ANATOMY OF A NATIONAL HERO
The majority of us just can’t find any joy in running behind a ball. And then there’s the rest of the world. The ones who know the feeling of landing a perfect shot, the adrenaline running through their veins and the joy of ultimate exhaustion after 90 minutes. True there are tons of movies and documentaries that might help us understand the life of some of the great footballers the world has had, but do we really know what goes into making a football player? Not just any football player, but the one who is adored by the whole nation? TNM caught up with Sujal Shrestha, the man who led Nepal to win the last gold medal at the 13th South Asian Games, to understand what it’s like to be a sporting hero.
Born in Dhankuta, Shrestha was introduced to football like most kids his age were—through World Cup. “My father’s favourite team was Brazil. The first football match I watched was the World Cup 1998 final that they played against France. Brazil did not win but my interest in football dawned from that point on,” he remembers. From then to now, he has been a part of almost all the national sides including U-14, U-16, U-19, U-23, and the senior team, but the journey hasn’t been as smooth as people envisage it to be. “Back then, it wasn’t that easy to convince my parents. I was hardly a teenager and for them to let their son go to a bigger city to play football was a tough decision,” Shrestha says. “However, I am very grateful that they understood me and my interest, and now here I am, making them proud one game at a time.”
Shrestha is a firm believer in the importance of league games and shares his opinion on how club football helps a player to develop, both physically and financially. “When a player is associated with a club, he gets monthly salaries, which in most cases is enough to lead a well-sorted life. Not just that, a player will be busy all year round doing what he loves to do, which I think is the most important thing,” he shares. “However, when we reach a certain age and would want to retire from football, there aren’t any facilities for us here. So I think it is high time the government and the responsible bodies start to look out for sportspersons.”
“There are many players in Nepal who are as good as me, some far better, but what keeps me in the game is my mental strength.”
A schoolboy who jumped over terraces to reach the selection ground back in the days, Shrestha has had his share of ups and downs in his career. For someone who is unconditionally in love with the game, he made it this far on his own willpower. “There are many players in Nepal who are as good as me, some far better, but what keeps me in the game is my mental strength. I do not let small things get to me,” he claims. “I did feel a little dejected when I wasn’t selected in the National Team for two years back in 2013, but that period taught me to come back even stronger and I have been serving the nation as a national football player ever since I got back to the team in 2015,” he adds. And true so, the game against Macau in the AFC Solidarity Cup back in 2016 turned out to be one of the turning points in his life. Nepal won the match 1-0 with Shrestha scoring the winning goal—the goal that announced his revival and carved his name in the history of Nepali football.
Training, the most important part of any sports, is what helps a player reach his goal. When asked about his opinions and the current state of preparations that take place in the Nepali football scenario, Shrestha says, “The main problem that footballers face in our country is the lack of appropriate training environment. Right from the training grounds to the proper diet, Nepal needs to invest in sports. The National Team, for example, trains at ANFA (All Nepal Football Association) ground which is made of artificial turf. People may not know, but artificial turfs are very injurious. Not just that, you suffer from knee problems and backaches if you play on such grounds. So at present, our country needs a well-built training area, not just for the national level players but from the grassroots level itself.”
An ANFA Academy product and currently playing from Machhindra Football Club, Shrestha emphasizes on lack of recognition players face in Nepal. “Most people still have no idea that there are people who devote their whole life to their sports. But that doesn’t mean we ignore the fact that we have amazing fans. The stadium is always full whenever we play at Dasarath Stadium. The support shown towards us pushes us to do even better,” he says. Representing Nepal as a football player in an international stage will always be a matter of pride, but when the time comes for him to hang his boots, Shrestha would like to still be part of the sport that made him the man he is today. “I do not have the patience to be a football coach, but I want to be associated with the game in more of a managerial role. I want to help make football more inclusive so that children in rural areas can also turn their dream of playing for Nepal into reality,” he concludes.
Photos by The Kathmandu Post(File Photos)