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Bal Gopal Maharjan & Raju Kaji Shakya: The New Era Of Nepali FootBall

Bal Gopal Maharjan paced the sideline with his hands folded behind his back. “That right there is Hari Khadka, he’s still got it” he said, mentioning with his chin towards Hari Khadka who had just put the ball in the back of the net. The morning sun felt pleasant and I spent some time watching a game between the locals and a group of veterans that included the likes of Rajesh Shrestha, Nabin Neupane and Hari Khadka, and Nirajan Rayamajhi.

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Any other day of the week and I would have sat through the entire match, but this particular day I was there to see Mr. Bal Gopal Maharjan. Under his coaching, Nepal won the First SAFF U-19 Championship which ended a 22 year title drought. Following a 1-1 draw with India, Nepal had cinched victory through a penalty shootout. So, despite the enrapturing game that was going on, I was more focused on getting Bal Gopal Maharjan to answer a few of my questions.

Meanwhile, the under 23 national team of Nepal was gearing up to face India at the finals of the 12th South Asian Games Football Final under the coaching of Raju Kaji Shrestha. Both coaches were national team players for Nepal. Bal Gopal Maharjan is the top goal scorer for Nepal and he was also the first person to win football titles as a player and a coach in Nepal. Raju Kaji Shakya also has a very impressive record. He first brought home gold as a player of the National Football team at the 1st South Asian Games. Then, under his captaincy he brought home gold once again the 6th SAG and now as a coach he has done it again.

“We have a great team and a great coach. They’ve trained hard and are playing passionately, it will pay off” he assured me. The country was pinning high hopes on Nawayug Shrestha who was coming off of a thrilling semi- final win where he scored a hat-trick against Maldives. The rest of the team, which also consisted of the crowd favorite Bimal Gharti Magar and Prakash Budathoki who went on to score a sensational free kick goal in the finals.

These are the excerpts of the first day I met and interviewed Coach Bal Gopal Maharjan.

TNM: “How come you’re not there in India?”

It was an inevitable question and I thought it best to get it out of the way right from the start.

BGM: “I have other commitments here; I am working towards getting an AFC A License. We’ve been doing great in football but it is important to improve further still. That’s why I’ve been trying to get the license for Nepal.”

TNM: “How much longer do you reckon it would take?”

BGM: “Shouldn’t be too long now, but you can never tell. I wanted to get the A division license the year after I got my B division license, which was in 2009.  I’ve been at it for a very long time now but there’s always one thing or the other that pops up.”

TNM: “Your boys performed splendidly though, (referring to the U-19 cup win) what factors played into the positive change?”

BGM: “As a team we’ve always worked diligently, but you’re not always going to win in football; or any game for that matter. This win though, does show a change for the better. We have a new team now, they’re young and they proved to be better.”

Proper training, nutrition and team building activities are important for a young team if you want to build them from the ground up.

TNM: “What is the most important thing you try to impose on to the team?”

BGM: “Discipline. Football isn’t just a game you play to win. It is a discipline to which you have to dedicate yourself in order to bring about good results. And that implies that there is discipline on the field and off it. To be completely honest, that was missing with so many of our senior team members. Coming in late for training, not coming in at all, not respecting the officials; although not immediately evident these were serious problems that plagued the team. But with a young team it has been the prime focus to encourage players to show more restraint and regulations which has been a prime factor for success.”

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TNM: “How has being a player helped improve your coaching capacities?”

BGM: “I know what clicks with players because I have been in their shoes. So I know how to get them to pick up on skills and I know how to make them have fun in practice which keeps them motivated. I prefer a hands on approach to coaching and love getting into the action with the team.”

TNM: “What does it take to coach the national football team?”

BGM: “The importance of coaching education is of prime importance and I have emphasized on this time and again. Being a good player does not necessarily make you a good coach. There are so many technicalities you have to familiarize yourself with and you can’t get that just from experience.”

Scouting for new talent is also essential and that isn’t happening as well as it should from different parts of the country.

TNM: “What will it take to take Nepali football to the next level? What are the shortcomings that need to be improved upon?”

BGM: “There’s still a long way to go for us, but we are on the right track. Like I mentioned, the A division license is important, it will take us to the next level.

Scouting for new talent is also essential and that isn’t happening as well as it should from different parts of the country. Maybe it requires better central governance from ANFA, but football has to be promoted well districts in Nepal; especially right from the grassroots level.

Proper training, nutrition and team building activities are important for a young team if you want to build them from the ground up.”

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TNM: “Our physical attributes aren’t the strongest points for a physical contact sport. How do you make the best of what we have?”

BGM: “We are not the biggest and strongest players, physically. But we are fast and that is what we need to capitalize on. This includes agility, thinking speed, skill development and so on. That is what we focus on and as you can see, the results have been great.”

A few days after this interview, Nepal defeated India to win the 12th SAG Men’s Football Final. The country went into frenzy once again and welcomed back home the heroes. We immediately got in touch with Raju Kaji Shakya who coached the winning team.

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TNM: “Your performance in the South Asian Games has been successful throughout the years. That must have helped your confidence levels, didn’t it?”

RS: “Yes, it did to some extent. I felt like I knew the SAG tournament”

TNM: “Did going in with a winning team help further boost your confidence?”

RS: “It was good to know that I had a good team that had proved their worth from their performance. But that also puts a lot of pressure on us to replicate that success. And as a coach, that turns into a real burden.”

TNM: “But you did win.”

RS: “Yes. Like I said, we had a good team.”

TNM: “How differently do the shoes fit as a player and as a coach?”

RS: “I’ve always loved football. As a player, I gave it all I had and I take my role as a coach with the same passion. However, as a coach, there seems to be a bigger sense of responsibility. You’re not just in it to win games and it’s not just a player centric role you’re playing. “

TNM: “What has changed in the way we play that has brought on this success?”

RS: “We don’t play the same way we used to and we don’t train in the same way either. Earlier, when foreign coaches first started training us we used to focus on training our physical abilities. We trained till we puked. But now we focus on the technical aspects of training such as ball possession and handling, effective passing and dribbling.

Back when I was a player, a select few players had incredible skills and we focused on that player. Now players have improved in holding the ball which generates more confidence. That is a major aspect to the better game play we have today. Also we have improved so much more in terms of finishing and we have improved on that as well.”

After a tense discussion on the sidelines I decided to send in Ranjan Bista and the change paid off. We scored an equalizer and the boys went into overdrive and they played with amazing heart

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TNM: “Yes, that has been clearly seen. Those changes played a massive role.”

RS: “They did. But more importantly, I think it was the change in mentality that gave us the added nudge. We’ve had to face tougher opponents in the past and that had led the team to have a mentality of doing their best to defend goals. Now, there is more of an attacking mentality which has been integral in winning games since we implied it around 2001.”

TNM: “The focus on youth development also seems to be taking positive effects.”

RS: “It definitely is. And it isn’t just the focus on football that is bringing about the improvement. Young players are encouraged to focus on their academics and apart from keeping the parents happy it has also improved their training. Education helps the young become more receptive to knowledge and that reflects in the way they learn the skills required on the skill.”

TNM: “On to the SAG Games. What was your strategy when you entered the tournament? How did it all span out?”

RS: “We were coming off of a victorious tournament win and there was confidence in us. In order to build on that confidence it was important to win the first few games. Our first game was with Bhutan and they had put in a lot of investment into developing the sport in the country. I went through their games and observed their playing styles and I could tell that we could beat them if we played them right. So we played to dominate and we did.

But we encountered a few injuries during the tournament. Anjan Bista and Bimal Gharti Magar had to stay out of a game or two. We had a position secured in the semis so it wasn’t that big of a problem and it was the right decision to let the players recuperate for the finals. That led to a loss against Bangladesh and we were scrutinized for that. But that was a situation that we just couldn’t get out of.

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Our game with Maldives was where we made up for the loss. It was a tight game and a few errors led to conceding goals and a red card reduced us to 10 men. With 6 minutes left on the clock and trailing by 2 goals to 3 things looked grim. After a tense discussion on the sidelines I decided to send in Ranjan Bista and the change paid off. We scored an equalizer and the boys went into overdrive and they played with amazing heart. And that led to a last minute 4-3 win over Maldives.

India was a strong contender in our region and we were set to face them in the finals. However, their team was dependent on 3 strong players. We were down a goal from a conceded penalty and we had to make changes. We had a half time talk and it was the final so we couldn’t afford to hold anything back.

So we went in with all our guns blazing and thanks to two sensational goals we beat a tough team to win the tournament.”

PHOTO: BIBHAS M SUWAL

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Ankit Shakya

Ankit Shakya

Editor at Autolife and TNM Magazine

Ankit Shakya is a talented writer who generally focuses on the intricacies of pure storytelling in his writings. Besides, he loves eating, drinking and spending time with his loved ones.