On April 25, Jack Stefanowski was coming to terms with the fact his Nepal national soccer team had been knocked out of qualification for the 2018 World Cup. Losing the home and away clash with giant neighbor India was a major setback. It prevented Nepal from advancing past the first stage of qualifying and into the Asia’s first group stage, costing the team eight valuable tests against some of the best teams on the continent. That the Asian Football Confederation combined qualification for the World Cup with that for the 2019 Asian Cup made it a double blow. The American, who just turned 40, had to come up with a plan to ensure that soccer continued to progress in the country despite a four year break from top level competition.
Then, the earthquake struck. Everything became meaningless. The New York native had been in the Himalayan kingdom for two years with his wife and daughter, but little prepared him for the magnitude-7.8 earthquake that has been responsible for over 8,000 deaths to date.
“Despite being lucky, there were three big moments of fear,” Stefanowski (right, below), who started coaching at college level before moving to the Puerto Rican league, told Fusion. “The first moment was when the earthquake shook us on April 25. I was having lunch with my family in an apartment building on the fifth floor.”
The meal had been part of his family’s Saturday routine since arriving in Nepal. Then the earthquake hit.
“With a slight movement and the power going out we all huddled into a doorway. It was very scary and dangerous because of the length of time we spent in that doorway trying to keep our balance and waiting for the swaying movements to go away …
“The [big moment of fear] was when the big aftershock came the next day and we saw buildings swaying back and forth from the top shooting out dust. That sight combined with the ground again moving beneath scared us for another time. After this moment, there were immediate reports that another earthquake/aftershock was coming expecting to be bigger than the first two.”
The aftershock measured as a magnitude-6.7 earthquake. By that time, the death toll had topped 3,000.
“The anticipation of the third one created the most fear,” Stefanowski remembers`. “However that evening it never came and we were quite relieved. Outside many people were staying in tents with some worrying about food, water, gas to cook food, and when to return back home with a sense of normalcy.”
Stefanowski was on Facebook as soon as possible, spending days trying to find out if his players were OK. Not all are accounted for. Soon he was helping out on a practical level, distributing food to those in need.
“By going out to remote villages, it was touching to be able to give the locals hope by giving them relief materials.”
Back in 2011, when a magnitude-9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated Japan, soccer played a part in the nation getting back on its feet. Professional players collected money, teams played games to raise funds, fans worked quickly to help repair damaged stadiums so the league could restart as quickly as possible. Nepal, however, is one of the poorest nations in the world. The love for the game is real, but it will be some time before games take place at all.
“Nepal’s passion for football is tremendous,” Stefanowski explains. “The infrastructure is not at a high standard, but that has not stopped the people of Nepal from coming out to support their national team and football with great desire. Deep inside there is a great tradition of football in their hearts.
“It has put football completely on hold, and the emphasis has been on rebuilding. Many footballers as well as football organizations have gotten together to either help their families rebuild or to provide relief for those in need. Football is the last thing on the minds as survival and rebuilding are a priority right now.”
Over a month has passed since the initial earthquake. The aftershocks continue, creating more obstacles for a country trying to resume life as it was.
“The biggest challenges to dealing with the earthquake are distributing relief and psychological ramifications,” Stefanowski says. “There are still aftershocks coming. The unpredictability of the ground moving at any moment creates fear and restlessness especially at night.
“Despite the terror and unfortunate loss of lives, Nepalese people have tremendous fighting spirit and will rebuild from this. Deep inside there needs to be hope getting through this tough time and internationally, resources need to keep coming in to give people the tools of hope as well.”
The national league has been put on hold, and the national team has also been out of action. There will be little opportunity for Stefanowski’s team improve Nepal’s 181 FIFA ranking for quite some time.
“It is tough to say when football will return, but the future of Nepali football lies in the strength of its league and the talented youth. The young players need to be given valuable experience at the international level through national team competitions or by playing in a league abroad. For those players staying in Nepal to play, they will need to play in a league that runs on a yearly basis as opposed to three to four months. For the veteran players their experience becomes very valuable by either continuing to play for the national team at a high level or by sharing their football knowledge to mold future stars.
“With the tragic events, hope needs to prevail, and inspiration needs to drive Nepali footballers towards glory to unite a country currently shaken up.”