcomed. That of, Nepali football governing body, ANFA, announcing U-15 football tournament.

Imagine 6 thousand young children, across the country, running around on football grounds, desperately trying to score, or save, throwing themselves on the pitch, all the while dreaming of representing Nepal some day. There is something about watching the youngsters play that makes your heart go warm. The innocence, the exuberance, the dreams make you feel that there is still hope left in this world. And hope is what we need, if we were to expect Nepal become a strong force in South Asian Football again (Remember, we haven’t been the No. 1 side in South Asia for past two years).

Yet, hope is not enough to develop football. There has to be planning. Somewhere you don’t get the feel that officials of ANFA have spent enough time in the planning phase for the U-15 tournament. The first phase of the tournament – where 450 Clubs are participating – is less than two-week long. That is too short a time, if we want to unearth and nurture talents that will represent Nepal in future. Talent hunting has never been an easy task. Had it been so, talent scouts would be dime-a-dozen. But, across sports, they are heavily paid.

The teams, or players selected from the first phase are to be given two-week training, after which a total of eight teams – 3 departmental plus regional – will play the final round. There seems to be an anomaly here. If my understanding is right, Nepali football has its bases in football clubs rather than regional teams now. The entire football has been concentrated, rightly or wrongly, on A Division football clubs.

ANFA President, Ganesh Thapa – who also happens to be Vice President of Asian Football Confederation – apparently said that A Division Clubs have not been involved in this tournament, because they are not active in youth football.

Yours truly would like to argue here that it is a duty of ANFA to make the A Division Clubs involved in youth football. We have already seen that central academy, run by the country’s football governing body, does not enrich football, as it removes diversity completely. Football is also about individual brilliance, as much it is a team game. Central academies tend to make ‘sets’, and the players become part of a jigsaw. Put them in a different set, and they start struggling to find their rhythm.

And another counter logic is that the A Division Clubs have been involved in youth football at some level. They did have their youth teams playing in U-14 league (sponsored by Nepal Bank). But that was more than half a decade ago and now the top flight teams, with a few exceptions, do not have youth structure.

The question here is not what we have been. The question here is where we want to be. It would be silly to think that handling youth football casually would make us the ‘team to beat’ in South Asia. Hope alone will not help, proper planning and execution will. Is ANFA ready for that?

(PS: This write-up appeared in yours truly’s weekly column in The Kathmandu Post – OFFSIDE – on 16th February, 2013)

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