Bhutan, Bhutan – foot­ball chanted like a prayer as World Cup suc­cess grips na­tion

Hi­malayan King­dom dreams of Rus­sia 2018 af­ter team bot­tom of Fifa’s world rank­ings send fans wild with his­toric home victory over Sri­Lanka

Bhutan Times - - Home - Nam­gay Zam in Thim­phu

One of the most im­por­tant dates in Bhutan’s his­tory is now 17 March and for a never be­fore con­ceived rea­son: foot­ball. Only the coun­try’s beloved monar­chy now have a sim­i­lar hold on the tiny Hi­malayan na­tion’s emo­tions.

The Changlim­ithang Sta­dium here in Thim­phu was built for at least 25,000 but came close to burst­ing for the sec­ond leg of the 2018 World Cup qual­i­fier be­tween Bhutan (pop: 750,000) and Sri Lanka (pop: 20.5m).

The gov­ern­ment had de­clared a half-day hol­i­day for state em­ploy­ees and stu­dents; those who fell into nei­ther cat­e­gory de­clared their own hol­i­day and it felt like all groups were in the ground.

The gates opened four hours be­fore the kick-off and a sea of or­ange­and-yel­low shirts and flags gath­ered. White dragons danced on cheeks and bal­loons floated freely.

The day was also no­table for the de­but of Bhutan’s “wave­mas­ters” – a jour­nal­ist and a den­tist. They choreographed the coun­try’s first Mex­i­can wave, ini­tially with some hic­cups, and later a lit­tle too suc­cess­fully. Be­fore the match be­gan, the sta­dium had com­pleted more than 10 waves.

There was drum­ming and the clang­ing of cym­bals be­gan as the play­ers warmed up. Chants of “Bhutan, Bhutan” re­sounded and the sta­dium throbbed like one gi­ant yel­low and or­ange heart.

The vis­it­ing play­ers re­ceived a warm wel­come, mainly due to a huge so­cial me­dia cam­paign to be “nice” to the vis­i­tors from Bhutanese study­ing in Sri Lanka.

The na­tional an­them is a big deal in Bhutan, never more so than on a day when na­tion­al­is­tic fer­vour reached fever pitch. Bhutanese fans waited ea­gerly, ex­pand- ing their chests with pride, but when the an­them played it was to a tune no one recog­nised – an epic fail­ure on the part of the or­gan­is­ers.

The first goal came ear­lier than ex­pected but many Bhutanese were al­ready tear­ful. Two dis­al­lowed goals, one for each team, raised the in­ten­sity be­fore a sec­ond Bhutan goal in the fi­nal min­utes drove the crowd wild.

Sri Lanka fell to their knees in de­feat. Bhutan’s play­ers also col­lapsed, over­come with re­lief, and per­haps a smidgin of dis­be­lief. Bhutan had done it! The team at the bot­tom of Fifa’s world rank­ings (209) were through to the next round 2-1 on the day and 3-1 on ag­gre­gate.

Strangers ex­changed hugs and the danc­ing dragons lost all sense of pro­pri­ety. Play­ers who had been anony­mous just a few days ago were sud­denly he­roes.

Pro­fes­sional foot­ball is still a pipe dream in Bhutan. The na­tional squad have only one pro­fes­sional player, Chen­cho Gyelt­shen, who plays in Thai­land and scored both goals against Sri Lanka. The cap­tain, Karma She­drup, is a pi­lot who plays foot­ball in his spare time. The rest are stu­dents. Foot­ball is an ex­pen­sive hobby in Bhutan and no one plays for more than love of the game.

The Bhutan team’s Face­book page jumped from a few hun­dred likes to more than 9,000 over three to four days and the game has dom­i­nated on- and off­line dis­cus­sions since. They now take their place in the group qual­i­fy­ing stage, in­volv­ing 40 Asian teams.

“Foot­ball” is be­ing chanted like a prayer – one that is cir­cu­lat­ing the king­dom with the fury of a thou­sand prayer wheels.

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