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
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.