Until Nawayug Shrestha scored his maiden international goal against the Maldives in Bangabandhu Gold Cup last month, many had not even heard of his name. That underdog Nepal took the lead against the tournament favourite Maldives was equally unexpected.
There were many reasons why Nepali football fans were unfamiliar with Nawayug and why they underestimated their team’s strength.
Nepal was participating in the Bangabandhu in the worst phase of its football history. Only three weeks earlier, Nepal had crashed out of the group stage of the 2015 SAFF Championship without earning a single point. As a result, Nepal was dropped to the lowest ranking among South Asian countries by FIFA, world football’s governing body.
A few months earlier, five Nepali footballers, including Captain Sagar Thapa and Vice Captain Sandip Rai, were arrested on charges of match-fixing. Last year FIFA imposed a 10-year ban on the All Nepal Football Association (ANFA)’s powerful President Ganesh Thapa for bribery.
Since the 1999 South Asian Games (SAG) Nepal had not reached the final of any international tournament. Nawayug, a high scorer in domestic league matches, was nowhere to be seen in the tournament’s opening round.
However, by the time the Nepal vs Maldives match was over, Nawayug had turned into a star. He scored his first hat-trick in the match, going onto score the crucial goal against Bahrain in the finals that led to the team’s victory. Rightly so, he was declared the most valuable player of the tournament.
But some called Nawayug’s performance a fluke and doubted that he would be able to play that well in future. A month later, he has critics eating their words. The new Nepali football star pulled off two hat-tricks in the 2016 SAG and scored the decisive goal against India in the final match, helping end Nepal’s 23-year wait for an international victory.
How did the Nepal team, demoralised by match-fixing and Ganesh Thapa scandals, suddenly do so well? It looks like corruption was holding back our players. The recent scandals were a blessing in disguise as they ended the sports mafia that was run by Thapa and his coterie for years.
“When the mafia collapsed, new talents like Nawayug got opportunities and coaches were free to make creative decisions,” says football analyst Nabin Pandey.
Nawayug was ignored by ANFA until last year. He hade been first picked by Belgian coach Patrick Assems for a friendly match last September. Pandey asserts that the ANFA used to select national players based on personal relations rather than merit. British coach Graham Roberts had also publicly spoken out against the interference of ANFA officials in the selection process.
Balgopal Maharjan, who was the head coach of the team that won the Bangabandhu game, says Nepal now has a strong football squad but it needs to be supported by an equally effective management. “We need to convince players that they have a future in football,” he says. “If the government and the ANFA provide necessary support, Nepal will certainly be the regional football powerhouse.”
Renaissance in football