When deadly earthquakes hit Nepal in April, the country’s football players were among those leading the rescue efforts. Mehr Shadaab explores how they are looking to rise from the rubble with a friendly against India, their first match since the tremors.
Ju Manu Rai stepped on the freshly-trimmed grass of the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune for a training session. He rolled the ball and unleashed a powerful shot that whizzed through the moist air and smacked off the crossbar with a thud. The striker turned towards his team-mates, who were still warming up, signalled a thumbs up and let out a wide smile.
Nepal’s friendly against India on Monday will be their first international match since the deadly earthquakes, which claimed thousands of lives, hit the Himalayan Kingdom in April. And after spending months as part of the subsequent rescue operations, Rai is now back to doing what he loves most.
The last time he stepped on a football field – also against India – was nearly five months ago, the return leg of a 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup joint first round qualifier. In front of the packed terraces of the Dasarath Stadium in Kathmandu, Nepal put on quite a show, dominating their neighbours from the first whistle. Unfortunately, it was not quite enough to see them through.
Given the nature of the qualifying process, the result meant Nepal would not be able to play any competitive football for the next four years. On April 25, Rai was to meet Nepal captain Sagar Thapa and then coach Jack Stefanowski to chart a way forward, to ensure development of the domestic game continued despite the setback.
Then, the earth shook.
Suddenly, football seemed meaningless. The Dasarath Stadium was ‘severely damaged’, a senior All Nepal Football Association (ANFA) was among the dead and the whereabouts of several players was unknown. Stefanowski, Nepal’s Polish-American coach, would track down each of the players himself, ensuring they were safe.
"None of the players suffered any physical injuries, but mentally they are scarred like any other person. The earthquake destroyed everything we had."
“None of the players suffered any physical injuries, but mentally they are scarred like any other person. The earthquake has destroyed everything we had. The only international stadium we had is severely damaged. Not just football, all the sporting infrastructure is damaged,” ANFA’s media officer Ayush Khadka says.
Dasarath Stadium, Nepal’s only international venue, located in Kathmandu, is in ruins. It became a makeshift refuge for displaced survivors of the quake. The ANFA lost its key administrator, acting president Lalit Krishna Shrestha killed after he was electrocuted while relocating to a safer place after his house in Patan – one of the most-affected regions – was reduced to rubble.
“The passing away of Mr Shrestha was a big setback for us. He was one of the most respected administrators in the country and had been involved in football for decades,” Khadka says.
Football, as one would imagine, was the furthest thing on anyone’s minds. The domestic league has been suspended for the foreseeable future and the players, most belonging to Nepal Army and Police, immersed themselves in rescue operations.
Rai, a policeman himself, travelled to remote areas which were completely cut-off after the earthquake. He wasn’t the only one. Nepal captain Sagar Thapa, Rabin Shrestha and Ritesh Thapa were among several players who were involved in relief work for months after the tremors.
“The boys had their family and houses to look after as well. But for several weeks after the quakes, they were in remote areas, trying to establish connectivity and providing basic amenities to the locals,” explains Khadka.
Even Stefanowski was involved in the time he was in Nepal.
“They can clearly see that I’m an expat. It was psychologically uplifting for them to be able to go and be able to see someone from the outside. They’re good, honest and happy people. Football is big. Even though the infrastructure is not the greatest, the passion for football is unbelievable,” Stefanowski, replaced by Belgian Patrick Aussems earlier this week, was recently quoted as saying by the Washington Post.
India coach Stephen Constantine understands the emotion and passion for the game in Nepal too well. National team coach from 1999 to 2001, Constantine was empathetic towards his former team, but never doubted that they would fight back.
"No one knows more about their spirit than me,” Constantine said. “I am very happy that they have shown their fighting spirit once again and coming back to play international football."
FIFA and the AFC have been at the forefront of getting football life back to normality in Nepal. They have undertaken infrastructure projects but help has been pouring in from other quarters too. Football leagues and players across the globe have done their bit to raise funds.
Spanish club Valencia sported jerseys with names in Nepali, while Cristiano Ronaldo sent a fan in Kathmandu a signed shirt on Friday. Kolkata hosted a charity match to raise funds, as did a number of Asian leagues. FIFA too was quick to send a ‘thank you’ letter to the AIFF when it was announced that India would host 184th-ranked Nepal for a friendly.
India host Iran on September 8 in a World Cup qualifier and Nepal are a makeshift friendly opponent, but they couldn’t care less. Immediately after receiving the invite, the players gathered at ANFA’s training centre in Kathmandu for a month-long camp as the process of trying to rebuild the football set-up in the country continued.
“It’s an artificial surface, the only one in the country at the moment,” Khadka says. “The government has planned to reconstruct Dasarath Stadium but it will take a lot of time because there are a lot of important things like school, hospitals that need attention before we think about sports stadiums. The ANFA is building a 15,000-capacity stadium in Kathmandu. We will get a little help from FIFA for that project.”
The ANFA and Nepal players are hoping the friendly will be the beginning of getting football back on track in the country and Khadka is confident it will happen.
“The players have a feeling to rise again. They all are very strong mentally. They have the urge to do something and do it better and hopefully, this friendly will be a starting point to achieving that."
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho suffered only his second Premier League defeat at Stamford Bridge as Crystal Palace clinched a shock 2-1 win over the spluttering champions on Saturday.
In Mourinho’s 100th @premierleague home game in charge of Chelsea he has suffered his 2nd defeat. Well played Crystal Palace.
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) August 29, 2015
It was the latest setback for Mourinho’s side, winners only once in their first four matches and already languishing eight points behind leaders Manchester City.
Just seconds after clearing a Gary Cahill header off the line, Mali forward Bakary Sako struck at the other end, sweeping high into the net from Yannick Bolasie’s cross to give Palace a 65th minute lead.
Colombia’s Radamel Falcao looked to have rescued a point for Chelsea when the on-loan Monaco striker headed in a Pedro Rodriguez cross for his first goal for the Blues in the 79th minute.
However, parity was short-lived as defender Joel Ward headed home from Sako’s cross in the 81st minute to give second placed Palace their first win at the Bridge since 1982.
Manchester City 2 Watford 0; £49m Raheem Sterling’s first goal, and a crowd of 53,000, filling the new top tier. All looks formidable. #mcfc
— David Conn (@david_conn) August 29, 2015
At Eastlands, Raheem Sterling’s first goal for Manchster City since his big money move in pre-season from Liverpool broke Watford’s stubborn resistance in the 47th minute as the Sky Blues ran out 2-0 winners.
Fernandinho bagged City’s second goal in the 56th minute, the Brazilian lashing home after a one-two with David Silva to seal a club record 10th successive league win dating back to last season.
Liverpool were beaten for the first time this season as West Ham’s 3-0 victory gave the east Londoners their first league triumph at Anfield since 1963.
In the third minute, Martin Skrtel’s poor headed clearance fell at the feet of Aaron Cresswell and his low cross was prodded in by Manuel Lanzini, a 22-year-old Argentine midfielder on loan from Al Jazira.
Slaven Bilic’s team doubled their lead in the 29th minute when Mark Noble side-footed home after Reds defender Dejan Lovren carelessly allowed Lanzini to seize possession.
Brazilian playmaker Philippe Coutinho was sent off for his second booking in the 56th minute. Referee Kevin Friend also sent off Noble in the closing stages, but there was still time for Diafra Sakho to complete Liverpool’s embarrassment with a third goal in stoppage-time.
That red card was a shame; disfigured the game. Telling, though, how the #Nufc crowd stayed with team.No longer a club at war with itself.
— George Caulkin (@CaulkinTheTimes) August 29, 2015
Arsenal clinched their second league win of the season as Fabricio Coloccini’s own goal gifted the Gunners a scrappy 1-0 success at 10-man Newcastle.
The turning point came in the 16th minute when referee Andre Marriner sent off Aleksandar Mitrovic after the Newcastle striker needlessly stamped on Francis Coquelin’s ankle as he stretched in a failed attempt to reach a loose ball.
Wenger’s team eventually took advantage of their numerical superiority in the 52nd minute when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s low drive beat goalkeeper Tim Krul via a deflection off Coloccini.
Elsewhere, Leicester left it late to rescue a 1-1 draw at Bournemouth thanks to Jamie Vardy’s 86th minute penalty after the hosts went in front through striker Callum Wilson’s acrobatic overhead kick.
Sunderland remain without a league win despite a battling 2-2 at Aston Villa. West Bromwich Albion won 1-0 at nine-man Stoke, who had Ibrahim Afellay and Charlie Adam sent off, as Venezuela striker Salomon Rondon scored his first goal since his a club record move from Zenit St Petersburg.
Too many chances for Spurs. Which means Everton will have just one and finish it . Howard best player on pitch some great saves
— Lord Sugar (@Lord_Sugar) August 29, 2015
In the late game, Tottenham’s 0-0 draw against Everton at White Hart Lane left the hosts still waiting for their first win of the season. That stalemate also meant there have been only seven wins by home teams in 38 Premier League fixtures this season.
On Sunday Manchester United go to Swansea, while Southampton face Norwich.
Arsenal had to work hard to find a way past 10-man Newcastle as a second-half own goal from Fabricio Coloccini secured a narrow 1-0 Premier League victory on Saturday.
McClaren was getting his glasses out there for Marriner. That #nufc swear-box might be full after this. Still defended well, Krul excellent.
— Henry Winter (@henrywinter) August 29, 2015
Arsene Wenger’s side maintained their 100 per cent away record but struggled to make the most of their 74-minute numerical advantage following an early red card for Newcastle striker Aleksandar Mitrovic at St James’ Park.
They finally broke the deadlock when an angled drive from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain deflected in off Coloccini seven minutes after the restart to secure a second win of the season for the north London club going into the international break.
The hosts remain without a league win so far, leaving them on two points from their opening four games as they succumbed to an eighth consecutive defeat to Wenger’s men.
Even in defeat, Steve McClaren’s team emerged with credit for a dogged rearguard display fuelled by a sense of injustice following what they felt was a harsh sending-off for their Serbian international.
In only his second Premier League start since a €19 million move from Belgian side Anderlecht, Mitrovic was ordered off for a 16th-minute challenge on Arsenal midfielder Francis Coquelin, whose overly-dramatic reaction appeared to play a part in referee Andre Marriner’s decision to brandish a straight red card.
It was a clumsy attempt to win the ball, seemingly worthy of a yellow card. But having been booked on two previous occasions this season shortly after coming on as a substitute, the 20-year-old’s reputation appears to have gone before him in a contest that saw McClaren’s side pick up six other cautions.