Scaling football's Everest in Nepal
Nepal may be renowned for being home to the world's highest peak but, when it comes to football, the country is about as close to the summit of the global game as your average grassy knoll is to Everest. A highest ever FIFA ranking of 123, achieved in 1993 after a gold medal in the South Asian Games, seems but a distant memory now and while the Premier League and La Liga are followed religiously, it is difficult for Nepalese supporters to transfer those deep affections to an under-performing and too often uninspiring national team.
Plenty of coaches have tried to help Nepal climb international football's formidable mountain, including ex-Wimbledon and Newcastle United boss Joe Kinnear, and famed globetrotter Stephen Constantine. None have managed to propel Nepal from the depths of regional mediocrity, though, and it was shortly after Kinnear's brief reign that the country experienced a sporting nadir when the 1990 World Cup qualifying campaign brought six defeats from six, 28 goals conceded and none scored. In fact, of the 22 World Cup qualifiers Nepal have ever played, they have won just four.
Unperturbed by the country's minnow status, however, former Tottenham Hotspur and England defender Graham Roberts decided to embark on a managerial expedition to Kathmandu in January 2011. Ostracised by British football after being wrongly accused of making racist comments to opponents during his time as manager of Clyde - he later won a case for unfair dismissal and branded his sacking by the club the "biggest set-up ever" - Roberts became frustrated and began to look for opportunities abroad. A short spell with Pakistan whetted his appetite for international management and when the Nepal job arose, he snapped it up. What the Englishman found, however, was a football landscape as rugged as the country's terrain.
"When I first arrived, the training was pathetic," Roberts tells ESPN. "I watched 40 or so potential national team players play games against each other in my first week and, though some were skilful, there was no shape, no team pattern. We tried to get them used to being disciplined as part of a formation as well as working on their fitness levels, which were okay for the domestic league but nowhere near good enough for international football. There was a lot of hard work put in and their fitness levels improved dramatically. The Nepal FA president Ganesh Thapa placed a lot of emphasis on development - he never put pressure on me for results.
"We had a great squad and some talented young players coming through. There are definitely players in Nepal with the potential to play in Europe - we had one lad Bharat Khawas who went to Malta for a trial, having only been in the national team for a matter of months. He improved massively in that time. Then there's Rohit Chand: he was going to go to Rangers but we couldn't get him a working visa. He's a good player, a very talented centre-back - he's only 20 and has been in the national team since he was 15."
While Roberts did not expect that leading Nepal would be a planar promenade, he did not anticipate the extent of the uphill battle he would face. Patience and mental strength would be his pickaxe and carabiners as he plotted a course to develop the national team of a country that meteorologically and geographically, is not made for football. The Nepalese league system reflects the adverse conditions under which it is forced to operate, with the top division, the A-League, made up of 18 teams who all play each other over the course of three months, with every game played on one pitch in the capital city of Kathmandu.
"It's hard because they don't have the pitches or an appropriate climate for year-round football," Roberts explains. "The weather in June, July and August is particularly wet - I'm not talking about a bit of moisture, I'm talking about completely waterlogged pitches. Nepal really needs artificial pitches and we were trying to restructure everything and get the FIFA 'Goal Programme' on board - once those pitches are built they will move forward a lot quicker. The Nepal FA president is doing a fantastic job, working on a lot of projects, and he passionately wants football as a whole in the country to improve - it's not just about the national team.
"They have a good league, but everything is played too quickly. It's phenomenal - I once watched 64 games in a month, all at the same ground. They need to have a better structure to the leagues. The players are not professionals, they are amateurs. They don't train because they play one day, have a rest day, and then play again - that's how the league is. There's no coaching and the standards really need to improve - I had a chat with some people from the AFC recently and they asked my opinion of the coaching here. The answer was: 'There isn't really coaching'. I saw maybe three or four coaches delivering sessions before the competitions began, but the rest just play five-a-side games. When they came back to me at the national team, I had to start from scratch every time."
The scale of Roberts' task quickly became apparent during the early stages of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. While victory over East Timor represented a major milestone for Nepal - who had previously only ever won two qualifiers, both against Macau in 2001 - the second round brought a 9-0 first-leg thrashing away to Jordan.
"The boys just froze," Roberts recalls. "I looked in everybody's eyes and they were frightened. This was the first time most of them had ever played abroad [both legs of the first round were played in Nepal] and they were overawed. When Jordan came back to Kathamndu, they brought pretty much their full team, and I told the boys they had to prove to their fans that what happened was a mistake. We should have won the game and had eight or nine fantastic chances, but a 1-1 was still a great result for us. The boys came off disappointed that they hadn't won the game, I knew we were improving."
That improvement had already borne fruit with qualification for the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup, a second-tier international competition that gives Asia's smaller nations the opportunity to compete for both silverware and a place at the continent's top table: the Asian Cup. With Nepal chosen to host the tournament, held in March of this year, hopes were high that a first ever appearance at Asia's marquee football festival could be achieved.
Nepalese fans turned out in their thousands, having also travelled in droves to watch their team reach the South Asian Football Federation Championship semi-finals in India four months earlier, as the AFC Challenge Cup campaign kicked off with a match against Palestine. But there were to be no home comforts in front of 12,300 in the Dasarath Rangasala Stadium in Kathmandu, Roberts' side going down 2-0. The defeat left The Gorkhalis needing to move mountains to reach the knockout stage of the tournament, but another loss came in the second match against Maldives and, by the time Turkmenistan compounded Nepal's misery with a 3-0 win in the final game, just 1,000 people turned out to watch their eliminated nation. For Roberts, who had wholeheartedly believed that triumphing on home soil was a real possibility, it was a crushing blow.
"We wanted to win the tournament but despite playing well we just didn't have the strikers to do it. Sepp Blatter opened the tournament and after watching our first game publicly congratulated me for the way Nepal played football, saying: 'They play like Barcelona - the only problem is they don't have Messi'. We knew it was going to be a difficult tournament and worked hard on our finishing and our tactics; I just hoped that the boys could put the ball in the back of the net but they didn't. If your strikers aren't scoring you've got big problems. It was a huge disappointment for us and, for me personally, I put my neck on the line and stood by them but it wasn't to be.
"The coach of Tajikstan asked me why whenever our strikers received they ball they always go back towards their own goal - that's the mentality of the players and no matter how much I worked with them I just couldn't seem to shake off those bad habits. The press asked me 'Why can't you improve them?' but there has to be some natural goalscoring instinct as a base to work from. You can't teach instinct."
The failure to win a game at the AFC Challenge Cup meant the subsequent parting of ways between Roberts and Nepal felt a touch inevitable, though the former Spurs man insists the decision was a mutual one.
"We agreed to go our separate ways but the president said the door is always open to me. I didn't think I could take the team any further and he said to me at the end of the tournament: 'Look, you couldn't have done any more, you've improved their football, you've improved their fitness'. I'm disappointed because I would have liked to leave on a higher note. I wanted to at least make the semi-finals and of course had hoped to win. I wanted to leave a legacy in Nepalese football because when I was there it was like a big family - the Nepalese people are friendly and helpful, and they absolutely love the sport.
"Nepal was a great challenge personally and professionally - we went up from 174 to 153 in the FIFA rankings and I believe I have instilled coaching methods and values that can help them climb higher in the future. On a personal level, I'm champing at the bit to get back into football but I know it won't be on a plate anywhere. I think if people look at my CV then I think they will see that I can improve teams. We'll just see what's round the corner now."