This Young Woman Footballer Is More Popular Than Messi in Her Remote Village in Nepal

Screenshot of the girls football team arriving after winning.

Screenshot of Sunakali's women's football team arriving home after playing a tournament.

Mugu, one of the poorest districts in Nepal, doesn't have a single football stadium. But it does have a star football player as revered as Argentina's famous son Lionel Messi — and she happens to be a girl.

Sunakali and her team were welcomed home there after winning the women's national football tournament as if they had won the World Cup in Brazil, reported Mysansar, a popular Nepalese blog.

The young women left their mountainous district for the first time to compete in the tournament in Kailali, a journey of hundreds of kilometers. They walked two days to reach the airstrip, and travelled in a plane, rickshaw and bullock cart for the very first time in their lives. There are no direct roads between Kailali and Mugu, and the ones that do exist are in poor condition.

At the tournament, the Mugu team played with Badikhel Team of Lalitpur district, Baliya Team of Kailali and Team Patharaiya before meeting with Team Tikapur in the finals. Team Mugu won and Sunakali was named the best striker.

It was an impressive achievement for many reasons, including the fact that the young women were only introduced to the sport in 2011. In Mugu, the average life expectancy is reported to be 47 years, with men at 49 and women at 39. Nearly two-thirds of girls aged 15 to 19 are married, and female literacy rate stands at 9 percent. 

When the victorious team returned, locals met them at the airstrip chanting, “Sunakali, like Messi!” Horses were arranged for the young women to ride back to the village, an honor in Mugu where it is unusual for women to ride the animals. 

Journalist Bhojraj Bhat prepared a documentary to be released this July based on the girls’ journey. A promo of “Sunakali: Teenage girls’ journey to glory” on YouTube offers a glimpse of life in Mugu.

Since the tournament win, Sunakali has became a household name in Mugu, and her story has made the rounds on social media. Nepalese weekly Saptahik profiled Sunakali following her Internet fame. Bhat tweeted the publication's cover:

Twitter user Suraj, a self-described movie maniac and cricket fan, tweeted Sunkali’s photo holding the trophy with her mother:

Mugu's Messi: Sunakali Budha with her mother

Famed Nepali blogger Lex Limbu also has written about her on his blog, which is widely read by Nepalese across the globe.

In Sunkali's village in Mugu, television and Internet is still a dream. But Saroj Chapagai, a sociology student, couldn't help but wonder, given all the comparisons made between Sunkali and Messi:

Whether Sunakali watched Messi's game yesterday or not, I was pondering while watching the match.

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