Nepal APF Club lost to Manang Marsyangdi 2-1 in the Martyr’s Memorial A Division League on March 18. Disheartened by the loss, Mani Lama went to the dressing room.
As he reached there, he received a huge surprise. The newly appointed coach of the national football team Vincenzo Alberto Annese informed him about his selection to the national team and asked him to pack his luggage and come to the hotel.
After completing the short training as a part of the national football team, the 27-year-old Lama made his debut in the Prime Minister’s Three Nations Cup, during the match against Laos. On March 22, Lama joined the team as a substitute for Nabin Lama in the 73rd minute of the game.
Mani Lama was on the bench for the entire match during the match against Bhutan on March 28. But in the final match of the tournament against Laos, he spent the entire time on the ground.
Playing for the national team is not a new experience for him. He has been in the national futsal team from 2017 to 2022 for three times and has played in international tournaments as well. In 2019 during the South Asian Games held in Nepal, he was in a closed camp of the national table tennis team also. But now, he wants to stick to football.
The football debut
Yet Mani Lama says he still cannot define the moment when he got selected for the national team for the first time.
“Earlier, I had seen Rohit Chand, Kiran Kumar Limbu and Anjan Bista only in the field. But playing with them is a different experience,” says Lama.
In his experience, the football camp also felt different from other sports. The players in the team were well experienced, commercial and independent, says Lama.
The Nepali team have changed in various ways after they got a new coach and some of the players left to go abroad. The situation made Lama a midfielder of the national team.
Due to fewer training hours, Nepal could not perform well in the first two matches. As Mani Lama was new to the team, he was not fully prepared that affected his performance. To overcome the nervousness of playing in front of thousands of people, he tried to remain calm. “I was already nervous and excited since the warm-up,” he says.
Nepal had already taken the lead 2-0 in the first match against Laos before he made his debut. Nepal won the match with the same score. But in the final, Laos took the lead at first.
Mani Lama says he was afraid then, but the goals by Ayush Ghalan and Manish Dangi made his debut tournament successful.
Lama, a resident of Chhaimale on the southern outskirts of Kathmandu, was raised in Lalitpur. Cricket and table tennis were popular in his school Adarsha Vidya Mandir (AVM).
He started training with Purshottam Bajracharya, a former national table tennis player. Then, at the age of 14, he got selected for the junior national table tennis team, in 2010.
Similarly in 2012 during SAF Championship, he won two silver medals for Nepal— in the team events and boys double event categories.
Next year, Mani Lama played in the World Cup Junior Cadet and Youth Asian Games. In 2016, during the 8th National Games, he won bronze in men’s singles for Tribhuvan Army Club.
He was shining in table tennis. But the futsal culture in Kathmandu that was growing greatly attracted him. Along with playing table tennis, he started playing futsal as well.
“I was brought up by playing football in an open space. But playing futsal on turf also provided me joy,” says Lama. “Then I started playing it regularly with neighbours, which improved my game.”
Afterwards, he joined Kick Off Futsal, a team based in Dhobighat, Lalitpur. In 2016, the team played a selection competition to form a national futsal team. The three players including Mani Lama were selected from that competition for the national team training.
In 2017, for the first time, the national futsal team of Nepal participated in qualifiers for AFC Futsal Championship in Iran. Lama was one of the key players in the team. In 2019 and in 2022, the team participated in qualifiers for AFC Futsal Championship in Iran and Thailand, respectively.
In six years, Lama played three international competitions and scored three goals in nine games.
“There used to be a few table tennis competitions, but futsal used to have weekly competitions,” says Lama. “There was this one time that I used to play both games simultaneously.”
During the SAF closed camp, Mani Lama was also playing futsal. Later, he got more interested in futsal due to the increasing number of competitions.
No more changes?
The established futsal player has interesting things to tell about how he became a footballer.
Football was his favourite sport since childhood. Although it was only at the age of 22 that he officially began training for football.
In 2018, Lama became associated as a table tennis player with the departmental team APF. In 2019, after getting selected for the national futsal team for qualifiers of the Asian Futsal Championship, the departmental team learnt that he would play futsal.
“After returning, Rajendra Tamang, the then APF head coach, tested me. Then, I began official training for futsal,” Mani Lama says.
In 2019, he made his debut in the A Division League, representing the APF. But he got fewer opportunities on the ground. Nevertheless, in 2021, he relatively got more opportunities to showcase his game. In the same year, the APF won the Rara Gold Cup and the Birat Gold Cup.
Lama has been an impactful player in this year’s league since the beginning. In the first five matches of the league, he scored two goals and was announced player of the match in one of the games, after which he was called to the national team.
“I believed in myself and continued playing and finally got to play for the national team. This is really a big surprise for me,” says Mani Lama.
The 27-year-old player considers it a big opportunity to prove himself because, after two and a half months, Nepal are playing in the SAF Championship and World Cup Qualifiers.
“This time, the coach formed the team in a rush. But for the SAF and the World Cup Qualifiers, things will be different. There will be other new players as well,” says Lama. “This is going to be challenging. I need to work hard.”
The skills like close control, speed control and foot control, which Mani Lama obtained from futsal, have been greatly helpful for him even in football.
Now, Lama does not want to switch to any other sports. He wants to spend his remaining career in football.
“Football is the king of sports. With a lot of effort, I got an opportunity to play for the national team,” says Mani Lama. “Now I am entirely focused on football.’
This story was translated from the original Nepali version and edited for clarity and length.
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