Upon his appointment as Nepal coach at the start of this year, Jack Stefanowski – the mountainous nation's first manager imported from USA – told FIFA.com that he was hoping his new side could make history in September's SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) Championship as hosts.
The Nepalese' best finish came in the inaugural edition 20 years ago, when they edged hosts Pakistan to the third place spot. Therefore, the 37-year-old American entered the competition with his sights fixed on a place in the final.
His new charges came agonisingly close to achieving that goal, storming all the way to the last four only to be edged out by Afghanistan, the tournament's surprise packages who went on to stun India in the final. Despite the disappointment, their undefeated group campaign, including their own sensational 2-1 defeat of India, Stefanowski's home side have soared seven places up the latest edition of the FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking to a 13-month high of 163.
The semi-finalists' performance did, in a sense, see both the coach and the team redeem themselves in the regional competition, having crashed out of the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers earlier this year.
“The semi-final loss was disappointing for all of us," the Poland-born New Yorker said post campaign, "but we put in a lot of effort and sacrifice to get there. I would like to thank the fans for their tremendous support as well as the players for the hard work they put in."
The aforementioned AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers saw Nepal finish behind Palestine and Bangladesh as they missed out on March's final competition in Maldives. Needless to say, the SAFF Championship provided the team with a chance to prove themselves. Playing in front of their home supporters, Stefanowski's outfit got their redemptive campaign off to a good start by defeating Bangladesh 2-0, with striking duo Anil Gurung and Bharat Khawas scoring a goal apiece.
But the home side had a real test in Pakistan, who took an early lead through Hassan Bashir and looked on course to grabbing an unlikely victory. Cheered on by the home crowd, however, Nepal eventually equalised with 15-year-old Bimal Magar – arguably the tournament's youngest player – earning a point with a stoppage-time strike.
They went on to put in their finest performance in the campaign by stunning six-time winners India in the closing group game. Gurung opened the scoring on 70 minutes before Ju Manu Rai doubled the lead. Syed Nabi may have pulled one back in stoppage-time, but the goal proved too little, too late. The result marked Nepal's first-ever triumph in regular time against the neighbouring powerhouses.
"We came out and played well," a jubilant Stefanowski said after the match, "we focused on our game and we won. The victory means a lot to the people. It is not only about three points. It is amazing thinking we can beat a team like India."
The hosts' campaign reached the climax in the semi-finals, with a maiden final place on the line. Nepal got the better of the opening stages but it was Afghanistan that took the lead against the run of play after 11 minutes when Sanjdar Ahmadi tapped in from close range.
After spurning a series of chances, Nepal were awarded a penalty shortly after the restart but Bhola Nath Silwal's effort was saved. The hosts earned another spot-kick in the closing stages, only to see Rohit Chand's feeble strike denied once again as the opponents registered a hard-fought triumph.
While it looked that Nepal had only themselves to blame for the near-miss, the progress they had made under Stefanowski was evident, with the coach sounding optimistic despite the abrupt ending.
"It is going to take time as we have to dig inside and think of what we have done over the last few months. Though, I hope the journey (towards success) can continue," he concluded.