Al-Hilal’s late show breaks Sepahan’s hearts

Al-Hilal’s late show breaks Sepahan’s hearts
Al-Hilal’s late show breaks Sepahan’s hearts

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Kathmandu: As Saudi Arabia prepares to host the eighth edition of the West Asian Football Federation Women’s Championship, many eyes will be on Nepalese forward Sabitra Bhandari.

Widely known as Samba in football circles, the prolific 27-year-old striker is aiming to make a mark on her first ever visit to the Kingdom.

Still fresh from her debut with EA Guingamp in France’s Division 1 Feminine, she will be joining the Nepal squad in the tournament taking place in Jeddah from Feb. 18 to 28.

Guest teams Nepal and Guam will join the tournament with Saudi Arabia as first timers, while Jordan, the five-time champion, will be hoping to secure their crown. Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria are on the hunt for their first title.

Saudi Arabia has become a destination for footballers around the globe in recent times. While world-class players in men’s football have flocked to the Saudi Pro League, West Asia’s top women’s teams will have a chance to shine at the WAFF competition.

The tournament is expected to help clubs of recently formed Saudi Women’s Premier League to find new talents.

Samba is excited to visit Saudi Arabia after hearing about the football stories in the media.

She said: “This will be my first visit to Saudi Arabia. We have heard a lot about Saudi being a hub for world-class footballers. Cristiano Ronaldo, who I have been following since my childhood, is also in Asia. The women’s league has also begun there, which is a fantastic opportunity for players of our region.”

Samba is a household name in South Asian football. Nepal’s top goal scorer in international football won numerous league titles in her home country and in India before landing in France after a short stint in Israel with Hapoel Ra’anana.

But her early years were a struggle.

As a youngster, she played with the boys in the rural village of Lamjung, Simpani. A referee who was impressed with her game advised her to visit the capital city Kathmandu.

After a successful trial, Samba signed for Nepal APF Club, and the rest as they say is history.

Samba soon made her debut for the national team in 2014, aged just 18, and scored on her debut. Since then, she has scored 43 goals in 42 matches for Nepal.

After winning multiple league championships with APF in Nepal, she attracted interest from Indian clubs. In India’s top division she won three league titles and two golden boots playing for Sethu and Gokulam Kerala.

Her impressive performance in the Indian league caught the eye of scouts which paved the way for her move to Israel.

Samba continued her rich scoring form there before the war cut short her stint. She scored five goals in two matches for Ra’anana before the league halted. Samba also had a goal and assist in two cup matches. A deal with EA Guingamp saw her on the way to France.

She now has her focus on the Nepalese team and the WAFF tournament.

“I am away in France, but the team has been preparing well. I have played with the team for a long time now and it will not be hard to gel in. We are coming to Saudi with hope to win the tournament,” she added.

Rajendra Tamang, the head coach of the Nepali national team, has pinned the team’s goal-scoring hopes on Samba.

He said: “She is very important for our team. Even though there are other forwards in the team, we are reliant on goal scoring with her. She knows the team well and we look forward to having her in the team.”

Tamang noted that Bhandari was an icon in South Asian football and an inspiration to her peers too.

“For a Nepali player to play for a top European league is a dream come true. This is a story to learn not just for Nepal but the whole of South Asia. We are lucky that she plays for our nation. She is an inspiration for the sport here,” he added.

Women’s football has been breaking barriers around the world in recent years and Samba feels only good things are to follow.

She said: “If you see the state of women’s football in past few years, there is a lot of positives around. I hope we can keep up with the similar pace.

“As tournaments and leagues expand, that will provide more opportunities for players and help in development of the game too,” she added.

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