Kathmandu, Sept. 2: When Bangladesh gained one-day international (ODI) status in world cricket in 1986, majority of the football grounds in the country were converted into cricket pitches.
Hitherto widely popular game of football accessible to everyone in Bangladesh was now put in the backburner as the country began putting its mark in the list of elite cricketing nations around the world. Football had been the most popular sport in the country, but then it was gradually overtaken by cricket in the late 1990s.
As a result, Bangladesh continues to slip further down in the FIFA rankings, sometimes as low as 181, currently in the 171st position with an average ranking of 152 since it was introduced by FIFA in December 1992. This has been due the limelight, state promotion, nationâ€™s pride, peopleâ€™s love all now hovering around cricket.
Meanwhile, history seemed to be repeating in Nepal too, as the country began to take strides in international performance in cricket since it became Associate Member of the International Cricket Council in 1996. The craze for the game between bat and ball heightened after Nepal were awarded Twenty20 International status by the ICC in June 2014.
Nepalâ€™s maiden appearance in the ICC global event at the 2014 ICC World Twenty20 in Bangladesh took the country and its â€˜otherwise football lovingâ€™ people by surprise. As the world cup matches were streamed live to Nepali homes, everyone joined the opportunity of being able to hoot for athletes in their national colours. Names like Paras Khadka, Gyanendra Malla and Shakti Gauchan became household names.
Cricket literacy rose in the country all of a sudden, with everyone talking and chatting about the game. How many men (wicket) and how many runs left, was the question that always popped out of everyoneâ€™s mouth, young and old in course of the World Cup hosted by Bangladesh.
It now seemed that the most popular sport of the countryâ€”football played by almost everyone from high-up in the mountains to the lower lying plains was at risk of being overshadowed. This was more than obvious too, as Nepali football has had nothing to be proud of as far as international accolades were concerned.
World Cup qualifiers were always a disaster for the country while it was also giving away its historical hold in South Asia to giant neighbours India. Furthermore, the continuous controversies surrounding the ANFA and its â€˜never-ever changingâ€™ boss continues to shed a very negative light as far as the professional development of football is concerned in the otherwise bhakundo-mad nation. Despite controversies surrounding large-scale financial irregularities also involving FIFA, the hegemony of the lifelong President of ANFA continues as of this day, who has survived all the waves of downfall of monarchy, restoration of loktantra and introduction of a republic.
However, just a year later after creating history in Bangladesh, Nepal lost the T20 status in July 2015, for failing to qualify for the 2016 ICC World Twenty20. Despite the tall claims of the captain and coach to win the world cup qualifying tournament held in Scotland-Ireland, Nepal failed even to pass the group stage. There was nothing positive to talk about as far as the national cricket teamâ€™s performance was concerned in the qualifier to the World Cup to be hosted by neighbouring India in 2016.
The limelight meanwhile turned back to the game of football as the U-19 Nepali national football team lifted the maiden U-19 SAFF trophy in front of a house-full and jubilant home crowd. Nepal defeated arch rivals India in a penalty shootout after the regulation 90 minutes ended in a 1-1 draw. It was a major trophy in football for the country after a gap of 22 years, which speaks for the lull that Nepali football has had in winning international accolades.
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Coincidently, the same day, the U-19 national cricket team of Nepal was trounced by 10 wickets by Afghanistan in its match under ACC Premier League held in Malaysia.
Meanwhile, buoyed by the rare success, the government has announced a cash prize of Rs. 200,000 each to the members of the national U-19 football team that gave the Nepali sports lovers something to cheer about. It has also helped to some extent to bring football back to the hearts and minds of the Nepali sports lovers.
But only time will tell if the love for football, still the most popular sport in the country, continues to hold ground as the seesaw between the two games of sport seems to continue as news reports of the U-19 cricket team recording back-to-back wins against hosts Malaysia and the UAE, to put themselves on the verge of qualifying for the ACC U-19 Asia Cup, clicks in.
Of course, the Nepali sports authorities, the ANFA and the Cricket Association of Nepal, also mired in controversies over political appointments, could do the Nepali sports lovers a favour by promoting both the sport equally with much-needed physical and financial infrastructure. This could lead to continuous success in football as well as cricket, and we could have, as the popular Nepali saying goes, ladoo in both hands.