Anish Pumu Limbu harbours a goal to become Nepal’s next striker – just like his idol, Anil Gurung.
The 10-year-old is already following the footsteps of Gurung, the country’s star striker and a graduate of Sahara Football Academy in Pokhara. Limbu is among the fresh batch of 17 children currently enrolled at the academy in western Nepal – it has 13 more seats to be filled – that recruits underprivileged children from remote parts of the country, preparing them to become Nepal’s future footballers.
Limbu was selected from a pool of applicants whose financial backgrounds collided with their future goals – the young football fan says that he couldn’t have pursued his interest in football had he stayed home. His father had passed away and his mother had abandoned him.
His guardian, his aunt, processed his application after realising that Limbu met Sahara’s eligibility criteria. In a recruitment process that takes place every six to seven years, Sahara accepts applications from children between eight- to 10-years-old from financially challenged, single-parent households that cannot support the child; they also need to demonstrate an interest in football.
For the next six years, until the group graduates when they’re 16, the academy will be Limbu’s permanent address. Along with formal academic education, the group will be groomed to become successful people, as well as, hopefully, players.
For the Nepalese football icon Gurung, Sahara is his “second home.”
He says that his journey to success and stardom started after he was selected to join the academy in 2001; previously, it was only a local football club.
A prominent graduate from the academy’s first batch, the then 12-year-old Gurung decided to apply after seeing Sahara players outperform others at local football matches. Though he wasn’t chosen in his first attempt, he later became one of the selected 20 out of 400 applicants.
“The academy showed me the path to reach where I am today,” Gurung says.
From playing at muddy open spaces in Pokhara without proper kit and sometimes even with a deflated ball, Sahara, he says, was everything that he had wished for – it was the training, formal coaching and support from Sahara that helped Gurung to realise his potential as a player.
After spending about three years sharpening his skills at Sahara, Gurung says that it provided him with an opportunity to dive into a larger pool. In 2003, he came to the capital Kathmandu and was soon selected to play for national league clubs like the Three Star Club, New Road Team and Manang Marshyangdi Club. In 2009, he was also offered a trial for the Chelsea reserve team in England. Though he didn’t make the cut, Gurung says that he cherishes and values the experience.
But Sahara, according to its president, Bikram Thakali, is more than just football.
While the academy’s primary goal is to produce players, Thakali says that not everyone is fit or fond of becoming a footballer.
“We don’t expect everyone from the group will turn out to become football players,” Thakali says. “Our aim is to make the children self-sufficient and teach them skills and discipline through sports.”
Subash Panthi, a recent graduate of the academy, couldn’t become a player, but he says that Sahara has helped him “become the person he is today”.
Panthi, now 18, came to Sahara’s hostel as an eight-year-old. He was among the first 20 children that the academy had under its social development project that started in 2004. Its hostel facility would house children from low-income backgrounds and train them – a concept that it’s still continuing.
For someone like Panthi, who was deprived of education and living under harsh circumstances in the town of Butwal in southern Nepal, Sahara, he says, gave a new meaning to his life.
“When there was no one in my life, there was Sahara,” he says.
Panthi, however, couldn’t thrive at football and so was directed toward other options. He says that he focused on his studies and participated in vocational-skill training that the academy offered. He currently works as a computer technician at a photo-processing lab in Pokhara.
His other colleagues whose football dreams were thwarted are also working in the fields that they were trained for, he says.
“If not a player, the academy has made us capable of making a livelihood,” Panthi says.
Despite being a country still struggling to climb FIFA’s international rankings, the Nepalese football team has a strong support from its fans at home. Lately, the country has produced players of high calibre, and young football enthusiasts devote themselves to pursue the sport professionally and not just a pastime.
But during Sahara’s formative year in 1998, Thakali says that it was difficult to recruit players and convince them of a football career. Today, this touristy town known for its majestic Himalayan range and lakes is also nationally recognised for sport – it’s home to Sahara Club, one of the prominent names in the country’s football scene.
In more than a decade, Sahara, meaning “support” in the Nepali language, has helped not only in producing Nepal’s football stars but also shaping up young aspirants to attain their goals, Thakali says. Meanwhile, its infrastructural progress, according to the president, evidently boasts the academy’s success.
This summer, Sahara inaugurated its 25-million-Nepalese-rupee (Dh925,275) property – a three-storey hostel facility alongside its own football ground covering about 142,000 square feet of land in the city’s southern side.
An ambitious project that couples sports with social work garnered support from locals and the Nepalese diaspora abroad, Thakali says. While Sahara invested 3.5 million rupees, the remaining finances flowed in from a network of Nepalese from the UK, the US, Australia, Hong Kong, Qatar and other countries.
The newly built facility, which is run on donations and Sahara’s fund-raising efforts, is now home to the young recruits who yearn to live and breathe football.
Today, after school, the children change from their school uniform to their navy blue Sahara jersey and shorts – there is no sign of exhaustion; they are excited to meet their coach for the first time.
As his new recruits line up on the ground, Kiran Shrestha approaches the amateur aspirants, introduces himself and then gathers them for a light warm-up session.
“We have to start from a very basic level,” says Shrestha, who himself was a former player for Sahara Club. “It is very important that we should encourage them to play and at the same time make them love football.”
Shrestha, who also trained the academy’s previous batch for four years, looks at these children as potential national players.
He says that the children could have a “promising future in football”.
Players such as Gurung stand as mascots of success. Like any other profession, Gurung says that hard work and passion is the key to his success and adds that one can make football a full-time profession.
“When I started, the money wasn’t good, but now I earn 70,000 rupees a month playing for Manang Marshyangdi Club,” he says. “You have to prove yourself and earn that remuneration and reputation.”
For now, the children at the Sahara Football Academy are on a daily training regiment alongside their academic studies; they strive to be like one of their heroes. And their inspirations aren’t international superstars, but homebred heroes like Gurung.
“I looked up to our national players like Basanta Thapa and Basanta Gauchan when I was growing up,” Gurung says of his idols. “I never thought one day these children would look up to me.”
He adds: “I’m a product of Sahara. When I see the kids, I see a great deal of me there. They could be football stars in the making.”
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