No clubs, no grounds, no lights - Meet the Aussie changing football in Nepal

Youths playing football in a field during coronavirus lockdown in Nepal Source: Getty Images

Aussie coach Gary Phillips has one of the most arduous tasks in world football, trying to modernise football in the developing country of Nepal.

The former Sydney Olympic and Brisbane Strikers NSL midfielder was appointed technical director of Nepal in July.

The 56-year-old’s remit is incredibly vast as he oversees all the national teams, both male and female, while being in charge of coach education and player development.

Phillips has been also tasked with creating a national curriculum in the mountainous state that can help improve the standing of the Gorkhalis, whose men’s team is ranked 170th by FIFA and has never made a FIFA World Cup or Asian Cup.

He explains the massive challenges of the job, which range from a lack of facilities, infrastructure, battling the weather and pollution, and the absence of regular local club football.

“I oversee all the national teams, boys and girls,” Phillips told The World Game.

“I look after everything in terms of coach education and player development, from grassroots all the way through to the Pro Licenses. AFC want every country across the Asian confederation to have their own identity.

“I’m in the process of creating a national curriculum for Nepal. That’s been the main focus at the moment. It’s a long process to design a course from scratch. It’s based on their style of football, but to try and keep it in touch with world standards.

“We’re trying to get, through FIFA funding, support so that all our national teams can play up to four internationals every year. We also participate in the South Asian Football Federation competitions.

"We’ve got about six academies across the country, I’ve got about 70 staff, I’ve got five staff in the office, which I oversee.

"There’s very little infrastructure as it’s basically mountains and hillside. Where it’s flat, it’s people. We have three national competitions – an A division, a B division and a C division.

“Each of those competitions only run for three months. Apart from the army and the police, who have their own grounds, every game is played at the All Nepal Football Centre.

“The national stadium has only just been reopened because it wasn’t up to AFC standards to hold World Cup qualifiers. That’s now repaired, it’s the only ground in the country that has lights. So it’s really difficult.

“Some schools have grounds so we’re trying to allow with schools as there’s no club football. There’s zero club football. I’m just trying to provide a pathway and an opportunity for them, and the only chance is our academies.

“We’re trying to build more academies across the country to give them a chance. We’ll see how that goes. Our elite kids we’re trying to make full-time programs for them – our Under-17s, our Under-20s, the women’s team. There’s some good things.

“If you’re a good footballer then the police or the arm will sign you up. So through football it does create a career path for you.”

With a population of 28 million people, Nepal is sandwiched between China and India. It is regarded as one of the poorest countries in Asia, with nearly a quarter of the nation living below the poverty line.

Phillips says the Nepalese are football-mad but struggle without investment in basic pitches, professional environments and opportunities for progression.

“Logistically it’s an absolute nightmare,” he admits.

“There’s a lot of futsal played, which is good, but there’s no structured competition. Nepal actually outsourced it, so it wasn’t run by us. That’s been a mess all over the place. It’s just trying to get it aligned, which has been really difficult.

“Our main pathways are going to focus on the schools because kids can’t leave school, go home and then go to football training, because there’s no lights. Before school it’s freezing. It’s just logistically really difficult to get 16 players to football training every two or three days. It just doesn’t happen.

“There are one or two clubs that are starting to run grassroots teams. Honestly, we’ve got no chance of getting licensing to play in AFC club competitions. It’s going to be light years before that happens.

“Despite the passion and love of football and wanting to progress, it’s going to take a long time to get more fields, to get lights, to get our kids to train. There’s a million problems everyday. Like the national team needs balls, or bibs. It’s quite incredible.

“The coaches only get to coach for three months. They play a game, have two or three days off and then play again. There’s no chance for the coach to work on any football problems or the players, it’s all about yelling and screaming at them because you need a result.

“You need time, you need full-time environments but it just doesn’t happen. The coaches want to work in full-time environments but there’s no opportunities, there’s no fields.

“In a Nepalese winter the grass is just dead, the fields are horrible. So artificial pitches have been the best result. The kids play football in the streets, they’ll play on rooftops, they’ll play anywhere.

“It’s like Brazil, it’s like the favelas, it’s like France and the street football there. Technically it probably helps them but with the big games the fitness, the diet, compared with say Australia in terms of sports science and sports medicine – they’re just light years behind.

“It’s challenging, but I enjoy the challenge. I’m really enjoying it and the people are great. Lovely people, but you can’t help but feel sorry for them and want to help them. It’s a fascinating place.”

Phillips sees hope in Nepal’s national women’s team, who are ranked 99th in the world, and in their fustal talent.

“The women are quite talented, they’ve had some success,” he said.

“They got through the first round of the qualifiers. They won’t make a World Cup but getting through the first round and playing Australia, that’s magnificent for them. That’s next level.

“If there’s any chance of progress maybe it’s with the women’s game, or with futsal as it’s played in the small scenes available. Maybe we’re meant to go to a Futsal World Cup and not a FIFA World Cup.”

The Nepal men’s team played Australia last year in a World Cup qualifier and went down 5-0 in Canberra. The two nations are set to meet again in October in Nepal’s home tie, and Phillips is hopeful the game can be staged in the capital of Kathmandu instead of neighboring Bhutan.

“If you watched Nepal played the Socceroos in Canberra, it was 5-0 but it could have been 50-0,” the ex-Sabah FA, Negeri Sembilan FA and Davao Aguilas coach admitted.

“A Swedish coach coming in trying to get them organised and play in a way that won’t embarrass themselves is very difficult, because if you watch Nepalese football they’re playing football from 20 years ago.

“[But] we’re looking forward to facing the Socceroos and hopefully springing a surprise.”

Phillips left Nepal and returned to Australia when the coronavirus broke out several months ago. According to reports, the country has 10,099 cases of the virus and has had 24 deaths so far.

“I came home just as it was kicking off in Nepal,” Phillips said. “I thought I better go now before it all gets locked down. I got out at the right time. I got lucky.

“Initially they just shut Nepal down for a few weeks at a time. They didn’t want to dishearten people. In a place like that they live day to day, if they can’t sell something they can’t eat that night. It’s really difficult for them.

“It has been shut down for three months. On June 15 they opened it up where they slightly eased restrictions. My staff are back at work but the international borders are still shut.

“There’s very limited resources in terms of testing. The President [of the football association] wants to start training up now, but they were still having to go through strict COVID guidelines.”

Phillips’ contract with Nepal ends in July but is likely to be extended. The coach admits he is unsure what will happen with the coronavirus, but contends Nepal is an “amazing place” and he has enjoyed the demanding role.

“They’re lovely people, they love football,” he said.

“At this point, my contract ends next month. There’s been no indication that they wont extend it. The president has discussed it previously, he was talking about offering me another term even before I left. But we’re really only getting started.

“The position is AFC-funded so it’s not costing Nepal anything. I get along with everyone, I’ve got a good relationship with them. Everything’s positive so I can’t see them not extending it, but obviously my only concern is whether it’s safe to go back.”