Rising star Preeti Rai sets sights on SAFF Championship redemption

Preeti Rai - WAFF Women’s Championship
Preeti Rai celebrates after scoring a last-minute winner against Lebanon in the semi-final of the WAFF Women’s Championship.

Nepal’s performance in the WAFF Women’s Championship held in Riyad in Saudi was applauded both at home and abroad. The women’s team showed Nepal and the world what they were capable of and showed promise of what they could do if they supported better.

During the tournament, some new names also emerged. While the entire country knew Sabitra Bhandari, the tournament also introduced Preeti Rai, Nepal’s midfielder, who announced herself on the global stage.

The 19-year-old’s winning goal against Lebanon will be forever remembered by Nepali football fans, as it secured Nepal’s ticket to the final in a game that initially seemed unlikely for Nepal to win.

The final, however, did not unfold as planned for Preeti Rai and Nepal. Rai suffered a torn meniscus as Nepal heartbreakingly lost the game, defeated by Jordan 5-2 on penalties. This marked Nepal’s 11th final loss, as the women’s team is yet to win a championship. Nevertheless, players like Rai were able to draw the attention of the audience.

“We played well but could not win. I am feeling sad,” says Rai who recently had her surgery in Kathmandu.

Now, Preeti Rai, who will take up to three months to recover from her injury, is aiming to come back strong and targeting to win the SAFF Championship, which has eluded the Nepali team for years. Despite coming close to victory in the past, Rai is determined to break the 38-year-old hoodoo and secure the first title for the Nepali women’s football team.

Coming of age

Preeti Rai

Preeti Rai’s goal during the semi-final was another reason that helped her gain popularity. Facing Lebanon, Rai struck a decisive goal in injury time, ultimately securing victory for the team.

Executing a remarkable volley from outside the penalty area as Lebanon attempted to clear the ball. Her goal was deemed world-class and she became a household name in Nepal’s footballing fraternity.

“I was positioned outside the box, hoping the ball would come my way. I had to make a quick decision to either defend or shoot, and the ball fell perfectly for me to strike it. It was a beautiful moment,” she says.

This marked Rai’s second goal for the senior team of Nepal.

Despite her relatively short stature, Rai’s goal garnered widespread attention on social media. Many drew comparisons between her and football legends such as Lionel Messi and Xavi.

Little dynamite

Preeti Rai made her debut for the national team at the age of 16. In 2021, during a friendly match against Bangladesh, Rai not only debuted in the senior team but also scored her first goal for the team in the same match. This marked a significant milestone in her career and was praised a lot by then national team coach Garry Phillips.

Alongside Rai, Sabita Rana, Srijana Singh, and Rashim Kumari also made their debut in that match. Both Rai and Rana managed to find the net for Nepal, leading to a 2-1 victory. Rai’s outstanding performance earned her the title of Player of the Match.

Before that, in the 2019 SAFF Women’s Championship, held in Biratnagar, and during the 13th South Asian Games, held in Nepal, Rai was selected for a camp. However, she was not selected for the final squad.

Rai, however, did not give up and continued to work hard as she aimed to get into the national team

“After much hard work and dedication, I have finally achieved the result I’ve been striving for,” says Rai. 

Previously, Rai played for the U15 team and notably served as the captain of Nepal during the SAFF U15 Women’s Championship. Additionally, Rai has showcased her leadership skills by captaining both the U18 and U20 national teams.

In the domestic league, Rai represents APF Club, demonstrating her prowess and dedication to football both on the national and domestic levels.

Standing at 4 feet 10 inches tall, Rai is lauded for her exceptional foot control and dribbling skills earning her comparisons with players like Lionel Messia and Xavi.

Rai’s remarkable capability to manoeuvre the ball and pivot through tight spaces has solidified her position as an indispensable asset in the national team. Since her debut, she has maintained a regular presence, consistently contributing to the team’s performance in prestigious tournaments such as the Asian Cup Qualifier, SAFF Championship, Asian Games, and WAFF Women’s Championship. Her consistent presence underscores her significance and value to the team.

Rai, originally from Solukhumbhu, Eastern Nepal, started on her football journey at the age of six. Encouraged by her family for physical fitness, her passion for the sport led her to become a national footballer.

Even before her football pursuits, at the age of 11, Rai showcased her skills in futsal for Nepal Youth Program Club.

Before joining Nepal’s national team, Rai honed her skills in various local competitions, starting with the Coca-Cola Inter Football Competition and later participating in the Upa-Mayor Cup. Notably, she tasted success by winning the National Women’s League with APF.

Rai’s talents have garnered recognition, leading to her selection by Kickstart Football Club in India, where she showcased her skills in the Indian Women’s League. However, her participation was cut short due to an injury, forcing her to miss the remainder of the season.

“This is a small set back,” she says. “I will come back stronger.”

All photos: WAFF

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Nepal is a sports correspondent for Onlinekhabar.

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