A Mo­ment Atop the World for Bhutan’s Last-Ranked Team

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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.

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