Kathmandu: The Imperial Futsal at Kaushaltar in Bhaktapur had a characteristically energetic atmosphere on Friday, September 10. A squad of footballers was running, jumping and kicking the ball about—all of them practicing hard as if they were on a mission. The players, however, were not some local boys warming up for a regular futsal match. They had come here all the way from Bajura, in far-western Nepal, representing Raniban Sports Club. And yes, they indeed had a mission to accomplish: they were soon going to play the C-division qualifier, ongoing at the ANFA complex, in Satdobato. The Raniban Sports Club will play its first game on September 22.
Bajura is a rural district which regularly faces food crises and where people still die of poverty. It is perhaps the first time in the history of Nepali football that a club from such a far-flung and impoverished place has come to the capital to play the beautiful game.
It was not an easy journey for the club. To reach where they are now, they had to overcome many hardships that other football clubs competing alongside them probably didn’t have to go through.
Naresh Rokaya, team manager of Raniban Sports Club and one of the pioneers to introduce football in Bajura, recalls the time when football used to be hated by everyone in his district.
“It was not an easy thing to be a footballer back then,” Rokaya recalls. “Nobody used to like football when we began playing it. There were no grounds, no shoes, and no family support.”
Rokaya and his team members played shoeless through the entirety of their footballing career. Only when they strung together a team and competed at the sixth National Game in Dhangadi, in 2012, did they manage to own a football shoe; even so, only half of them could manage the shoe. Four years later, during the seventh National Game, in Biratnagar, the whole squad had a football shoe.
Rokaya doesn’t have a word to express the pain they had while playing without proper kits.
He also had a dispute with his family who questioned his decision to devote his time to football. His elder brother, the only breadwinner in the family, didn’t talk to him for a long period. Many of Rokaya’s teammates went through similar problems. The game was considered a totally useless activity, Rokaya recalls, and those involved in it were asked to focus on other sectors where they could make good money. That hatred towards football in Rokaya’s hometown has slightly decreased now.
Nobody supported the club back then, says Rokaya, no government, businesspersons, political leaders, or social organizations. Rokaya recalls the time when Raniban’s players used to return home by walking from other districts after playing a match as they didn’t have transportation fare.
“Gradually, when we kept working hard and began to show a better performance, and when our products began to perform well, we were in the eyes of few people and organizations,” said Rokaya. Despite having few backups and notable public support at present, they still have huge financial problems.
Some of the products of Raniban Sports Club have played with all three A, B, and C division clubs. This is also one of the reasons that motivated the club to come to Kathmandu for the qualifiers. Likewise, renowned athlete Nirmala Bharati, boxer Kuley Raul and Poonam Raul are also the club’s inspirations. Similar to the footballers of Raniban Sports Club, these players also had to grow up amidst the agony and poverty of Bajura.
“If the players coming from the same background can do well in other sports, then there is also a hope for the footballers of Bajura,” said Rokaya.
Today, barring a few, many players of Raniban still do not have proper family support. To motivate those players, the club now provides sports scholarships collaborating with various private colleges in Kathmandu.
The club has a scarcity of sponsors who could fund their team, especially during tournaments that take place in outside districts. As of now, the club is sustaining itself by collecting funds from the club’s officials and a few well-wishers.
After reaching the capital, the club faced another financial burden.
They hired a football ground in Sano Thimi but the continuous rainfall affected the ground’s structure. It made them compelled to practice on futsal grounds in different places. Those futsal grounds charge at least Rs 1000 per hour.
Raniban also has a female football team, but due to a lack of funds, it is not able to promote them. The female team has already won four different tournaments held in their home district.
Along with financial problems, the club also has an infrastructural problem—the lack of a proper football ground to practice on. In the entire Bajura district, there are only three 11 A-side grounds; the headquarter of the district Martadi doesn’t have a single such ground. As a result, the club has been able to organize only seven A-side tournaments. They have talked about it with the All Nepal Football Association (ANFA) time and again but their calls have gone unheeded.
Whatever the circumstance is, the club remains unfazed from its ambition of getting qualified this year. “If we don’t succeed this year then also we won’t lose hope. We will try it next year as well, and maybe again, until we get qualified,” Rokaya says
Similarly, the club is also demanding ANFA to recognize Bajura Football Association officially, another call that has gone unheeded. If the ANFA recognizes them officially, they can receive subsidies, kits, balls, and other essential facilities. The club has also demanded the association to provide a licensed coach voluntarily.
Rokaya urges ANFA to become more rural-centric, promote football in remote areas, and create a platform for their growth. As the club is getting ready for the matches slated for September 22 and 24, the players are accommodated in a hostel in Putalisadak for the last month. But due to the club’s shoestring budget, they are having difficulties paying even the hostel fee and match fee for the players.
Raniban Sports Club was registered officially in 2007 with the effort of Rokaya and his other comrades. Things have changed a lot since then. In the 14 years since, they have organized over a dozen tournaments. They also actively participate in various tournaments—with proper football kits.
Today, thanks largely to the club’s efforts, several football tournaments take place in Bajura annually—Chhede Daha Cup, Madan Ashrit Cup, GP Cup, and Badi Malika Cup, among others. The club partakes in all these tournaments.
“We went to Achham twice to play at the Nawajagaran Cup. We won the cup on both occasions,” Rokaya says. It was the first time the club had won any tournament outside the Bajura district. Last year, the club went to Doti district, to play at the Shaileshwari Jorayal Cup, where they bagged the second position.
Rokaya brims with hope.
“Despite all the crises we are excited, dedicated, and hopeful about the game,” said Rokaya. The club has also not cleared the earlier loans they took while participating in other tournaments. So now, they expect some of the sponsors would come and help them in clearing those loans.
“Once we will qualify in C Division, things will drastically change in Bajura and other least developed districts.”
Whatever the circumstance is, the club remains unfazed by its ambition of getting qualified this year. “If we don’t succeed this year then also we won’t lose hope. We will try it next year as well, and maybe again, until we get qualified,” said Rokaya, adding that the club is also planning to establish its own academy next year.
The Raniban Sports Club has now become very popular in Bajura and other nearby districts. It has also shown that football can be played even in mountain regions.
The land of Badimalika, Budinanda lake and Khaptad is now looking for a revolution in soccer. By completing a journey of over 1000 kilometers, the team has arrived in Kathmandu, all for the sake of football.
“We are on the journey to change the identity of Bajura through football,” said Rokaya.