Bhutan: Formerly the worst football team in the world
At the start of 2015, Bhutan were officially ranked the worst football team in the world. But in the spring the small Himalayan mountain nation shocked the world when it won a World Cup qualifying match against Sri Lanka. Now they have high hopes.
Changlimithang football stadium is more like a palace than a sports ground. It was built in 1974 for the coronation of Bhutan’s fourth king and the pitch is built on a famous battle ground.
The stadium was full for the final match to see who would win Bhutan’s tiny football league, which consists of six teams.
Among the spectators who saw Terton FC beat Druk Pol two-nil was Ugen Tshechup, president of Bhutan’s football federation, and one of the men responsible for bringing football to Bhutan. He was part of a generation of well-to-do Bhutanese who were sent away to boarding school in India, where he developed a passion for the sport.
“Ever since I was small I used to play for the school team and after that when I was at university I used to play for my college team and when I came back I got involved,” says Tshechup. “Prior to democracy we always had ministers who would take up the post of the president of the football federation but after democracy I got encouraged, stood for elections, and I won.”
What characterises football in Bhutan is the tenacious attitude of the players. It’s something he first noticed among his Bhutanese friends when he was at school in India.
“We never gave up - we could be down 2-0, 3-0, 4-0, but we kept running and chasing, and this is what I’ve asked my team to do.”
Unfortunately for Tshechup, his national squad were earlier this year named the worst football team in the world - but this didn’t faze him. Up until very recently he didn’t have ambitions for his team to play inter- national games. There simply wasn’t any money to send the national team abroad. The little money he had was spent building football pitches and funding a youth programme. It was only when Fifa offered to fund their entry into the World Cup that he decided to take a chance. And to his surprise Bhutan won its very first qualifying match. It literally knocked him off his feet.
“I was sitting up in the pavilion and I jumped, not realising how high up I was,” he says. “Sometimes it brings the child out in you. When you see your team score a goal it does send chills down your spine, and at that very moment you suddenly feel, ‘What if?’ But then after 10, 15 minutes reality sinks in and says, ‘OK, the hard road to the next leg is going to start.’”
Tshechup’s very realistic about Bhutan’s chances and he says he’s not going to focus all his attention on the national team. There’s still so much to do to at home if football is to be a successful sport in Bhutan.
“Winning inspires people. Winning creates heroes and stars and encourages you to play - but at the same time when they go out and find that they can’t get a football, they don’t have a proper ground to play on, the proper coaches are not there to teach them the proper techniques, then it would not fulfil the obligations and the vision we have for football in Bhutan.”
Good coaches are expensive, and the Bhutan football federation cannot afford one - but coaches have been coming to Bhutan through the assistance of Japan’s football federation. “Sometimes we have had very good ones, sometimes not so good ones, but this time we feel that the coach is very experienced, he understands how the people here think, so hopefully he will be able to deliver success,” says Tshechup.
Up in the top row of the stadium Coach Tsukitate Norio is watching the league game. Three of the players on the pitch are in the national team which he is responsible for - and he’s not looking impressed.
“Not enough tactics, not enough technique, look - no running! That’s why I’m shouting in the training: ‘Why are you walking?’”
But he has no time to talk to the squad after the league match. “I’m tired, I have to rest - I want to drink beer,” he jokes.
The next day coach Tsukitate is in a more serious frame of mind. It’s back to business and the players are working hard. They are all amateur footballers - many are students or recently graduated and working.
The team captain, Kar- ma Tshedup, is an airline pilot for Bhutan’s national airline, Druk air.
“People always ask me how I get time to train but I always ask for Mondays and Fridays off so I can train with the national team,” says Tshedup. “We don’t have a very professional mentality, but due to the win against Sri Lanka there are a lot of people coming to watch and support football so in that way what we are trying to do is to make football a profession in Bhutan as well.”
As a child, Tshedup dreamt of being a footballer - failing that, he wanted to be a pilot. “In a way I’m fulfilling both my dreams,” he says.
Everybody hopes the team will win more matches in a qualifying group that also contains Qatar, China, the Maldives and Hong Kong. But they are realistic, and with reason - in their next two games they lost 7:0 away to Hong Kong and 6:0 at home to China.
“Even though Hong Kong is ranked lower than us, it’s still a better team,” said Tshedup before the game. He warned that his players had their work cut out and the coach should be on his mettle.
“He has to at least show us that the team is better than Sri Lanka, that he’s introduced some of his techniques and hopefully it will translate into our boys playing well.”
Meanwhile, Tshedup has given the team a pep-talk of his own. “You’re going in as an underdog, probably you’ll have a lot of goals scored against you - don’t give up. Keep your heart out on the pitch - if you do that, we’re going to be very proud of you and for us you’ll come back heroes.”