Nepali football today faces an uncertain future, and not because of a lack of determination among players or lack of money and infrastructure to promote the sport. The sticking point is who should lead Nepal's favourite sport, and both the Geeta Rana and Ganesh Thapa factions' vested interests are seriously damaging
But before prophesying the demise of Nepal's most-loved game, fans would do well to turn their attention to the manager and coach of the national team, Stephen Constantine. The 38-year-old Londoner started as a forward on his school team and later moved on to teams in England, Cyprus and the United States. Recalls Constantine: "I was just about making a living in the States playing for a number of pro and semi-pro clubs. I won several Championships and even Player of the Year once."
But his career as a player ended when he was involved in a freak accident during a game between his team, the New York Freedoms, and an Italian team. For the 18 months it took him to recover, Constantine gave his involvement with football serious thought, and finally decided to give up playing and move on to coaching. He attended programmes for aspiring coaches and earned the English Advanced Licence, the United States Advanced Licence and the UEFA Advanced Licence.
Constantine responded to an English FA call for coaches for Asia, and was offered a post in Cambodia in 1999. But luckily for Nepal, Ganesh Thapa, then president of the All Nepal Football Association (ANFA) had been petitioning the Asian Football Confederation for a coach. Constantine, then 36, was offered the job of manager and coach of the Nepal Senior National Side, making him perhaps the youngest professional coach to train a national team in the history of football. He believed he could make a difference, and he did. In August 1999 he was in Kathmandu and had two months to prepare the national team for the upcoming South Asian Federation (SAF) Games. "It was the best thing I ever did," he says.
And it was one of the best things to have happened to Nepali football, something on the order of a minor miracle, given the state of the disillusioned team Constantine started with. The national team had been through a series of coaches and trained to differing, sometimes contradictory, standards. It would have been fantastic if Nepal had not lost to Bangladesh by one goal in the SAF finals, but perhaps what should be remembered more than the loss is the thrill Nepali fans felt, watching their team play decently. What made the event even more memorable was Constantine walking into the stadium dressed in daura-suruwal, exuding team spirit and national loyalty. "It was quite an inspiration when the coach entered the stadium in national dress, something not even Nepalis wear these days," says Bikesh Shrestha president of the Nepal Football Fan Club. Stephen considers the loss in the finals a tragedy, one that he remembers everyday. But, he says: "If losing a game makes us even stronger, I'll take the loss." And things did get better. At the under-16 Asian Cup in Vietnam last year, the Nepali team made it to the finals, the first time any Nepali sports team has qualified for the finals of an international tournament. Nepal lost badly, but, "To the boys it was the experience of having played in an international game and that counted more then the ass-kicking loss," says the coach.
Stephen Constantine is the first football coach ever to be awarded the Prabal Gorkha Dakshin Bahu, the Nepali equivalent of the British OBE, for his outstanding services to the nation. Modest as ever, he says: "I was only doing what I love doing and this is the highest award I've ever received."
Constantine has many more plans. He now understands the strengths and weaknesses of football in Nepal, and wants to start coaching players as young as 12, and also form a federation of Nepali coaches. Nepal gets a lot of aid from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and FIFA (which other sources confirmed as nearly $250,000 per year) and if those funds are utilised well, Nepali football could go a long way. 40 young footballers have been given scholarships to study and train in Kathmandu. "But why only 40, why not 400?" asks the coach. "We have the money, all we need to do is plan and implement those plans. If the people concerned thought more about what is best for the country then there is so much that we could do."
Due to the ANFA controversy, Nepal lost its chance to host the World Cup Group-6 preliminaries here. Any lessons learnt? Not really-football administrators are now fighting like cats and dogs over which faction should take the national team to Kazakhstan for the qualifiers that start 21 April. "This is shameful. Nepali fans might never get the chance to witness anther World Cup game here, and what is more the team would have had all the support they could ever want if the games had been held here," says Constantine who now has to prepare his team to face Iraq, Kazakhstan, and Macao. Any possibilities of success there? "We might be able to face Macao, but the Iraqis and the Kazakhs are too well built for us," he says pointing out that a well-built physique is a necessary component of the game. "Not every one is a Maradona," he says.
Constantine's contract is for a three-year term, subject to renewal every year. He gets a modest salary from ANFA-not as high as any club in England would willingly pay him, but it's the game that counts. "Nepali players are among the most coachable players I have ever known, but if the controversy goes on and people forget the game and think about their own pockets I might have to think about whether I want to stay here after my contract," says he. The coach is currently in Switzerland undergoing training that will make him one of only 55 FIFA instructors. But for now ANFA should take matters seriously-the future of Nepali football can be different if Constantine stays on.