SAGAR THAPA: OUR VERY OWN CAPTAIN FANTASTIC
During the dying minutes of the qualifying match against Bangladesh and Nepal, the Nepali team captain Sagar Thapa prepared to take the free-kick near the halfway line of the field while the bruised and battered Rabin Shrestha limped towards the Bangladeshi D-area praying for a miracle with the rest of the Nepali squad. With 94 minutes already played, this would be the last play of the match during the SAFF Championship 2011 and it would decide whether the Nepali team would qualify further into the tournament. Promptly after the referee’s whistle, Sagar Thapa let fly a Hail Mary and the ball seemed to be in the air for an eternity. The Nepali skipper’s shot sailed over the Bangladeshi defense and dipped over the goalkeeper’s outstretched arms and into the back of the net. And the whole nation erupted.
It’s not an easy job being the captain of the Nepali National football team. Once he steps under the lights illuminating the circled stadium, all eyes are on him and his 10 men. And although football is a team sport and each player is as important as the next, the captain has a lot more on his shoulders. But that is expected from him: to undertake the responsibility of leading and motivating the team to lay it all on the line in every game. The hopes of an entire nation rest on the shoulders of the men adorning the crimson jerseys. Sagar Thapa has a knack of performing under pressure.
Having shown such tremendous improvement, the nation’s expectations from the Nepali football team was extremely high during the 13th SAF Games. The team performed splendidly; however, lady luck did not favor us and we lost to Afghanistan in the semifinals.
“7th SAFF Games, we beat Afghanistan by 4 goals, this year we lost to them. There is no excuse, they were the better team, and they were the ones who improved leaps and bounds. We did get better, but there is still room for improvement. Afghanistan has set a great example.” said Sagar Thapa.
We caught up with him after practice at Sano Gaucharan and had a chat with the Nepali Football team skipper.
TNM: Tell us some things about yourself.
Sagar Thapa: I was born in Macchhegaun, Kathmandu but I did most of my academic studies in Dharan and Biratnagar. That’s where I first enrolled into a local football club in Biratnagar. While I was playing from the local club, Daffodil School of Kathmandu offered me a scholarship and I was back in Kathmandu and studying in Daffodil in the eighth grade. But back then, playing in the national football team never really crossed my mind.
TNM: When would you say you actually started your career as a football player?
ST: I joined the Friends Club when I was 17 and started playing in the National football team professionally 5-6 months later. I used to play as a striker or midfielder but there was an unfilled position in the defense. I did really well as a defender when I started out, so I basically carried out in that position and I improved.
TNM: Which game do you feel was the best up until today in your career?
ST: Personally, the SAFF 2011 game against Bangladesh will always be special for me. But as a team, the matches against Jordan and North Korea were enthralling. Our team gave a 100% and played splendidly as a team.
IF YOU LIST OUT 10 MISTAKES AND ASK US TO POINT OUT WHAT WE DID WRONG, ALL OF US WILL BE POINTING TO THE SAME ISSUE.
TNM: Your goal against Bangladesh was top class and has been compared to those of some of the greatest International legends like Ronaldinho and Juninho. Explain to us went on when you stepped up to take the free-kick.
ST: We had to win the match in order to qualify, so it was a make or break it situation. We had been missing a lot of shots throughout the game and it looked like we had to settle for a draw. When we got the free kick, I wanted to cross the ball into the goal area because it was from such a far distance, but the coach encouraged me to target for goal and hope for a rebound. So, I told everyone to move towards the second pole and I shot for goal. When the ball dipped in under the cross bar, I was ecstatic and so was the rest of the Nepali team roster. But I’ll have to admit, it was not a goal that can be replicated easily.
TNM: What would you say is the best compliment you get from your fans?
ST: I’ve been told I’m really fit, I guess I appreciate that compliment.
TNM: Who do you think are the key players that will take our national team to the next level?
ST: Rohit Chand, Sandeep Rai, Jagjit Shrestha, Kiran Chemjong, Bharat Phawas, Robin Shrestha, Prakash Budathoki (who is a new comer). These guys do their individual role in the field but they put in extra effort to give greater support to the team.
TNM: Playing football is not considered the most lucrative of professions in Nepal, this must have been even more true when you started playing. How were your parent’s response to your choice of profession?
ST: My parents never really stopped me from playing football… well apart from when I used to compromise on my studies and go out and play, haha. But they supported me throughout… they fulfilled my needs and to further my career the best they could.
TNM: You are at the prime of your career, but were there any downturns along the way?
ST: I would consider myself lucky to not have really encountered any situation that was too grave to overcome, but there were a few hurdles. It wasn’t always easy, I was always very diligent with football, I used to walk to Sano Gaucharan for practice from the public school I studied in, even when most of my friends skipped practice and lazed around. I’d pick up the ball and get a few guys to come along. I never minded the hard work, but as a player you have a certain diet requirement. Getting that was not possible all the time.
TNM: What do you consider the challenges as a captain?
ST: When you play as a team, all players are a single unit that operates in unison. Building that spirit is what’s important, that’s where you get the courageand motivation to play against any other nation or team.
TNM: The Nepali football team has improved leaps and bounds from the past. Most of the spectators were awed by how well the team played. How is the sport developing as a whole in Nepal?
ST: Sports is very popular in Nepal, and the recent uprising of cricket’s popularity proved that point. But
football has always had a special place for the Nepali people and it always will. The tremendous support we received was amazing, yet we were not able to give the proper results. People say that we have improved, and we have, but it’s sad that we missed the opportunity to perform to expectations.
However, football in Nepal is grilled for not performing as well as cricket. The fact is, football as a sport has a tougher competitive barrier due to its popularity in more nations as well as a very long history. I’m not taking anything away from cricket, which has done our nation proud, but achieving that same success in football will require more time and effort.
On the brighter side of things, we were able to defeat Bangladesh and India, both nations to whom we had to face defeat in the past. We Nepali footballers have far fewer facilities than these nations, but overcoming these factors and being able to compete with and beat them was a great achievement.
TNM: Has Jack Stefanowski’s coaching made a big impact? Or, the team needs someone like Graham Roberts?
ST: Graham Roberts adopted a more power and speed based game play, like Real Madrid… more direct football. Jack has adopted the modern football technique where we play 4-4-1-1. Both of them had important roles to play when shaping the team. Graham enforced the strength of the team and Jack used modern European styled football techniques to make best use of the team.
It took us 3 months to understand and get a hang of Jack’s techniques. Shifting from Graham to Jack’s way took some time. Now everyone is perfect at their positions and opponents have a hard time finding any space to play. In the long run, adopting the European style of play will help the game play of the nation.
TNM: After an improved SAFF performance, what’s your new outlook on the team? Is our pool of players enough to take us forward?
ST: We have been good at football for the past couple of years, but we haven’t been able to bring out concrete results when it matters most. Now, we have to come to terms with the fact that we are good but is what we are doing enough or do we need to bring about some changes? Afghanistan is a great example of how a team can improve over time. They were once a team we beat by 4 goals, this year they won the SAFF Championship.
As a team, we play our game to our level best. However, there are a lot of other factors involved to bring an overall development in a team of which the government support is a crucial part.
TNM: A daily had recently printed a piece regarding the match against Afghanisthan where the national team was accused of going into the game with no particular game plan? To add on to that, they say the information came from a player from the squad. How true is the statement?
ST: That is completely absurd! I’ll never believe any of our players would say such a thing because all of us have the same thought trend. It’s like we’re one voice. If you list out 10 mistakes and ask us to point out what we did wrong, all of us will be pointing to the same issue.
Every game we play has an intense game plan. Since the game against Afghanistan had the potential of ending in a penalty shootout, our team had practiced taking penalty shots the day before the game. Raju Tamang was the first choice and Rohit was the second. All 5 kick takers were already listed.
The thought of going into any game without a plan is just preposterous. We have classes where we take our paper and pens and work on the strategies. It’s not all about what we do on the field.
PROMPTLY AFTER THE REFEREE’S WHISTLE, SAGAR THAPA LET FLY A HAIL MARY AND THE BALL SEEMED TO BE IN THE AIR FOR AN ETERNITY.
TNM: Now, coming to the dreaded penalty miss. What in your opinion went wrong?
ST: If Rohit had scored the second penalty, there wouldn’t be any questions raised. But because of the miss many issues began coming up… shouldn’t Anil (Gurung) have taken the second kick? Shouldn’t the coach have switched the penalty kicker after the first miss?
But when Rohit took the responsibility of retaking the shot, it would have been out of place for anyone to not let him do it. Doing that would have shattered his confidence, and when you’re in a team you can’t do that. Penalties are all about judgment and are a duel between the minds of the penalty taker and the goalkeeper. It was not completely illogical for Rohit to assume that the keeper would not dive in the same direction twice… but there is no way of saying whether the decision was correct or not until the kick would be taken. Sadly, it turned out to be the wrong choice.
TNM: How was the environment in the dressing room after the loss to Afghanistan?
ST: It was silent in the dressing room; no one spoke for a long time. If we had won, the lifetime pensions and apartments promised to the players could have brought on the changes not only in our individual lives but in the Nepali football industry as well. We would have opened doors to the new generation of football players and the perception of football as a profession would not have been questioned. Winning the SAFF Championship would have given us a voice to answer anyone who questioned the future of a professional football player. Missing out on that was the most disappointing thing when we returned to the dressing room.
TNM: I guess losing is part of the game, better luck next time.
ST: Yeah, I guess.
TNM: Do you have anything to say to the Nepali football fans?
ST: The football that is present in Nepal today is all because of the supporters. The craze during the tournament was amazing and it encourages us to give it our all and we will do our best to bring out even better results. A lot of the credit of how we play goes to the supporters, they are the ones that are helping us take the sport forward. Who wasn’t there at the matches of Nepal? From movie actors, to politicians to the average commoner, everyone was there.
Even at the club levels, the investors’ returns on the clubs they invest are from the supporters’ presence. Without the supporters, football would never sustain and for that we salute you. We will definitely make you proud.
Photos: Shashank Pradhan