Aldershot Town this week make history as the first European club to ever play in Nepal, when the Shots Academy compete in the Aaha RARA! Gold Cup.
A 16-man squad will leave for Pokhara on Thursday to participate in the tournament, organised by the Sahara Academy in conjunction with its Hampshire-based sister charity Sahara UK, featuring some of the biggest clubs in Nepal.
Amongst the 12 clubs competing for the 13th Aaha RARA! Gold Cup are reigning RedBull National League champions Laxmi Hyundai Manang Marshyangdi Club who, along with three Gold Cup victories, have won seven league titles in their 33 year history. Two of their biggest traditional rivals are also participating: Nepal Police Club, four-time National League champions who also boast a quintet of Gold Cup victories, and Patan’s Three Star Club, who have won four National League titles and three Gold Cups.
All three clubs feature an array of Nepalese internationals in their squad, including current national team captain Sagar Thapa, of Three Star Club.
The Aldershot Town squad will take the 16-hour flight to Kathmandu, arriving at Tribhuvan Airport on Friday evening, and will immediately start preparing for a friendly match against the Nepalese Army Reserve team at 9am the next day. A six-hour coach journey to Pokhara follows, before the squad experience the Rangasala Stadium – which hosts all Gold Cup matches – for the first time, by taking in one of the group matches.
The Shots enter the tournament at the Quarter-Final stage, on Tuesday 10 February, in a match which is expected to attract a crowd of 15,000. Victory would set-up a semi-final on Thursday 12 February, with the Final following two days later.
In between, The Shots will visit schools in Pokhara, to donate kit and equipment to local children, as well as the renowned Sahara Academy itself, whose mission statement of “turning orphans into athletes” sees them provide both education and football coaching to disadvantaged Nepalese children.
Aldershot Town Chairman Shahid Azeem said: “These players are ambassadors for the Football Club. We are making history, as the first team from Europe to play in Nepal, and it is very important that we respect the people there, and their culture. We want to further our relationship and friendship with the Nepalese community – they have done a lot for us in Aldershot and this is our chance to return that gesture.”
Striker Dan Mellors, 18, admitted: “We’re going out to win the tournament, not to have a holiday – we’re hoping to come back with the trophy. The team have been playing well together recently and I’m really excited. We don’t know how good the opposition are but we’re going to give it our best.
“We’re all here to earn a career in football and this is a great opportunity to play in front of big crowds. It’s the sort of pressure you have to deal with if you want to make it as a professional. It’s going to be quite an eye-opener for some of the team, to experience a new culture, but it’ll be a wonderful experience and I hope everybody understands how privileged we are to have this opportunity.”
17 year-old goalkeeper Adam Norton continued: “This is an excellent opportunity for all of the lads, to go to another country. I think it’s more about experiencing a different culture than just playing football, but winning is a great feeling and if we were to come home with the trophy that would just add to the experience.”
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” concluded striker Ashley Baylis. “Playing in front of 15,000 crowds with a big atmosphere is going to be very exciting. This is no holiday, it’ll be business and usual, and I think we’re going to do well. Our results recently have been good and there’s a lot of optimism amongst the squad.”
The official Shots team photo for the Aaha RARA! Gold Cup:
Back Row, L-R: James Stallon, Adam Norton, Will Jawor, Jordan Devanny, Dan Mellors, Jamel Johnson, James Hughes
Front Row, L-R: Jay Welch, Harrison Shade, Sam Hutchings, Kevin Knights (Academy Manager), Shahid Azeem (Aldershot Town Chairman), Marc Wardley (Coach), Ben Hutchings (Captain), Ashley Bayliss, Josh Francis