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Best foot forward


HUMBLE BEGINNINGS: Jamuna Gurung revisits the football ground in Jana Sewa School in Ramailo, Morang where she began her career .

In between putting tika, visiting relatives, and house hopping, Jamuna Gurung makes some time to revisit the football ground at Jana Sewa School in Ramailo, Morang. This is the ground where the 27-year-old captain of the Nepali women's football team first learnt to kick a ball. "This is where it all began," she says running her fingers across the faded wooden goal post.

At five feet one inch, it's hard to believe Jamuna has scored a record 25 international goals in just four matches and won the golden boot for being the leading goal scorer at the recent SAFF Women's Championship in Sri Lanka. But her small frame belies her immense mental toughness.

Born and brought up in Ramailo, a remote village in Bayarban VDC in Morang, Jamuna was one of the few girls interested in the game. However, this did not deter her from entering the sports even if it meant being the only female player in the team. "Every time I watched my brothers play, I felt like I belonged more at the football ground than in the stands," she recalls.

Bruises and broken bones followed, but she carried on with sheer determination and at 14 she was selected for the national women's football squad at the 4th National Game in 1999. She got her first taste of international football the same year when she participated in the Asian Cup in the Philippines. "It was after my stint in the Philippines that I decided to take up football professionally," she explains.

The cool-headed forward is also quick to give her family full credit for her success. In a country where social acceptance for female athletes is still difficult to come by, her late brother Dambar Gurung not only coached and mentored the precocious young talent, and her twin sister Ganga, but also kept their passion for the game alive.

Despite the initial success, her spirits were soon dampened by the constant power struggle at All Nepal Football Association (ANFA). In the ten years after she made her debut, the Nepali women's team didn't participate in a single international tournament and even local matches were few and far in between. Without regular competitions or matches, keeping themselves motivated and developing their skills and strategies became a big challenge for the team. Jamuna says this was the lowest point in her football career and she even contemplated hanging up her boots before her career could even take off.

But all that changed for the better after the South Asian Games in 2010. Since then the team has bagged three runner-up trophies: one from the South Asian Games and two from the SAFF Women's Championship. "We have been consistently good against teams in the region except India. But we are training really hard and hope to bring home the gold next time," says Jamuna brimming with confidence.

Jamuna in action during a match against Afghanistan at the 2012 SAFF Women's Championship in Sri Lanka .
With more local and international tournaments being organised, the players are getting greater exposure and the team's performance at regional tournaments has been heartening. However, despite ANFA's large budget very little trickles down to the women's team.

As a result, women train with shoddy infrastructure and and meagre resources.Female players weren't even paid a monthly salary until two months ago. A female player now earns Rs 5,000 each month compared to Rs 10,000 for men. Getting advertisers and larger audience for women's games is also a hurdle.

"It's hard especially for girls who are starting out their careers from small towns where training and facilities are not even half as good as the cities. Unless we improve this it will be hard to catch and retain young talents," she admits.

However, Jamuna is still hopeful that the Nepali team can make it to the top of regional rankings if current lot of female footballers play well and set a good launchpad for younger players.

Many of her contemporaries gave into family and financial pressures and left the game midway, but Jamuna says she is in it for the long haul. Today she juggles her duties as the captain of both the national and the Armed Police Force teams. As an avid Barcelona fan, she idolises Lionel Messi and admires his agility and sheer speed which she tries to emulate in her own game. After retirement, she plans to become a coach and pass on her knowledge and skills to young girls like her who dream of dribbling it like Messi.

With Dasain over, many in her village have returned to the cities to resume their work. But Jamuna is taking a few weeks off from her national duty to train girls in Ramailo.

"I was lucky that my family was so encouraging. But not all girls have that kind of support so I want to reach out and tell them that if they believe in themselves, they can achieve their goals. It will be great to see my sisters train at the same ground where I began my football journey," she tells us proudly.

Watch the Nepali women's football team in action during SAFF Championship

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1. Peledas
Bravo Ms Gurung, you are a hero to all of Nepal's aspiring players. Please continue playing, scoring goals and inspiring youngsters who look up to you.

2. Mina Shrestha

Thank you Bhrikuti for highlighting the excellent work of Jamuna Gurung and the Nepali women's football team. Jamuna is a true hero and an inspiration to thousands of young Nepali girls who want to bend it like Beckham or dribble it like Messi. What makes her journey even more special is that she worked her way from a small town girl to the captain of the national squad.  I can only imagine the difficulties she had to face given that the lack of resources and finances that our players face. I am certain she will bring home many more golden boots and hopefully an international trophy.   

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)