12 Jul 2017
10 min read
1698 words
From the Archive (Dec, 2016): In Nepal, it can be exceedingly difficult to make a living through football. And yet, unfazed by the challenges, Raju Shakya has devoted his life to the game

What’s your family background?
Our family’s ancestral roots go back to Bhaktapur. However, my grandfather decided to move to Kurseong, Darjeeling, in search of better opportunities. My father continued the tradition of branching out the family tree by joining the British Gurkhas and fought in the Second World War. After retirement, he settled down in Dharan, where he met our mother. He ran a small jewellery shop and my mom, a housewife, lived incredibly humbly. Life was basic for our family of ten.

How did little Raju spend his days?
We were eight siblings, and all of us had our work cut out. My brothers and I used to help our father in the jewellery shop, and it was there that I learned to face criticism with a smile. I’m not that deft with my hands, and in a profession where you need the highest level of craftsmanship, I was a big disappointment to my father, who used to call me bhakundey (ball). Little did we know that my destiny would be linked to the bhakundo (football).

When did you start playing football?
Growing up, I was always interested in sports–table tennis and volleyball, among others. Dharan used to be known as the Brazil of Nepal due to the popularity of football amongst the locals there. And soon I found myself getting more interested in the game. There was a time when I was the number one table tennis player in school, but to excel in football, I decided to put down my bat; lessons on sacrifice started early on for me.

Was your love for the game shared by your parents?
My parents were not enthusiastic about my wanting to pursue football, and they were pretty vocal in their disapproval; both of them were uneducated, and it was their dream to see their kids get what they had missed out on. Back then, dinner used to be over by six pm, and since I was usually the one to arrive home last, after my games, I would end up washing all the dishes as punishment. 

And at what age did you decide to move out of your home?
I was barely 17 when I left home to join the Janakpur Cigarette Factory football team. For a young lad who had never ventured out of Dharan, Janakpur was not a place I took to well–the place was hot and full of mosquitos. We used to earn five rupees per day, which was not enough for our lodging and food; there were times when we didn’t have enough to eat a decent meal, and we had to sleep on the floor. The satisfaction of being a footballer not withstanding, the struggle was very much real.

Photographer: Laxmi Prasad Ngakhusi

Did you ever feel like giving up?
I remember not making the national team when they went to Russia for a match. That was one of the first times I got really frustrated; that’s a moment that has stuck with me for years. And it also didn’t help that there was so much negativity around us—people would complain about how players from out of the valley, or without any political ties, would always be overlooked. There were days when I felt empty and directionless, but I could usually overcome my moments of doubt by focusing on my love for football–being a footballer was my identity, and honestly, I’m not good at anything else. I think it was my perseverance as much as my talent that pulled me through—and in 1991, I became the captain of the national team.

You have been a player, captain and coach–which has been the toughest role to play?
Ranked in order of increasing toughness–player, captain, coach. The captain has to lead the team, be the link between the coach and the players and be responsible for many key decisions in the game. But that’s also why I think the role of team captain is the most rewarding role of all for a player. And nothing might be worse than the ulcer-inducing job of a coach. The lifestyle a football coach has to live is gruelling and inherently unhealthy—stress, sleep deprivation, shame over subpar performances, family neglect, loneliness and outside obligations can affect a man to the core.

So you don’t fancy your role as a coach?
I like to test myself with challenges. I dedicated the best years of my life to this game, and I have taken up the role of a coach with the same passion. Yes, it comes with a bigger baggage of responsibilities, as you’re not just in it to win matches. Having said that, I think any job is stressful because I think everybody wants to be successful at their job.

When you saw other players with access to better facilities, did it make you bitter?
I wouldn’t go so far as to label it bitter, but I do know that my experiences have done something positive for me. The fact that we were playing at a high level without any proper facilities was, in a strange way, empowering. While other players are well-funded, we get barely anything. But despite that, we have achieved quite a bit of success on the international stage.

What is different in the way we play that has brought on this recent bouts of success?
A lot of things have evolved over the years; from the way we play to the coaches and their training philosophies. In my player days, we were more focused on enhancing our physical abilities, but now attention is also focused on the technical aspects of the game, such as ball possession and handling, effective passing and dribbling. Also, players are more confident at holding the ball, which directly affects the finishing. All of this definitely represents a start in the right direction, and while there is no shortage of talent, making more progress in international football will take time.

What are your expectations from the state?
We are well aware of our government’s capabilities, or the lack thereof, and hence, we have never been unreasonable with our demands. If we can provide career opportunities for players, it would mean a world of difference. Also, basic amenities, like medical expenses, education for players’ kids and travel expenses, can be of great help. The talent is there, but Nepal lacks the infrastructure: there aren’t enough proper fields in Kathmandu itself, and we need enough qualified coaches.

What keeps you busy?
I’m busy with the National Football Academy, where I train young players. I do see a slight shift in how Nepalis are learning to appreciate sports; many of the kids come to the academy along with parents who are very supportive of their interest in sports. Sports is not just a hobby anymore; it’s a way of life, and if talent meets opportunity, playing sports can make for a life-defining experience.

Did your family’s reaction towards you change over the years?
My father started appreciating my hard work and would joke that despite my failing to earn money, I was able to achieve name and fame. I think he later realised that football made me happy, and I think he took satisfaction from that.

How are you juggling work and married life?
I was married to my game for almost two decades. Football always comes first. In fact, I decided to settle down only after my retirement. Luckily, my wife fully understand my commitment to the game.

You have clinched gold medals in SAG as a member of the Nepali squad (1984), captain (1993) and most recently as a coach. Which performance means the most to you?
Definitely the 1993 final in Dhaka. I will never forget that moment when as the captain, I was able to lead the Nepali team to the gold medal in men’s football. That victory strengthened our belief that hard work does yield results. Also, this year’s gold medal in the SAG men’s football competition, where we defeated India after 23 years, was a cathartic experience for everybody. To know that we can bring happiness to people living through a difficult time humbles us.