High altitude lifts Bhutan`s World Cup hopes
T he remote, mountainous kingdom has been flung into a group including powerhouse China and Gulf champions Qatar after defying the odds to reach Asia`s second qualifying round.
Bhutan were rock-bottom in the world rankings before they shocked Sri Lanka to go through. Players include teachers and students, and their captain is an airline pilot.
But national federation president Ugen Tsechup said the high altitude of the capital Thimphu, which sits at almost 8,000 feet (2,600 metres), gave Bhutan a fighting chance.
“The boys are pretty excited,” Tsechup, wearing Bhutan`s distinctive national dress, told AFP at the Asian Football Confederation congress in Bahrain.
“They know exactly where they stand. Yet at least the home games, because of the altitude, we some advantage against teams from Qatar, from Maldives and from Hong Kong, because they are at sea-level.
“With China not so much because they have high altitude areas to train.
“So the boys are pretty excited for the home games, the people are pretty excited, the fans are excited -- the whole country actually is looking forward to the four games which are going to be played at home.”
Reaching this stage is unprecedented for the “Land of the Thunder Dragon” who start in five-team Group D away against Hong Kong on June 11, before hosting China five days later.
Their best opportunity may come in October, when they host Maldives and Hong Kong at Thimphu`s Changlimithang Stadium. They round off the group at home to Qatar in November. Tsechup said the national team`s progress had already had a stark effect on Bhutanese football, with league attendances rocketing and TV rights bringing some muchneeded funding.
“Qualifying for the second leg of the World Cup qualifiers has given an input into the league itself because everybody`s now coming out to watch the games,” he said.
“Before you probably had around 500, 600 spectators. Now you have at least 1,500 to 2,000 coming to watch. So people are getting interested.”
“Along with this exposure, this qualification also brings in a little bit of finances -- the TV rights, which Bhutan has never been exposed to,” he added.
“Even if it`s not much, for Bhutan it`s a huge amount. And it will go a really long way in developing football further in Bhutan.”
Bhutan are testament to the importance of grass-roots football. Since becoming federation chief five years ago, Tsechup said he has not focused on the national team at all.
Instead he concentrated on improving infrastruc- ture and training. Japan`s Norio Tsukitate has taken over coaching duties from Chokey Nima ahead of the upcoming games.
“We were playing grounds that were undulating, with rough patches. If you tried to pass right, it would probably go left. So it didn`t give the confidence to the players to understand their level of skill,” Tsechup said.
The groundwork paid off when the national team, including the “Ronaldo of Bhutan”, Chencho Gyeltshen, was formed in January and after only weeks together beat Sri Lanka over two legs.
Bhutan will not now be taken lightly, especially after their ranking rose from 209th and last to 163 -- above Malaysia and Hong Kong, and one place behind Singapore.
They remain modest but hopeful that there could be more to come from the Buddhist country of just 750,000, better known for its Gross National Happiness Index and archery.
“We`re playing Maldives which is a much better team than Bhutan, we play Hong Kong which is much better and of course Qatar and China, we`re not in their league at all,” Tsechup said.
“But we`re optimistic. We say we never know, if the gods are smiling on us on that particular day who knows what could happen on that ground. We never give up.”