The Valley is crawling with snooker and pool parlours filled with would-be and wannabe rulers of the game. And it's not just within the Valley that the game has made its presence felt. From Namche to Nepalgunj the balls are rolling. "There are snooker joints even in places like Namche where there aren't any roads and the tables have to be carried up there," says Rajesh Bajracharya, joint secretary of the Billiards, Snooker and Pool Association of Nepal (BSPAN). And forget your impression that snooker, billiards and pool are pastimes of the wealthy alone. It's a different story now, though at an average of Rs 100-Rs 140 per hour, they're still not terribly cheap recreation. But go to a pool parlour any time after office hours and it is highly unlikely you'll get a table. They are filled with men, the young and middle-aged, the working and the unemployed. "I used to play every day but now it's more a once a week event," says Sailesh Shakya, a one-time snooker addict from Tahachal. Snooker addicts with a bit of cash spend hours betting against one another, trying to decide who\'s boss.
Snooker's vast popularity in Nepal is a phenomenon of the last decade, and the developments in the game and rising standards are something to be proud of. The BSPAN was formed in 1994 and a new governing body took over two years ago. Unlike other sports associations whose work has been marred by controversial charges of corruption, the BSPAN has a cleaner image. To be sure, the financial stakes are not very high, but given the limited resources of the Association, the members' attempts to promote the game owe more to dedication than the promise of moolah. Their efforts are paying off, and there are a host of private companies willing to sponsor championships and tournaments.
The new governing body of the BSPAN, with industrialist Suraj Baidya as president, was elected two years ago. In this short time, the association has already organised four major tournaments, all sponsored by private companies like Surya Tobacco, Carlsberg, Toyota and San Miguel. These tournaments are very popular, and the bigger the cash prize offered by the sponsors, the greater the excitement. At the Surya Nepal Snooker Challenge that ended last Saturday, Rajan Lama of Chorten Snooker, Baudha and Tashi Wangchuk of Heaven's Snooker also in Baudha, played out a game that had the packed hall at Cosmos Solarium in Tripureswor resounding with oohs and aahs. Rajan defeated Wangchuk 7-4 in the eleventh frame in a set of thirteen games, and walked away with a trophy and cash prizes totalling Rs 62,000-Rs 51,000 for first place, and Rs 11,000 for the biggest break of 58 points. Lama bagged the Carlsberg Snooker Championship last year on the same date. Runner-up Wangchuk earned Rs 30,000 and a trophy. The total prize money-Rs 173,000-is the largest amount given out at a snooker tournament in Nepal until now.
Snooker parlours have an average of three tables that can cost anywhere between half a million rupees each if you want a British board and Rs 150,000 for one made in Nepal. Contrary to popular perception, Nepal-made boards are just fine. "The earlier ones were pretty bad, but now they have improved," says Rajan Lama, who also runs his own snooker club. The average snooker addict spends between Rs 300-Rs 500, roughly three to four hours, at one sitting, and parlours are usually open at least 12 hours a day. Even the markers who keep the points of each player and are responsible for each board make decent cash. "I make around Rs 400 a day in tips and I also have a monthly salary," says Sona Thapa, a student who works as a marker during the day at Royal Snooker in Kamaladi.
People are making money, players are honing their skills, and with the increasing professionalisation of the sport, snooker, like basketball, seems set to stay in Nepal. The BSPAN recently took four players to Bangladesh to participate in a tournament. The association plans to send at least one competitor to the Asian Snooker Tournament in June in Pakistan, and also organise a SAARC-level championship here next month. "Right now we cannot expect much from our players when we take them abroad, but it will give them some exposure and help them in the game," says Bajracharya of BSPAN. t
ANFA goofs again
If there was anyone who could take Nepal's beloved football to a higher plane, it was Coach Stephen Constantine-the national football team's remarkable improvement is proof. Nepali football seemed finally to be going somewhere and now we're back to ground zero. Constantine has resigned from his position as Nepal's national coach. The shameful controversy surrounding the All Nepal Football Association (ANFA), fueled by an inefficient and, by some accounts, corrupt National Sports Council (NSC), has the English coach so disgusted and unsure of being allowed to do any good, that he quit last weekend. Says Constantine: "I've been waiting for several months for ANFA to resolve the crisis but people seem more worried about their personal benefit than about the game."
The controversy lost Nepal the chance to host the World Cup Group 6 preliminary matches. Instead, they're being played in Iran and Kazakhastan. It also looks as if Nepal might not even get to play, being coach-less and subjected to the relentless pull and push of the Geeta Rana-Ganesh Thapa dispute. Where Nepali football will go is anyone's guess, but few people are betting on the future. Football enthusiasts will miss the coach, and doubtless many are thinking: Shame on you, ANFA.