After 20 years, the wait is finally over. It is official. The much hyped, talked about Nepal National League Football tournament got underway in Kathmandu recently. The highly anticipated competition, after having pushed back to a later date numerous times, kicked off on 21 January, thus putting an end to all doubts over hosting the tournament.
The struggle for a national league
Allow me to rewind time briefly. In April 2014, All Nepal Football Association (ANFA) floated the concept of national league, the first of its kind. The immediate status of the tournament, however, remained unclear with no details and timetable revealed then. Six months later, the football body confirmed hosting the league at a time when the Public Accounts Committee was investigating President of ANFA Mr. Ganesh Thapa who is tied to a corruption scandal.
Dates were also finalized for the league only to be deferred, time and time again. Conspiratorial as it may sound, the timing of the announcement, in my opinion was only a ploy to distract public from the corruption charges leveled against Mr.Thapa. Other than that, there were other critical logistic issues related to sponsors, venues and competing teams, they could care less.
Mr. Thapa’s suspension from office served only to further delay the league. It seemed though the competition would get postponed for an indefinite period of time. However, under considerable pressure from players, ANFA had no choice but to go forward with the league. At any rate, I will be closely following the action and curious to see how it unfolds. Amid little fanfare, the tournament kicked off in front of a stadium less than half full.
The league’s inaugural match was played between strong contenders Manang Marshyangdi Club and Far Western Football Club at Dasharath Rangashala. The former under new coach Raju Shakya coasted to an easy 3-0 victory.
Likewise, Three Stars Club also made a winning start, recording an identical victory over Morang FC. In the third match, rank outsiders Lumbini FC provided the first stunner, upsetting Nepal Police Club by a solitary goal.
The league will be played on home and away format. To reduce match strain, only two matches a week will be played on weekends. Of the 72 matches, 40 will be held in Kathmandu and 32 in Biratnagar, Jhapa, Dhangadi and Butwal.
The competition features Three Star Club, Manang Marshyangdi Club, Jhapa XI, Morang FC, Lumbini FC, Far Western FC, Nepal Police Club, Tribhuvan Army Club and AFP Sports Club. The winning team will take home a check for $10,0000 at stake. In addition, there are other prizes at stake that has got everyone excited. Going by ANFA’s track record, nothing can be taken for granted and there is reason to doubt whether they will pay the teams as promised. Only time will tell.
The absence of Kathmandu based clubs, Himalayan Sherpa Club, Saraswoti Youth Club, Machhindra FC and Friends Club takes much of the gloss off the tournament. The clubs have paid a price for their rebellion against ANFA. They are waging a determined battle against the corrupt power structures of the football body, which has largely failed to improve the state of football.
On the bright side, the revolt is having an impact and slowly but steadily gaining ground across the country. As a result, FIFA under pressure had to suspend Mr. Thapa from office for four months. What I find difficult to fathom is why it took so long for the scandal –tainted ANFA to organize a competition of such magnitude.
The national league is the backbone of football, but the fact of the matter is that it really matters little to ANFA. When they should have been focused on delivering their vision (if they have any) through strong leadership, good governance, transparency and accountability, instead they are engaged in the game of petty politics, pushing football development to the backburner. Furthermore, the suspended Mr. Thapa and his loyalists have become so power obsessed that they are more focused on their own personal advancement and agendas in order to hang on to the power.
Although ignored by the mainstream media, it is no secret that unpaid money to clubs, match -fixing, empty stadium, sub-standard umpiring and eroding coaching standards has became a regular feature of Nepali football.
With domestic football in full swing and players having to play frequently across the country, the hectic schedule is already taking a toll on the players. The ongoing league has not helped the situation.
Coming back to the league, my biggest concern is the atrocious, horrible field conditions. Let alone Jhapa, Dhangadi and Butwal, playing conditions in Dasharath Rangashala in Kathmandu and Shahid Maidan in Biratnagar are just pathetic. Pictures of Dasharath Rangashala highlighted by “Goal Nepal” speak for itself. There is a need to publish images of other venues, as well. I wonder what the so-called ANFA inspection team observed and how they deemed grounds suitable for play.
Sadly, there is not much media focus on the unsafe and unsecure playing surfaces, which in fact has been a big problem for years. Keep in mind that players are not insured and routinely exposed to hazardous conditions where injury is common.
Despite the critical importance of protecting players from injuries emanating from dreadful field conditions, there never have been serious efforts to address the issue by ANFA. They are in clear violation of the standards set by FIFA when it comes to ground requirements. But who cares.
What is so infuriating is that they do not care, they have never cared, and they will never care. The irony is that while they can afford to give away big money prizes but refuses to allocate adequate funds for ground maintenance. ANFA maintains that it is not liable for carrying out maintenance and repairs of grounds or stadiums, then why give thumps up to unsuitable or unplayable playing fields, putting players at risk of injury. The amount of a little over $ 2000 given to District Football Associations, hosting more than two -dozen matches for ground repair is peanuts and an embarrassment. I wonder what sort of facelift these playing fields have received with that kind of money.
I am very surprised that the pathetic playing surface has not come under fire from players, coaches and clubs. They should take this seriously because it is to their interest. ANFA has kept the league a low -key affair with none of the pomp and fanfare in display. What matters most is continuity, facilities, infrastructures, good management, coupled with effective planning and branding of the tournament for long term success. Whether this is just one time competition or not, we will have to wait and see what happens next year.