Ex-King Gyanendra once asked me how my football was going on. This was the last time I met the former king, and that was way back in 1989, and the place was a restaurant in Frankfurt.
As the Chief Editor of The Rising Nepal, I was invited by the then Royal Nepal Airlines Corporation (RNAC, now NAC) on its inaugural flight to (West) Germany.
I was flattered to know that the then prince knew me not as so much as a journalist but more as a football player.
I had met both princes, Gyanendra and Dhirendra, in the course of hockey matches played on Tundikhel under the Dilli Bahadur Verma Memorial Shield in the early 1960s. Though by no means my top interest, I played hockey, too, even though I was far from good at it.
During the launch of a music album whose lyrics were composed by Sindhu Rana, wife of the then Chief of Army Staff, General (Retd.) Prajwalla SJB Rana, a personal friend and football teammate, I approached Haribansha Acharya of the MaHa duo and asked him if he knew me. (I was then editor of The Kathmandu Post.) He looked at me and said, “Of course, I do. Aren’t you the football player of Sankata?” Coming as it did from a reputed artiste, I was again flattered.
But nothing pleased me more than when a well known scientist like Dr. Dayananda Bajracharya told me – whenever we met – that he was a “great fan” of mine and that he hardly missed any of matches my team played.
But to me, the biggest compliment came when a retired soldier, who watched my team play, bucked me up saying, “Come on, Lal Bahadur!” He did not know my name, but as I always wore a red shirt, he called me Lal (red) Bahadur. I met him once later, and he told me how much he appreciated my style of play.
But the kind of football we played as kids is almost certainly nothing like the one in the World Cup presently underway in South Africa, the first African country to host the FIFA World Cup. Millions of football fans across the globe will be cheering for the next two weeks the side of their choice as well as the player they like the best. For most of the football fans, they will be cheering for a country that is not their own and for a player they will never meet or see in real action except on television sets. One is happy that at the time of writing, at least one of the three Asian teams presently engaged in group matches has made it to the last 16.
Back home in Nepal, the Martyrs Memorial Trophy, the foremost football league in Nepal presently being run by the All Nepal Football Association (ANFA), has come to an end. And with it came to an end the beleaguered run of Sankata Club in the First Division. The relegation of Sankata pained the writer to no end as I had steered the side from B Division to A Division in the late 1950s. I had begun playing for the team in small boys’ tournaments since my early teens.
Unlike today, when football, even in an impoverished country like Nepal, has become almost professional with players being paid for playing for a particular team, we in the mid-1950s had to pay for playing, in the sense that we had to buy our own boots and other football kits and help the team in buying the cloth for stitching the jerseys.
Tailors in our locality stitched the jerseys free of charge for our team. Our interest in the game was so intense that we had little or no time for anything else; for some, even studies had to take a back seat. No wonder that parents, under the belief that sports did not help in the overall development of their children, were very strict and would not allow their children to take part in regular games and sports.
“Sports and football matches won’t feed you,” was the oft-heard chiding the children in those days received from their parents.
The Kathmandu of the late 1940s was far different from that of today. Every locality had patches of village greens and fields where children played without facing any threat of being run over by vehicles, which were virtually nonexistent then. Like hundreds of other kids in the city, we played what we called football on the open air ground at Tebahal from early morning till late afternoon when the big field at Tundikhel would be open to the public for playing (mostly football) or walking or other forms of open-air recreation.
Our own version of football was played with Bhogate [grapefruit, Citrus paradisi) which we urchins stole from gardens in our neighborhood. Those days, most homes in the city had some kind of garden or the other. Real footballs that came in different sizes used to cost around four or five Rupees for the size fit for young children. But who had that kind of money then to buy the balls? So plucking a Bhogate or two from the garden was the only way by which we could play football.
But the Bhogate ball did not last long. What with having to bear the shots from the young local heroes, the ball would provide one to two hours of play at the most, and then go kaput. Some of the older boys who played for the local NRT (New Road Team) side brought home real footballs, and we were given the opportunity to kick them around. We rejoiced at having played the “T” or “Y” balls, so called because the outer leather covering of the ball was patterned after the two letters. The “Y” ball was supposed to be better, if only because they were rarer.
And as children, we had the opportunity to once watch the only football tournament that was played in those days at Tundikhel. The tournament was participated in by NRT – which we from the southern side of the Kathmandu City supported – Thamel XI, Mahabir, Singha Durbar, and Naresh XI, among others.
Envious of Dilli Bazaar
All of us who grew up in the city core in those days envied Dilli Bazaar to no end. Dilli Bazaar, as indeed Baneshwor as well, in those days was not considered to be a part of the city proper. But the residents of Dilli Bazaar were thought to have the best of everything. The locality at that time was thought to contain all the cream of the Nepalis attainments. Be it in education, sports or material wealth, those who lived in Dilli Bazaar were thought to have them all. It boasted of people like Laxmi Prasad Devkota who epitomized Nepali literature at its best. It had a football team named Mahabir which predated city teams like NRT.
The Mahabir team had some of the best players in those days. A little later, Dilli Bazaar also produced some of the top badminton and table tennis – we knew it then as ping pong – players like Santa Kumar (Singha Bahadur Basnet) in badminton, and Y.P. Lohani and Y.R. Joshi in table tennis. Dilli Bazaar also had most of the professors and teachers then teaching at Tri-Chandra College and other institutions of higher learning, as well others who occupied high positions in the government. Apart from education, many of us in the city core saw Dilli Bazaar as the abode of the rich (this may not have been true but that’s how we perceived it).
The elites came from Dilli Bazaar, and we in the city centre were thought to be rogues, loafers and hooligans. The hooligan part may have been partly true because not a major festival in the city passed by without word of mouth reports circulating that there were major scuffles between the two localities. My own locality was said to be one of the worst. We as young boys felt that we had to attain the same status as that of Dilli Bazaar. Dilli Bazaar’s monopoly in sports, especially badminton and table tennis, was to be broken some years later by city core products with Kamal Chitrakar and the Suwal brothers rising and emerging as new forces to reckon with.
In July 1951, Catholic missionaries established what must be the first Christian-run school in Nepal. There were quite a few takers for the admission, but parents who wanted their children to join the school had to send them to Singha Durbar where we underwent what would amount to admission interviews. When the school opened in July, I, along with some 60 other boys, joined the school. Games and sports were part of the education process there, and everyone had to take part in the team games or individual sports. Book learning and learning team spirit and inculcating sportsmanship spirit went hand in hand in our alma mater then.
In 1952, when I came home for the summer vacation, I was literally dragged to the Sano Tundikhel (the present National Stadium) to play for a team our local boys had formed. The team was named Sankata Boys’ Sports Club, and the team had joined the tournament run by the Bal Sakha Dal (which I heard then was an affiliate of the Nepali Congress for young boys). The tournament was for those boys who were 58 inches in height or less. In my very first outing, I was lucky enough to score for my team and it so pleased the club that I was a permanent feature of the club whenever I happened to be home from the boarding school.
Sankata Boys Sports Club came into being as a result of young boys’ football tournaments and as a result of many of the boys being left out of the team known as Boys Athletic Clubs (an affiliate of NRT). In desperation of not finding a place in BAC, SBSC was founded. Sankata went on to win a number of 58-inch tournaments as well as 48-inch ones. Sankata took part in tournaments run by the Bal Sakha Dal and later the Devi Maya Memorial Shield as well as others that followed. But my own participation in these tournaments came to an end as my height exceeded the maximum allowed.
Before I went off to Godavari School, Nepal had seen the dawn of democracy, and two princes, Himalaya and Basundhara Shah, joined the commoners and we saw them practicing football every evening with the Kathmandu Khel Mandal (KKM) and NRT combine on Tundhikhel. (We were told later that KKM was able to acquire a prime land, right in front of the present World Trade Center in Tripureshwor, because of the association with the Shah princes.)
As I was now unfit (because of my height) to play for my team, Sankata, we concentrated on school sports in addition to our studies. Clubs and football teams occasionally came to Godavari for relaxation and picnics. One such team was KKM, and the team challenged our school to a football match. We played and got the better of them. Their excuse was they were on a picnic and had drunk too much. Another boarding school, Tribhuban Adarsha Vidyalaya of Pharping, founded a little after Godavari School, also played football with us. Though it was an equal combat, we managed to whiz past them in the end. It was soon afterwards that the coronation of the late King Mahendra was held in the capital in 1956. The coronation brought about sports competitions in a number of disciplines, most of them supervised by the late General (Retd.) Nara Shumsher, a real sports freak, if ever there was one.
Godavari School decided to take part in a number of disciplines, including athletics, basketball and football. (Imagine a school team playing against the country’s top football teams!) In basketball, we won the tournament. In athletics, I collected a medal (third place) in the 4x100m relay. These competitions were joined in by all, and I believe we were the only school taking part in the open-to-all competitions.
But it was in football that we did exceptionally well. We played our first match against the KKM (the present-day NRT) in the knockout tournament, and contrary to all expectations, our school emerged victorious and knocked out KKM that fielded well known players. As far as we schoolboys were concerned, defeating KKM in a major competition was as good as winning the tournament. But our joy was short-lived; our next match was against Bidya Byayam – then a formidable side but one that no longer exists. In the match, we suffered a humiliating defeat and we too were out of the tournament.
These matches were played on the Singha Durbar grounds and we were dreaming of playing the final matches at the Dashrath Rangashala which was being readied for the finals of the various coronation sports. These few coronation sports were the only ones that were held in the newly constructed stadium. It was not until a few years later that regular sport events were held there.
Soon after the coronation, I was back in my locality among childhood friends. But we were a bunch of odd persons out: we could not play in younger boys’ football tournaments, and the only teams that were close to us, KKM and NRT, would not even consider taking us in, as we were too young and not experienced enough. We decided that we should have a team of our own and conveyed our decision to our older friends who did not actually play but ran the Sankata Boys’ Sports Club (SBSC) somehow in the absence of any financial resources.
With their nod, we collected a Rupee or two from some us to meet the entry fee, and we joined the “B” Division of the Nepal Football Association- (NFA) run Martyrs Memorial Football League tournament. I was chosen as the captain of the team, a position I retained until I had to leave Nepal for some months in connection with my journalism training in 1969.
Football league matches all through the 1950s were played at Singha Durbar as the Dashrath Stadium, hurriedly readied for the coronation, was still unfit for any serious sports activities. Except for the satisfaction of each of us giving our best, our overall performance in the league matches in the first year was nothing to talk about. But the very next year, our stars shone and topped the “B” Division, getting over some tough challenges.
One such team was the Highlanders, mostly composed of sons of army men serving in the British and Indian armed forces. And they were not happy at not being able to get to the “A” Division. They called a meeting of the “B” Division teams and it was proposed that we in it also play return matches like they did in the First Division. I had represented my team at the meeting, and I, full of confidence that we would win again if return matches were held, signed the document. It was duly forwarded to NFA where the president, Nara Shumsher, summarily tore up the paper, saying that this kind of return matches were held nowhere in the world for “B” Division games. And that was that. Sankata emerged victorious in the “B” Division in 1958 and was promoted to “A” Division.
Our stint in the “B” was full of difficulties, but none that could not be overcome by our enthusiasm for the game. One of the biggest difficulties we faced was monetary resources. But we made small contributions from each of the young boys, and then there were a few businessmen and shopkeepers who contributed generously, from 10 to 100 Rupees. The fund was needed as we had to buy football boots for the players. While many of us in our locality bought our own boots, which at that time cost around 15 to 20 Rupees, we had to provide boots for those who came to play for us from outside our locality. One could play the NFA league and knockout matches barefoot in those days but those who joined Sankata from outside our locality insisted on the club providing them with boots.
The football boots then were leather boots with leather studs nailed to the soles. As the studs wore off, the nails protruded out and posed a real threat to the shins of the opposition players. Many of us have scars along our shins and ankles to prove the point. No wonder, referees made it a point to check the boots of each player before the start of the match in those days to ensure that boots did not pose a threat to the opponents.
Our dedication to the game was complete, and most of us were diehard Sankata loyalists. This meant that, apart from playing, we had to prepare everything for the games, including scouting for good players, which we did. Occasionally, we played friendly matches with other teams at Tundikhel. This meant that we had to obtain the necessary permit from the army authorities and then spend most of the day marking out the football field with lime. And tireless, we played the match in the evening.
And we spent our time talking about football and listening to advice from the elders. The talk then mostly centered on Indian players – PK Banerjee, Jarnail Singh, and Chunni Goswami. In India, especially West Bengal, football, and not cricket, was the rage. India had reached the quarterfinals of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and was placed fourth, a position they have never been able to equal since.
There were also advices aplenty for us players – that as long as we played, we should not have anything to do with girls.
“Stay away from girls. Otherwise, you won’t be able to give your best,” was the repeated advice. While we tried to live by the advice, girl attraction was always great, and most of us could not keep our eyes off them.
Perhaps this explains why I was a bit shy about girls in those days. I had joined the Public Science College (now Amrit Science College) despite advice from the principal, the late Amrit Prasad Pradhan, that I should join liberal arts rather than take up science. It was a blunder that I did not listen to him and insisted on joining his college. The college was then run in the mornings at Tri-Chandra College, and I was able to practice my football with some college friends at the northern end of Tundikhel, now converted into Ratna Park, which was just a few steps away from Tri-Chandra College. Hardly attending the classes, my Intermediate in Science (I Sc) examinations was one of the biggest failures of my life and fully justified the late AP Pradhan’s advice to me.
The “A” Division football league matches were played at Singha Durbar, and we happened to be the unexpected surprise. We were the first public team, apart from Mahabir, to defeat the Police XI which was a formidable side then, composed of players who had played in India and had joined the Nepali Congress-led Mukti Sena, and were absorbed in the regular police after 1951. (Some of them were also later taken into the army.)
It was during this time that the first parliamentary elections (which some consider to have been unfair) were held and the subsequent B P Koirala government formed the National Council of Health and Sports headed by Nepali Congress loyalist and minister Hira Prasad Joshi, a renowned player of NRT in the yesteryears. The venue of the Martyrs Memorial Trophy league matches was shifted from Singha Durbar to Dashrath Stadium. And football boots were made compulsory. One could no longer play barefoot in league or knockout matches.
It was here in this stadium that two top rivals, SBSC and NRT, played a match that turned out to be truly momentous, in that the match refereed by the then IGP (Inspector General of Police) Rom Bahadur Thapa was the cause of the first ever – and so far the only – occasion when curfew was imposed in the stadium.
The spark of the dispute was a goal scored by Sankata but refuted by NRT. The referee awarded the goal and a free-for-all broke out in the stadium. Most teams and NFA, including the army and the police teams, were with Sankata, but the National Health and Sport Council chief was with NRT. We concluded that because of him, the unique three-day curfew was imposed in the stadium.
As the skipper of the team, I was to bring home to Sankata neither the Martyrs Memorial Trophy nor the Tribhuvan Challenge Shield, though we were second a number of times in both tournaments. But we were always the team that did the unexpected. Bidya Byayam was one of the strongest teams then, and Sankata as the underdogs always gave them the run for the money. During this time, Sankata thrashed Mahabir in one of the league matches with a margin of 8-0, and I scored six of the goals. Sankata and Mahabir later combined to play in the Mahendra Gold Cup in Biratnagar where we played against Birpur of India. Though I scored two goals for the combined team, we lost the match despite the clearly biased decision of the Nepali referee to award two undeserved penalties to Sankata-Mahabir. Our teammates missed both the opportunities.
The ups and downs of football matches, as indeed in any other sports, are a mere reflection of human lives which have their share of ups and downs. That’s why I consider Pele to be the football ideal, not because he is the best player – there are many others who play better than him – but because I perceive of him as a good person who inspires others to be good to other human beings. For what use are games and sports and education if they don’t teach us to be better human beings? The battle of life is won, after all, in the classrooms and on playing fields.
Forays into journalism
In the later half of the 1950s, sports journalism virtually did not exist in Nepal. The late Dr. Harka Bahadur Gurung, who was an idol for many because of his achievements in classroom as well as on the playing field, began reporting on football matches in the English-language daily, The Commoner. He wrote under the penname of Chandan. I had by then graduated from school and my own thought was, “If he can do it, why can’t I?” I then approached Manindra Raj Shrestha who then edited The Motherland, another English daily. With his approval, I began writing for the paper and that brought me into journalism which later became my profession.
As the present FIFA World Cup in South Africa enters the elimination round, and as my team Sankata is relegated to “B” division, this writer could not help recollecting his football days and all the innocent joys sports brings to most people.