Friday 21 May 2021, 02:59

Football diversity on display in Nepal

  • Football has become Nepal's most popular sport since reaching the nation in 1921

  • ANFA has made significant development progress with support from FIFA

  • Notable milestone as youth team reached the 2014 AFC U-16 Championship

In the picturesque Chitwan National Park in Nepal, the Elephant Festival has been staged annually over the past decade and half. Amazingly, the football competition is one of the key attractions of the event with the game played not by men, but by elephants with riders on their backs.

This, in a sense, reflects how popular the beautiful game is in the landlocked South Asian country. Indeed, football is played across Nepal's mountain villages and cities with the game being the undisputed No.1 sport among its 28 million population.

The game's history in the mountainous nation - it is home to the highest place on earth - dates back to 1921 during the Rana Dynasty when a group of young men, having learnt the game from overseas, began playing football in public. The newly imported sport made an immediate impact and, with matches attracting immense attention, the game quickly took root.

A boy plays football around historic temples in Hanumandhoka Square, a Unesco World Heritage Site in Kathmandu, Nepal

Royal approval

Among the first enthusiasts of the game were royalty who often developed their own football pitches. With the game gaining increasing popularity by the 1930s among people from all walks of life, both local teams and palace teams were found sharing grounds among palaces such as Singha Durbar, Chhauni, Gaucharan, Jawalakhel and Lainchaur.

Big changes have taken place down the years in political terms in Nepal but despite all this, local passion for the game has remained intact. The country's first football competition, namely the Ram Janaki Cup, came in 1934 before the second oldest tournament, Tribhuvan Challenge Shield was organised 15 years later. However, a national league didn't materialise until 1954, three years after the formation of the country's football governing body, the All Nepal Football Association (ANFA).

Organised by ANFA, the Martyr's Memorial A-Division League has been the traditional top-division competition, while the Nepal National League was founded in 2011 and 2021 saw the inauguration of the Nepal Super League.

At national team level, ANFA became affiliated to FIFA in 1972 and Nepal began to make their presence felt thereafter. The team, nicknamed the Gorkhalis, made their international debut in a 6-2 defeat to China PR that same year. They registered their maiden regional success by winning gold in the 1984 South Asian Games as hosts, a feat which they would thrice emulate in 1993, 2016 and 2019.

Nepal national U-13 team in training

Focus on generation next

ANFA are all too aware that youth development is key if they are to make consistent progress and raise their game to a higher level. With strong support from FIFA, ANFA began with improving football facilities including completion of a series of infrastructural projects like technical centres, training pitches and football academies.

In order to attract more children to the game, meanwhile, ANFA have recently embarked on promoting youth football at grassroots level. Financed by FIFA Forward, they have targeted upgrading football infrastructures in 45 districts of Nepal - including eleven mountainous districts of Baglung, Dhankuta, Dolakha, Illam, Jumla, Kavre, Lamjung, Palpa, Panchthar, Sindhupalchowk and Syangja.

Not surprisingly, notable progress has been made in youth development with a series of promising stars nurtured. Topping the list of their youth talents are Bimal Gharti Magar and Anjan Bista, both of whom excelled in 2014 AFC U-16 Championship qualifying as Nepal finished ahead of the likes Bahrain, Iraq and Turkmenistan to book maiden qualification to a continental final tournament.

Even more impressive is the development of the women's game in Nepal. Women’s football is still in its early stages in the country but ANFA has set lofty goals aiming to become the leading nation in South Asia. And in a sense, they have shown significant promise with Nepal finishing runners-up in the regional SAFF Women's Championship on four occasions.

The next major milestone on the horizon for Nepal is AFC FIFA World Cup™ qualifying matches, where they are still in the hunt for maiden AFC Asian Cup qualification. Nepal will conclude their Qatar 2022 qualifying campaign next month in neutral Kuwait with matches against Chinese Taipei, Jordan and Australia.