The Nepal football team — attired in admiral blue — practised in earnest at the Shiv Chhatrapathi Shivaji Stadium at Balewadi on Sunday evening.
The national team has a dismal record in international competitions and has already been eliminated in round 1 of the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualifiers.
It lost 2-0 to India in the away match at Guwahati last March and was involved in a goalless draw in the home game. The outcome of Monday’s friendly against India may be only of academic interest, but the Nepalese are expecting the Sagar Thapa-led side to turn a new leaf in Nepal’s football chapter.
Recently Thapa expressed the opinion that it was time Nepal turned the tables on India.
“We can win, we have beaten them before. Most of the results have been draws, although in recent times we have lost. It is possible to beat India provided we have a good strategy,” said Thapa at a media interaction on Sunday.
Ravaged by the April 25 earthquake, the Nepalese are rebuilding their lives and the followers of football look upon the national team to bring them succour. Of late there has been some cheerful news for Nepal and its legion of manic football fans.
On Saturday the Nepal’s youth team outwitted the India u-19 team in the final of the inaugural South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) under-19 tournament at Satdobato, Nepal.
It was the first international title for a Nepal football team at any level in 22 years, registering a 5-4 victory via a penalty shoot-out.
Four players from the junior squad have been included in the senior team for the friendly against India. It’s unlikely though that star player Bimal Magar — who scored a hat-trick against Bhutan — may feature in the line-up.
“He may be carrying an injury; the physio and the team management will take a call after ascertaining his fitness,’’ said coach K.C. Dhruva.
Last week the All Nepal Football Association (ANFA) appointed Belgian Patrick Aussems as the new head coach, replacing American-Polish coach Jack Stefanowski.
“We are looking forward to the SAFF championship and the South Asian Games. Football in Nepal is different from any other sport. It has big potential; it’s very popular, but it’s not able to cash in on it. The results apart, we players have a good status. We have some makeshift facility and a newly laid astro-turf. Though the national stadium is not in good condition, it has good enough facilities,” said Thapa.
India’s national football coach Stephen Constaintine speaks his mind without fear. There are a number of things he has said after taking charge for the second time. On Sunday evening he was matter of fact while measuring India as an international team.
When asked about India’s chances in the World Cup qualifier against Iran at Bengaluru on September 8, he said: “Iran is Iran. They are one of the better sides in Asia. It would be a difficult job. The situation for us is that anybody we face is difficult. Nepal will not be an easy game; they were not easy in the qualifying matches for the World Cup qualifier. We have not reached the level of consistency.
“We have to try and regain our respect. We did that a little bit with Nepal. Our performance against Oman was good. We made a couple of mistakes here and there and we had a disallowed goal. The least we say about the game against Guam, the better.
“The match against Nepal is an opportunity for us to play an international game in preparation for the Russia 2018 qualifier against Iran. We are at a stage where we need games so it’s important for us to approach this match in a professional manner.”
After nominating Subrata Paul as captain and Sunil Chhetri as vice-captain for the international friendly against Nepal, the India coach said his team would aim to win the match. He also said the GPS system would be used to track players’ fitness levels.
“Two months ago FIFA allowed the use of GPS systems. There were a few teams that have been training, but most of the boys have done little since the completion of the Hero I-League. And now with the GPS systems in place, none can cheat.
“The information the GPS systems gives is unbelievable. Clubs in Australia have been using it for 14 years; that gives an idea as to how behind we are.
“So there’s a huge issue not only from fitness point of view, but also lack of match fitness. Some players train to save themselves for the game. Some players train harder than others. The GPS systems will prompt us to tell the players to give more. This is my general observation, not in particular reference with the Indian team. We have already released Holicharan Narzary because of an appendix problem.”
The national team has been practising at the DSK Shivajians International Campus since August 24. “We have wonderful facilities at a walking distance. Where in India will you get this? And most importantly, the authorities here want to use it in the right manner,” he said.
Talking about Nepal as a team, Constantine said: “I have fond memories of the lovely Himalayan Kingdom and I share the pain of the people. Nepal will always remain close to my heart. Nepal have always been a difficult team for India. They have shown in the last two games that they can fight. That’s the character of the country. It’s a Country of fighters.
“They will give us a difficult game that’s what we want. We want to be stretched to the wire. The general perception stays that they are not that strong, as people sometimes love to go by the FIFA rankings. But no one knows more about their spirit than me. I am very happy that they have shown their fighting spirit once again and coming back to play international football,” said Constantine in an AIFF press release.