Many a people may make mistakes at the first sight of this footballer, with hairstyle similar to that of Brazilian star Neymar and goal-celebration much like Portuguese icon Cristiano Ronaldo's. But the player in question is Sabitra Bhandari, a striker of the Nepal women's football team. The 5ft 4inch tall striker has scored 24 goals in 25 international matches, and now she is making her team dream of winning their maiden SAFF Women's Championship title by scoring a goal each against Bhutan and Bangladesh. The Daily Star's Anisur Rahman talked to the 22-year-old at the lobby of the team hotel in Biratnagar on Sunday night.
The Daily Star (TDS): How did you get involved with football?
Sabitra Bhandari (SB): I used to play football with bare foot during my childhood as there was no support from my family. I never dared ask my father to buy me a pair of boots because he was the only earning member of our big family. I went through some difficult times during that period.
TDS: Did you face problems playing with boys?
SB: Actually no girls in our area played football at that time. I played with the boys, but faced no problem. To be honest, I love football and I never thought of whether I was playing with boys or girls. I even got into fights with boys. During one match, a boy was forced to leave the field with an injury after he came with a rough tackle against me.
TDS: How did you get into the national team?
SB: I started playing good football at the age of 15 and played competitive games regularly in our district. During a national-level competition, I drew attention of a national referee, who picked me for the Armed Police Force (APF) Club when I was 16. The club provided me with a pair of boots and I trained there for three months before playing for the APF Club in the women's national league. Then I dreamt of playing for the national team and finally got selected following very hard work.
TDS: You have a hairstyle similar to that of Neymar while you celebrate your goals like Cristiano Ronaldo. Are these two your idols?
SB: I like the way Ronaldo scores goals but Neymar is also a very skilled striker. I have respect for (Lionel) Messi too. However, I follow Ronaldo as a striker.
TDS: You have great speed which often unsettles defences. You also have good shooting skills. How did you hone those skills?
SB: I trained hard regularly to improve myself. I even had self-training to hone those skills. You can say that I prepared myself. Besides, I follow strikers like Rolando playing in different European Leagues. You have to remember that no player goes to the pitch thinking of losing and everyone has to prepare by improving themselves technically and skill-wise under a coach.
TDS: How does it feel like wearing the jersey of the Nepal national team?
SB: I never represented Nepal at any age-level competition. I got directly selected for the national women's team during the 2014 SAFF Women's Championship, but I barely 10 to 15 minutes to play as a substitute as the juniors did not get much chance ahead of the senior players. It hurt me to see our team lose against India each time. I broke down mentally, but the way our current coach [Hari Khadka] has inspired me greatly. This time, we want to cross the semifinal hurdle and give our best effort to win the title.
TDS: Do you see any striker like yourself in this region? What is your ultimate target?
SB: I used to like Indian striker Bala Devi, but now I see no one like me. I am the best in South Asia and I really enjoy the stardom. I'm only 22 and I want to play in Europe in future.