No other national football player has represented Nepal more often than Biraj Maharjan. The 30-year-old, who made 73 international appearances for Nepal in his defending career spanning 13 years, debuted against Pakistan in 2008. Mahrajan was in the national squad that won gold at the 2016 South Asian Games and took home the trophies at the Bangabandhu Gold Cup (2016), AFC Solidarity Cup (2016), and Three Nations Cup (2021).
On the domestic front, Maharjan debuted with Sankata Boys SC in 2006. Further on, he has played for New Road Team (NRT), Three Star Club, Manang Marshyangdi Club, Machhindra FC, and Butwal-Lumbini FC. The veteran footballer has three Martyrs Memorial A-Division League titles under his belt—one each with Three Star (2012-13), Manang Marshyangdi (2018-19), and Machhindra (2019-20).
One of the most decorated Nepali footballers in recent times, Maharjan retired from national duties in 2021, the March 29 final of the Three Nations Cup against Bangladesh being his last appearance in red and blue. Coinciding with the ongoing Euro and Copa America tournaments, Pratik Ghimire caught up with Maharjan to talk about his post-retirement life and state of Nepali football.
How does it feel to hang up your national boots?
As I am still playing at the club-level, I don’t feel like I have retired. The previous month went well as we participated in the Nepal Super League (NSL). Right now, I am enjoying quality time with my family. Of course, I miss the national jersey, but we must accept that every beginning also has an end.
Biraj Maharjan thanks the supporters after Nepal beats Bangladesh 2-1 in Three Nations Cup final on March 29. It was also his last match in national jersey | Sunita Dangol
I will play a couple more seasons in the domestic league and then see what lies ahead for me. Even then, I am certain that I will be involved with football. I can’t think of life outside it.
Has a time come when Nepali players can survive solely by playing football?
Survival comes with recognition and recognition with opportunities. Earlier, we only had limited opportunities to prove ourselves. But now, it is much more convenient. Those playing for the national squad and the clubs are more financially stable, though aspiring players can still struggle.
The corporate sector should invest more in our young lads. Similarly, the government should categorize players and look after their well-being. They should be free from all forms of tension so that they can give their best on the field.
What kind of an impact will tournaments like NSL have on the national squad?
In my opinion, NSL or a similar league should have been in place at least half a decade ago. If that had happened Nepali football would have reached new heights by now. For instance, we can see how the Indian Super League helped the Indian squad. Besides the growth of good teams, these kinds of franchise-based leagues help boost the confidence of individual players. This in turn directly takes the national team forward.
Having said that, NSL still has a long way to go. I hope the organizers will resolve issues that surfaced in the inaugural edition. The league hasn’t been recognized by FIFA or AFC. The organizers should plan to get the recognition needed for the league to go international.
The national squad recently got Abdullah Al Mutairi as the new coach. What do you think of his approach to the team?
Coach Abdullah Al Mutairi could have chosen a better team to coach, but he chose Nepal’s national team, considering its potential. Before taking charge, he had studied each player and their position. He has energized the squad with young players. That’s the best part of his approach. We may not have seen great results immediately, but Al Mutairi is preparing our team for a long and glorious run.
I had time to chat with him and found that he has a strong, positive spirit. We had seen his impact on the team within a few games—the attitude, mindset, and confidence level of players is high. I appreciate his efforts.
It’s often said the average height of Nepali players lets them down in international matches. They also appear physically weak.
For a player to deliver excellent performance, he must be physically, mentally, and tactically strong. We have always struggled with physical fitness, but these days we are much better. The national team as well as every club these days have qualified physiotherapists and they help maintain strength. After corporate investment in Nepali football, we have implemented essential diet plans and workouts and accordingly, performance has also improved. Besides, players have also realized it’s a necessity to spend quality time in the gym.
We can’t say it all boils down to it, but yes, the height disadvantage has contributed to many of our losses. In 2010, when we were playing Afghanistan during the SAF championship in Delhi, an Afghan player had jumped right over one of our defenders.
How have things changed after the infamous ‘match fixing’ scandal in 2015?
Those were the ‘black days’ of our football history and everyone—players, staff, and officials—was confused about the future. After the news broke, we were devastated, and it took a few months for us to recover. In between, we lost to Sri Lanka for the first time. Nothing was going well. But then coach Patrick Aussems entered the scene and helped revive the national team. Similar to what Al Mutairi is doing now, he refreshed the squad, provided exposure to young talents, and exuded a positive mentality, which we needed the most at that time.
For me, this was a turning point in our football. Every sector supported and helped us and soon, we won the Bangabandhu Gold Cup and the gold at the SAG. Our team has never looked back since.
For a long time, the SAF championship has been the gold standard for Nepal. When do you think the team can look for titles beyond this?
The SAF championship is like the World Cup to us. But I also think now is the time to aim for greater heights. We are in the third round of Asian Cup qualifiers this time and hopefully, our team will stage a good performance there.
Japan is one of the strongest teams in Asia and they have the goal of winning the World Cup in the next 50 years. We could also set a timeline to qualify for the World Cup. This timeline could be a couple of decades long. If all sectors work together, this dream is not so far-fetched. Nepali football team is always thankful for the immense support from spectators and we know they will always root for us. This will motivate our team to do better in every match.