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When you consider the stumbling blocks that the game in Nepal has to overcome on a daily basis, it is almost a feat in itself that the national team is actually in a position to be in action at all.
Australia and Nepal meet in Kuwait City on Saturday at 2am (AEST) in a 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifier that the Socceroos are expected to win comfortably and officially reach the final phase of qualifying.
The team known as the ‘Gurkhalis’, who have already beaten Chinese Taipei twice, will fight till they drop in true Gurkha spirit. You see, they see this qualifying campaign as a means of lifting their ranking of 171 in the world.
The odds are heavily stacked against football, however, in this remote Himalayan country that is surrounded by China and India.
Sydney Olympic hero Gary Phillips, who is Nepal’s technical director and national women’s coach, believes Nepali football is on the right track despite the fact it has to deal with the kind of hurdles that simply do not exist in most countries.
“Football is number one in Nepal ahead of volleyball. The people love it and dream of a successful national team,” says Phillips, who is back home in Sydney after leaving what he describes as the “horrendous” conditions in the pandemic-ravaged country just before it went into lockdown in late April.
“We have a young and positive national coach in Abdullah Almutairi and we are making progress so everybody seems to be happy. To be honest a couple of our players - like midfielder Rohit Chand who plays professionally in Indonesia - are good enough for the A-League.
“However the game has massive problems with infrastructure.
“The capital Kathmandu, for example, is basically in a valley with pretty much 30 million people living there because the rest of the country is hillside or mountainous … seriously mountainous with snow caps all year round.
“So there is no space for facilities. We have a national stadium that has only just met Asian Football Confederation standards and an artificial field at the game’s headquarters. That’s it.
“All three men’s divisions plus the women’s league play most of their matches on the artificial field at the ‘home of football’. The main stadium is used very sparingly to protect the surface because our weather conditions do not allow for grass to grow in the winter months.
“The artificial pitch is terrible and for this reason we have a lot of ACL injuries, among them four national team players who did not make the trip to Kuwait and two women internationals.
“There are other very poor grounds but the Infrastructure is definitely one of our main problems … there is nowhere in the city for the kids to play.”
Phillips says Nepal has no clubs but a set of ‘teams’ which is not conducive to developing players.
“We have 14 teams in our A division but there are no reserve grades or under-18s. So it is very hard to develop football through a club-based model,” he explains.
“Our players are mostly semi-professional but their season is too short because we can play on only one ground. So our top competition goes for just one round which takes up about seven weeks, then it’s the turn of the second tier for another seven weeks and so on.
“Graham Arnold quite rightly complains that the A-League is too short and it goes for six months. Our league goes for less than two months.
“Thankfully, there is now a Super League of sponsored teams that can afford foreigners. This additional competition has the potential to take the game to a higher level.”
Phillips says the issues afflicting Nepali football are not confined to the infrastructure. The administration side of things sometimes leaves a lot to be desired.
“The current president of the football association is doing great things in terms of general development but his predecessor was banned by FIFA for 10 years (for taking cash during FIFA elections),” he says.
“And recently we have been fined $14,000 by the AFC for using an over-age player in an under-16 tournament.
“We don’t have a government system here that registers the birth of a child so we often do not know how old a boy or girl is.
“We had to provide MRI x-rays for about a hundred kids coming into our under-13 program just to make sure of their age. We can’t afford to get fined again.”
Aussie fans would find it hard to relate to these sorts of handicaps that the Nepalis need to overcome if they are to even reach the dizzy heights of the world’s top 100. Nepal’s highest-ever ranking was 124th in 1993.
Bearing in mind the impossible odds Nepal’s players have to face just to be able to compete, we could do much worse than spare a thought and some sympathy for the brave ‘Gurkhalis’ when they take on Arnold’s boys.