THE LIT­TLE TEAM THAT WON: BHUTAN’S IN­CRED­I­BLE WORLD CUP ADVENTURE

Bhutan Times - - Home - Cour­tesy: Sm­riti Sinha ( VICE Sports )

When Bhutan’s na­tional soc­cer team cap­tain, Kharma She­drup Tsh­er­ing, picked up a lo­cal news­pa­per af­ter land­ing in Colombo, Sri Lanka for a 2018 FIFA World Cup qual­i­fy­ing match, a story men­tion­ing Bhutan caught his eye. He im­me­di­ately glanced through it, stopped at a pas­sage, and read it again. “They are ac­tu­ally say­ing this?” he thought.

Ac­cord­ing to She­drup, one of Sri Lanka’s for­mer cap­tains was quoted in the ar­ti­cle say­ing: “It’s not worth play­ing the world’s low­est ranked team [Bhutan]. Sri Lanka won’t gain any­thing, and it wouldn’t even be real match prac­tice.”

When his team­mates switched on the tele­vi­sion in their ho­tel room, they heard the same thing on the news. The in­sults piled on as they watched Sri Lanka’s play­ers tak­ing a guess on the num­ber of goals Bhutan would con­cede against them.

With zero points, Bhutan was ranked the low­est by FIFA among 209 coun­tries. And this was the first time that a team from the small, land­locked Bud­dhist king­dom had en­tered the World Cup qual­i­fy­ing tour­na­ment.

“Soon, ev­ery­one back home knew. It was all over Face­book that Sri Lanka doesn’t think we are worth play­ing against,” She­drup said on a phone call.

Bhutan didn’t have a sin­gle pro­fes­sional player on the team they sent to Colombo. Most of their play­ers were high school or col­lege stu­dents. The team had met to­gether for the first time only 40 days be­fore their qual­i­fy­ing match against Sri Lanka. At least five play­ers on the team had never played for the na­tional side be­fore— doc­u­men­ta­tion on the rest is spotty. Those who had been capped on the na­tional side be­fore last played an in­ter­na­tional in 2013, when they lost 3-0 to Afghanistan and 8-2 to Mal­dives.

No­body ex­pected the re­sults to be any dif­fer­ent this time.

n the past, a lack of funds has forced Bhutan to with­draw from the World Cup qual­i­fy­ing tour­na­ment. How­ever, with 45 days to go un­til the first qual­i­fy­ing match, they de­cided to en­ter the event. But money still posed a chal­lenge. Help came when the Ja­pan Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion agreed to spon­sor their kit, shoes, and jer­seys. Given the last-minute ar­range­ments, the trash talk from Sri Lanka was ex­pected, but it only helped Bhutan.

“That re­ally mo­ti­vated the team, and brought ev­ery­one to­gether. And the boost came at the right time,” said She­drup. “We wanted to prove that just be­cause we’re the low­est ranked team, it doesn’t mean we can’t play foot­ball.”

On March 12, in the first leg of the qual­i­fy­ing round, She­drup and his team­mates were able to prove that. Bhutan pulled off a huge up­set win, beat­ing Sri Lanka 1-0, with a goal in the 84th minute. It was their first win in seven years, and it put them in main­stream sports news for the first time ever.

Sri Lanka, how­ever, re­mained con­fi­dent of go­ing for­ward in the tour­na­ment. But the sec­ond leg was in Thim­phu, Bhutan, the world’s third high­est el­e­va­tion cap­i­tal city. Within 20 min­utes of the game, Sri Lankan play­ers started to look like they were los­ing their breath. Ac­clima­ti­za­tion to play­ing at a height of 2,320 me­ters was prov­ing to be a ma­jor fac­tor. But Bhutan play­ers were in­cred­i­bly ner­vous, too—the coun­try’s na­tional team had last played an of­fi­cial home game in 2003. How­ever, they had a world of sup­port be­hind them. The coun­try’s gov­ern­ment even de­clared March 17 a na­tional hol­i­day.

In the back­drop of an­cient monas­ter­ies, the Hi­malayas, and stag­ger­ing nat­u­ral beauty, the vi­brant Changlim­ithang Sta­dium made for a mag­nif­i­cent venue, and it was the first time in Bhutan’s his­tory that more than 25,000 peo­ple had gath­ered to­gether at one place. By the time Bhutan won the match 2-1, the crowd had made sev­eral sheep­ish at­tempts (and some good ones) at a wave—an­other first for a coun­try whose na­tional sport is archery.

“I’ll never for­get that day. Think­ing about it still gives me but­ter­flies in my stom­ach,” said She­drup. “You could only see two colors in the crowd— yel­low and or­ange. And the cheer­ing and chant­ing was so loud, we couldn’t hear each other on the field.”

One of the rea­sons no­body ex­pected Bhutan to spring this sur­prise, and ad­vance in the tour­na­ment, was be­cause their growth in soc­cer hasn’t been ex­posed to any­one. Bhutan is so phys­i­cally re­mote that af­ter a 10-hour jour­ney via Bangkok, the Sri Lankan play­ers landed at one of the world’s tini­est and scari­est run­ways in Paro—Bhutan’s only in­ter­na­tional air­port, an hour’s drive from Thim­phu.

As of 2009, only spe­cial air­crafts and eight pi­lots in the world had a li­cense to land in Paro, which is sur­rounded by 4,876-me­ter high moun­tains. One of those pi­lots is She­drup, 25, the na­tional team’s cap­tain. When She­drup was grow­ing up, he loved play­ing soc­cer but he re­al­ized that he couldn’t make a living out of play­ing the sport in Bhutan. Bhutan’s na­tional league has an en­gage­ment time of only about six weeks, the clubs don’t make any money nor do all play­ers sign pay­ing con­tracts.

But things are start­ing to change. The Bhutan Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion had started lay­ing the foun­da­tion for this his­toric victory three years ago. She­drup says that in­stead of us­ing their en­tire re­sources on play­ing two or three in­ter­na­tional matches, the fed­er­a­tion is us­ing it to build and de­velop a youth pro­gram. A lot of the younger play­ers on Bhutan’s cur­rent team came through this pro­gram, and in­ter­est in the sport peaked af­ter the coun­try got its first ar­ti­fi­cial turf field in 2012. Bhutan now has about 5,000 kids play­ing soc­cer in dif­fer­ent age groups, in­clud­ing 2,000 girls.

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