Twenty-nine-year-old Sanjay Shrestha always looks forward to the weekends. It is that time of the week when his favourite team Manchester United take to the field.
“This Sunday, United play Chelsea in the English Premier League, and I am heading to Sports Hive in Jhamsikhel to watch the match with fellow United supporters,” he says adding that he’s already counting down to Sunday night.
“I won’t go to college if Manchester United lose. There is a lot at stake. I don’t like it when we lose because most of my friends are Chelsea fans and they’d make my week miserable so we have to win,” says another fan Sanjeev Aryal, who is also looking forward to the Sunday encounter.
Shrestha and Aryal are two of the thousands of Nepali football fans, most of whom are young men, who passionately follow international football, especially the Premier League. The English Premier League (or EPL as it is commonly known) is the most-watched football league in the world. Since its inception in 1992, it has gone on to become a global phenomenon followed vigorously across the world. Every match gets over a million of viewers and is followed in nearly 200 countries.
When Sergio Aguero scored a last-gasp winner in May 2012, it wasn’t just the Etihad Stadium that erupted with jubilation. That goal set off a storm here in Kathmandu as well with fans even after six years sit and talk about how Manchester City defying all odds went on to lift their first title in over 40 years.
No other league creates such drama. That game and that season might have made Premier League a global phenomenon it is now, but in Nepal, it started to plant its seeds well before that. The Premier League has been available on TV in Nepal for over two decades, but since the last decade its fan following has risen massively and little credit should be given to social media. As the League started getting popular, fans started making Facebook groups to see how many fans their respective clubs had. Chelsea Nepal was the first to do so. Eventually, they formally launched a group with around five members. Soon the word spread and other fans started to group to pledge allegiance to their clubs.
As years went by, what started as a group of people watching football has grown on to something really big. All the major fan clubs in Nepal i.e., Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspurs have received official recognition from their respective clubs in the UK. This has enabled members to get tickets to games in the UK with relative ease and the clubs also send signed merchandises on a regular basis. The fan clubs also host AGMs every year where some of them launch T-shirts and hoodies.
Liverpool Nepal were the most organised group. They organised match-day screenings and meeting on a regular basis. But hosting a screening for over 50 people was a challenge, claims Piyush Neupane, Chairman of LFC Nepal. “It was tough for us to start as restaurants and bars hardly showed EPL matches back then. But as I had good terms with the owner of Lakhey Restro and Bar, I proposed the idea of screening matches. We screened our first match in August 2007 and got a good response from our members, after which we started to hold regular screenings,” says Neupane.
Jaysal Thapaliya, an Arsenal fan, started a club in late 2008 with only one motive: to watch games with fellow ‘gooners’. “I used to sit and watch games all by myself. When I saw fans in England visiting pubs, singing chats and watching the team they love together, I wanted to do the same,” adds Thapaliya, the founder of Arsenal Nepal which was recognised as the first official fan club in Nepal by the British club.
The same wasn’t the case for Manchester United because of their fan base. Manchester United is the most popular football club in Nepal which is why it was hard to initially kickstart a fan club. But in 2016, they received official recognition from the Manchester United and now boast the highest number of fans in Nepal.
What these fan clubs have done is establish a footballing culture. The rivalry that exists in England exists here too. They also host intra and inter-fan club futsal tournaments. A few years ago, these fan clubs united together for a noble cause as they hosted an event called ‘Momo for a Change’. It was a charity event for the welfare of street children where the members made momo for the kids and also donated clothes so the children could keep warm in the winter.
As club football in Nepal is at its lowest point, the English Premier League has given football lovers something to look forward to every week. As every fan wishes to see their club play live, all that’s left is for one of these clubs to come play at the Dasharath Stadium in Kathmandu. But there’s a more pressing issue at hand, Shrestha and Aryal have an important match to catch this weekend.