A Moment Atop the World for Bhutan’s Last-Ranked Team
C OLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Nikola Kavazovic sat alone in the hot and sticky interior of Sugathadasa Stadium this week, waiting for someone to talk to.
\A rare interview with a local reporter had been arranged with Kavazovic, the 39-yearold Serbian coach of Sri Lanka’s national soccer team, but the interviewer had not arrived. Soccer attracts a fraction of the interest of cricket here, so any opportunity to drum up interest is worth pursuing. As Kavazovic stewed in the stadium lobby, his team stood on the field in the unforgiving midafternoon sunshine, waiting for its training session to begin.
“I was prepared that we would not have any support,” he said. “Unfortunately, I was right.”
Sri Lanka was about to take the first steps on the long road to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. As one of the 12 lowest-ranked teams in Asia, it had been drawn into one of the first games of the 2018 qualification cycle, which began Thursday — 242 days after Germany lifted the 2014 trophy in Brazil.
Sri Lanka, an island nation of about 20 million people southeast of India, was the secondhighest-ranked of the 12 teams, and it was scheduled to play Bhutan, a long-isolated constitutional monarchy in the Himalayas that was ranked 209th — dead last — by FIFA, soccer’s global governing body. While it was proving difficult to drum up local interest in the game, the match offered a rare chance for both squads.
National teams on the periphery of the world game can go more than a year without a game, but reaching the group stage of Asian qualification would mean playing eight guaranteed matches, against better teams like Iran and Australia and Japan, with players like Tim Cahill and Keisuke Honda.
Kavazovic, eager for the chance to test his team, reveled in the opportunity. “We can make our dream come true,” he said.
Shanmugarajah Sanjeev, a striker, said: “All countries dream of the World Cup.” He added, “We are planning a 4-0 score.”
Sri Lanka’s captain, Edirisuriya Sanjeewa, was equally confident. “I can’t predict the score,” he said, “but we are going for the kill.”
Their opponent, Bhu- tan, arrived in Colombo at 2 in the morning two days before the match. Even in an era in which matches from almost every league can be streamed live online, almost no one in Sri Lanka — or anywhere else — knew anything about Bhutan’s players.
Bhutan was largely isolated from the rest of world until the late 1990s, when television, which had been banned, was legalized. Although Bhutan’s national sport is archery, soccer was still widely played, brought back by students who had studied in India.
“During that age we didn’t have any TV and we got the VHS cassettes of World Cup and European Cup matches,” said Chokey Nima, the 45-year-old coach of Bhutan. “Now we have it live. It’s a different world.”
Nima played for the Bhutan national team for 12 years and was part of the team that lost, 20-0, to Kuwait in an Asian Cup qualifier in 2000, a world-record defeat at the time.
“That was the moment we can never forget,” he said. “We conceded four penalties and two red cards. Spending 90 minutes on the pitch was tough. We were not aware of tactics.”
The introduction of television opened the country to a host of outside influences, including soccer leagues beamed in via satellite. The younger players on the current team do not remember a time before TV.
“The first match I remember was France 1998, so my favorite player was Zinedine Zidane,” said Karma Shedrup Tshering, Bhutan’s 24-year-old captain. “Television was a great influence for me. Television really helped me to play the way I do now.”
The players had been together for a month, training at a camp in Thailand to acclimate to the heat they expected to encounter in Colombo. After seeing steep improvement from his team, Nima believed Bhutan had more than enough potential to reach the second round. Certainly more than its No. 209 ranking suggested.
“The nation will be proud,” he said. “We are two-zero-nine. But that doesn’t mean we are the worst country playing football.”
On Thursday, Bhutan’s team received a police escort to Sugathadasa Stadium. The players sat in nervous silence as they sliced through Colombo’s perpetually gridlocked traffic before arriving at the empty stadium.
Tshering Dorji, left, with his Bhutan teammates after scoring the lone goal in a 1-0 win over Sri Lanka.