|By Anish Lamichhane:|
Nepali football team is yet again in the hunt for their maiden SAFF Championship title in Bangladesh. The 12th edition of the regional mega event is set to kick off from 4th September in Bangabandhu National Stadium.
In the previous 11 editions, Nepal failed to reach the final even. The best performance by the football team in the regional game is reaching the semi-final in three occasions.
In 1993, the first edition of SAFF Cup, Nepal finished third in four teams tournament. Similarly, Nepal finished fourth in the following year. Nepal failed to go through the group stage in the third edition, which was held in Kathmandu in 1997. In 1999, Nepal finished fourth. In 2003, 2005, 2008 and 2009 Nepal were knocked out from the group stage.
However, Nepal managed to reach semi-finals in back to back ninth and tenth edition. Nepal lost those both semi-finals to Afghanistan. In the latest edition, in 2015 Nepal was yet again knocked out of the three teams group A. Nepal was surprisingly defeated by Sri Lanka thanks to the stoppage time goal followed by 4-1 defeat to India.
Whether it can be accepted or not, but in past years Afghanistan has been standing as a curse for Nepali football in the regional game. Nepal was defeated by Afghanistan in back to back semi-finals of two different editions of SAFF Championship.
Back in 2011, Nepal advanced as the runner-up of group B ensuring Nepal’s SF clash with mighty Afghanistan. After a goalless draw in regular 90-minutes, the match was forced to additional extra time. The Afghani side scored in the 101st minute breaking hearts of every Nepali supporter. Similarly, the same Afghani team yet again in 2013 shattered Nepali fans’ dream in the semi-final. This time, the story is quite different. Afghanistan took an early lead. Nepal looked for an equalizer in the entire game. And finally, Nepal was awarded a penalty in the 86th minute. This erupted the thousands of fans in Dashrath Stadium. But unfortunately, Rohit Chand missed it and again was asked to retake which was also again missed. However, since then, Rohit Chand has established himself as one of the best players Nepal ever had.
But fortunately, yes, fortunately, Afghanistan is no more a South Asian nation. Afghanistan moved to Central Asia zone. Now, they are not participating in the SAFF Championship anymore. So, the curse is over now 😉 .
How can we forget our rivalry with the ‘might India’. Nepali fans give up their work, the study just to watch Nepal and India play. Nepal always had been the prey of India. And finally, Nepal break the winless streak against India back in 2013 SAFF Championship. The great former Nepali striker duo Jumanu Rai and Anil Gurung were on the scoresheet. That was probably the best moment ever Nepali fans had witnessed at Dashrath Stadium. Glad to say, I was one of the fans to have witnessed that.
Among the previous eleven editions of SAFF Championship, India has been the winner in seven occasions. And they are the defending champions. Therefore, they are yet again the favorites to win the championship. But is it easy enough for India U-23 team to defend the title? Wait, U-23? Yes, Indian team are set to send their U-23 team in the SAFF Championship. Their senior side is busy in training for Asia Cup. In my personal opinion, India has started ignoring the South Asian Region now. Therefore, Nepali team must be strong enough to defeat the India youth side, if they met in the knock out stages.
It is quite embarrassing to say that Nepal is winless in their last seven international games. Since their 1-0 victory over Macau in Solidarity Cup final on 15 November 2016, Nepal is winless. Since then, Nepal played seven matches in which Nepal lost five of them. Two of them were drawn. But I am sure that we will be breaking this streak in this SAFF Championship 2018.
Difficult but not ‘Impossible’
Nepal has been always the favorites in the regional tournaments. Back in 2011, 2013, 2015, Nepal was favorites to win the championship. Almost every team are of the same level. So, this time as well, we are the favorites. We can win this Championship. We are strong enough to defeat any nations in South Asia. With Afghanistan out from the race and Indian team sending their youth side, the way has become even less hard. I won’t say easier because it is never easy for any team.
Nepali players must be committed. They should play for their nation rather than themselves. They should stop taking it as only an international tour, that also free. We merely have problems with the goalkeeper. The problems seemed to be in defensive line. And even in the absence of Rabin Shrestha, who has been the perfect Left Back for Nepali team, Nepal’s defense line looked fragile. Midfield portion will be led by Rohit Chand. Similarly, we have many options in forward line. With the likes of Bharat Khawas, Bimal Magar, Nawayug Shrestha and Anjan Bista in the forward line, it will be a headache for Coach Bal Gopal Maharjan as well to pick the striker for Starting eleven.
Let’s root for our team, let’s cheer for our team. We will be welcoming our team Nepal with SAFF Championship Trophy after a couple of weeks. Hope for the best !