After almost half-a-year in hiatus, big time club football returned to Nepal with the hosting of the Birthday Cup. Ranipokhari Corner Team (RCT) lifted this year's Birthday Cup defeating Belgaria Sports Club by a solitary goal. In the final played at Dasharath Stadium on Monday, RCT gave its supporters a New Year gift by winning this prestigious domestic tournament. Started 27 years ago to mark the birthday of King Birendra, the Birthday Cup is held annually around this time of year.
RCT had to wait 27 years to lift the Cup for the second time in the history of this championship. Its earlier win was in 1973 when the tournament was organised for the first time. With this tournament signaling the beginning of the football season in Nepal, RCT couldn't have asked for a better start. After winning the ANFA Coca-Cola National League in 1999, RCT was of late struggling to win major tourneys. Widely regarded as one of the best in Nepal, RCT was promoted to the 'A' division 38 years ago. But success has always eluded them, as time and again they faltered when it really mattered. The club made it to the finals of the Birthday Cup for two consecutive years in the 90s but never went on to win. With this win, RCT is back in the reckoning.
For two other domestic football giants, Manang Marshyangdi Club (MMC) and Mahendra Police Club (MPC), the Birthday Cup was a sore disappointment. Both reached the semifinal stage but failed to move on from there. Last year's winner, MMC lost to RCT while the MPC team went down to Belgaria Sporting Club of Kolkota.
RCT went into the semifinal without any major hiccups, defeating Naxal Yuwa Mandal, Galaxian Club and Sikkim-11 with relative ease. Nirajan Rayamajhi was instrumental in these successes in the early phase. The 22-year old Rayamajhi scored three consecutive hat tricks to pave the way for RCT. The semifinal clash with Manang Marshyangdi Club (MMC) was the first major hurdle for RCT, which they won 2-1. MMC has dominated RCT in the past, but this time RCT managed to defeat their opponents with a golden goal by Narayan Manandhar.
In the final, RCT played a much better game against Belgaria Sports Club of Kolkata. In particular, its defense was much better than earlier and goalie Ramesh Lama played his best match of the tournament with some superb saves. Rayamajhi looked subdued in the title clash as Ramesh Gyawali scored the match-winning goal in the final.
Belgaria Sports Club, an 'A' division Club from Kolkata, didn't play especially impressive football at any point in the cup. It was given a quarterfinal entry by the organisers and went on to the semifinal stage by defeating the Three Stars Club 1-0. Though it won the semifinal in a tiebreaker 4-3, it was only after two MPC players miffed their chances in the penalty shootout. MPC, who had brilliant run in the domestic circuit last year, was let down by its key players in the tiebreaker against Belgaria. In the other semifinal, MMC, last year's winner, had to play a much-improved RCT.
For RCT, this triumph means a lot. Not only has its reputation as Nepal's leading club been enhanced, but it also gives them confidence as the new football season begins. "For us it's a perfect start," says club chairman Bijou Narayan Manandhar.
For football lovers, this tournament has also been some relief from the turmoil that has plagued Nepali football management. The Ganesh Thapa-Geeta Rana controversy dominated the football scenario, and it was with this tournament that a football loving public finally saw some good football in the Valley. The successful completion of the tournament has also helped Geeta Rana demonstrate that she is capable of running Nepali football. It was first major tourney that the Geeta Rana-led ANFA has organised after she was promoted to president of the association in October. All 'A' division clubs of Kathmandu participated in the tournament. Teams from South Korea, Bangladesh and Maldives were expected to take part, but apart from two Indian teams, no other foreign team participated.