Kathmandu: With or without their record-breaking striker, Nepal’s women’s national team are aiming to climb a footballing mountain, and their well-travelled coach is hopeful that AFC Women’s Asian Cup India 2022 will represent the peak.
Think of a technical role in a football organisation and Gary Philips is likely to have some first-hand knowledge of it. Men or women, clubs or national teams, coaching players or educating coaches; he has seen and done it all.
A former title-winning player and head coach in top-flight men’s football in Australia, he has gone on to build an extensive and varied résumé featuring roles in Malaysia, Vietnam and Tonga, to name a few, but the biggest challenge is arguably still to come.
His football journey took him Nepal in 2019, when he became the All Nepal Football Association’s Technical Director; a role he still holds but one which, since February, comes with the added responsibility of leading the women’s national team in their bid to secure an unprecedented qualification for Asia’s premier women’s competition.
Speaking to the-AFC.com from Kathmandu, Phillips said his belief that Nepal have a genuine chance to be among the 12 teams in next year’s expanded continental Finals triggered his decision to return to the dugout, where he aims to simultaneously prepare a new generation of local coaches.
“I think every technical director is a frustrated coach, and loves to get out from behind the desk,” joked the 57-year-old Australian.
“We felt that women had a relatively good chance to qualify for an Asian Cup, which would obviously be a historic moment for Nepal. We wanted to give them the best opportunity to qualify.”
“(The federation felt that) if I could take up the position and continue to mentor the local coaches, including the women, that might be the best way forward for the women’s national team, but also for local coaches to be in the role and see what the process is.”
Reaching the AFC Women’s Asian Cup Finals would be a colossal milestone for Nepal, which remains a developing football nation.
The women’s team did take part in three editions of the AFC Women’s Championship in the 1980s and 90s but those tournaments occurred in an era where teams didn’t need to qualify, with Nepal going on to lose all 10 of their matches, scoring one goal and conceding an average of more than six per game.
Much has changed. Now, more nations than ever are entering the competition, and today’s teams must survive a rigorous qualifying tournament in order to reach the continental Finals, with even former Asian champions DPR Korea and Chinese Taipei falling short of the eight-team edition in Jordan in 2018.
With the field expanding to 12 for next year’s Finals, Nepal – currently ranked 16th in Asia – are among the nations for whom qualification looks an increasingly achievable goal, and one that, if realised, could leave a significant legacy for the game, according to Phillips.
“If we can qualify for a major event – which has never happened before for Nepal, and this is our greatest chance – it would be an incredible opportunity to grow the game in Nepal, and an incredible to grow equality in general life, which is a major issue in Nepal,” he declared.
“A lot of women get married very young in this culture, and once they get married it can limit their opportunities to continue their journey in the game, so it reduces the talent pool.
“If we can somehow provide a pathway and convince people that we can grow the culture, grow opportunities for women to continue to be employed in the game – not just as coaches and players but as administrators, referees and so on. It’s a massive opportunity.”
A former head coach of Australian W-League side Newcastle Jets and later the Papua New Guinea women’s national team, Phillips is a strong advocate for the ongoing expansion of the women’s game.
He favours a 16-team AFC Women’s Asian Cup and initiatives such as the “3+1” foreign player rule seen in a number of men’s competitions becoming common practice throughout the continent’s women’s leagues.
Phillips also believes experience in working in locations with varying levels of resources and footballing infrastructure has prepared him well for life in Nepal; a country with a six-day working week, just one stadium with floodlights and a women’s league which has already finished for the year.
“100 percent,” he said. “I think every experience you have as a coach is going to put you in a better position for your next job. In a place like Nepal resources are limited, competition is limited, and so is access to things like sports medicine, sports science and strength and conditioning.
“I’ve experienced those things in other countries as well. You have to be creative and show some initiative, but at the same time stay positive and give everyone some belief that you actually can make progress, and maybe even go beyond expectations.”
“It’s enjoyable, it’s challenging but at the same time it’s very rewarding. We’ve seen progress already”.
The positivity surrounding the women’s national team is not without merit.
They’ve proven themselves as one of South Asia’s top sides in recent years, achieving positive results against higher-ranked sides like India and Myanmar and producing an outstanding individual talent in Sabitra Bhandari.
A 24-year-old striker, Bhandari became Nepal’s all-time top scorer in 2019 and while her international record of 38 goals in 40 matches is impressive, it pales in comparison to her jaw-dropping numbers at club level.
She scored 16 goals in seven matches as a foreign player in the 2019-20 Indian Women’s League, which she won with Gokulam Kerala, before returning home to score a remarkable 43 times in Nepal’s 12-match National Women’s League.
With a record like that, Bhandari’s national team coach believes she has the talent to play just about anywhere.
“I’ve already spoken to friends in Australia, because I think she’s good enough to play in the W-League,” declared Phillips, whose Newcastle side finished second in the first season of the Australian competition in 2008-09.
“I even think she’s good enough to play at a second-tier level in Europe. She just needs consistent competition. I have no doubt that she can make it at the next level, we just need someone to take a chance on her. I need to convince people, through my contacts, to give her a chance, because I know that she won’t disappoint. I just hope she gets the opportunities.
“She’s in her mid 20s, so she’s still got time, and I’ve got no doubt that if she does play in the Women’s Asian Cup she’ll be recruited by a team at a higher level.”
The ‘if’ surrounding Bhandari’s participation in next year’s tournament hinges on more than just Nepal’s ability to qualify.
In fact, if Nepal are to reach the top table of the Asian women’s game, they may well need to do it without their standout player, who is set to remain out action for at least five months with a knee injury, with Phillips conceding that the AFC Women’s Asian Cup Qualifiers scheduled for September may be a bridge too far.
“She’s our Lionel Messi, and if you take Lionel Messi out of any team it will be significantly impacted,” he said. “It’s a massive loss for us.”
“She’s in magnificent shape already, she’s got a great attitude, she’s very professional and she cannot wait to get back on the park. She’s already asking if she can come into the training camp and watch and learn. She’s an inspiration to everyone.
“She’s very much an outside chance of being available for the Asian Cup Qualifiers, but if we were to qualify, she will be very much a main player.”
So, with their domestic league completed and their star player in doubt, how does a head coach prepare a national team for what they hope will be their biggest achievement?
Phillips says Nepal will use every opportunity as their disposal.
“Initially my thought was to try and get as many players as possible into the Indian Women’s League, because that’s a higher level of competition,” he explained.
“We don’t have another domestic competition planned until December, so we’re trying to get players into foreign competitions. That was my first priority, but outside of that I aim to have camps every month.”
“We’ve identified the players from the national league here in Nepal. We want to get the girls together and continue to have camps every month in preparation for the qualifiers. We’ve also got a significant number of young players and the AFC (U-20 Women’s Asian Cup) Qualifiers are in August, which is a great opportunity for us to continue our preparation.
“Losing Sabitra, we’re going to have to find a different way to play. It’s a new coach, a new way and a new direction and that takes time, so I need to get the girls in camp as much as possible.”
Qualification matches for AFC Women’s Asian Cup India 2022 are scheduled for September, with eight nations to join India, Japan, Australia and China PR at next year’s Finals.
Photos: All Nepal Football Association