When we think of the World Cup, we think of it as a competition between the best footballing nations in the world. We think of a competition where the cream of world football gets to compete against one another for their country, rather than for their club.
But the World Cup is so much more than that. Far from a competition solely for the elite, it’s one where all nations, big and small, will all get their chance to make it to the 2018 finals in Russia. In fact, this is the first World Cup where every team entitled to enter has done so, though Zimbabwe were subsequently kicked out.
The first qualifying games for Russia 2018 have already been played in Asia, where 12 teams face off in 6 2-legged matches to determine which 6 teams advance to the second qualifying stage, where the majority of Asia’s teams enter. And we may have already seen one of the biggest shocks we’ll get in the competition between now and the World Cup final.
Bhutan is a nation which rarely makes the news. As a small, Himalayan nation, It was pretty much isolated from the world until the ruler of Bhutan, the Targaryen-sounding Dragon King, opened the borders in 1974. Even after that, Bhutan stayed somewhat isolated from the rest of the world; they only got television and the internet in 1999.
Bhutan’s also known for measuring the development and prosperity of their country through gross national happiness; where the physical, emotional, spiritual, social and environmental health of Bhutan’s people and the land they inhabit is deemed more important than material wealth.
One of the things that Bhutan isn’t that well known for is sport. Bhutan’s national sport is archery, but their method of practising archery doesn’t translate well to the way archery is done on an international level, so Bhutan hasn’t really had any notable international sporting success.
Football is popular in Bhutan. One of the reasons that TV was allowed into the country was following the popularity of the 1998 World Cup games which were screened at the Changlimithang stadium in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu.
Bhutan have been playing international football, albeit intermittently, since 1983. They joined FIFA in 2000. They entered qualification for the 2000 Asian Cup, where their slightly cobbled together team played and lost 4 games, conceding 42 goals in the process, including a 20-0 defeat to Kuwait.
That qualification campaign meant that Bhutan were second bottom of the FIFA rankings, with only Montserrat below them. A FIFA-sanctioned game was arranged between Bhutan and Montserrat in Thimphu on the day of the 2002 World Cup final. The game, called ‘the other final’ (check out the excellent documentary of the same name if you can) ended in a 4-0 Bhutan win, which was Bhutan’s first ever win and first ever clean sheet.
Following that, Bhutan had little resembling success until the 2008, South Asian Football Federation Championship, where they got a surprise win over Afghanistan and a draw with Bangladesh, which was enough to see them into the semi-finals, where they lost to India in the last minute of extra-time.
Following that, Bhutan lost the 18 games they played between 2009 and 2014, which meant that Bhutan were FIFA’s bottom-ranked team, as San Marino’s draw with Estonia had left Bhutan as the only team with zero ranking points.
Bhutan received a grant which allowed them to enter the World Cup for the first time. Bhutan’s federation got the money together (one of the way they raise funds is to rent out the national stadium pitch for private games) to pay their players and their preparations began.
As ‘the worst team in the world’, nobody gave Bhutan any kind of chance when they travelled to Colombo to play Sri Lanka, who were ranked 45 places higher.
Nobody except that Bhutan team themselves. Money from the federation had allowed Bhutan to invest in improving coaching and infrastructure, and young players were starting to come through and were getting paid, albeit a pretty meagre salary which means that they have to have jobs.For example, Bhutan’s captain, Karma Shedrup Tshering, is a pilot for the national airline.
The money from the federation had also allowed them to hold a training camp in Thailand so they could acclimatise to the heat and humidity of Sri Lanka. The mood from that camp was positive and Bhutan’s coach believed the team had far more potential than their lowly ranking suggested.
The first leg was played in a mostly empty stadium, with the Sri Lankan people’s attention firmly on the Cricket World Cup currently being played in Australia and New Zealand (Sri Lanka have one of the world’s best cricket teams). Sri Lanka’s captain had openly questioned the merits of playing such a low-ranked team and that provided Bhutan with all the motivation they needed.
Bhutan played some solid defensive football and showed ability to counter-attack in what turned out to be a far more exciting game than most anticipated. Bhutan hit the post and missed an open goal. Sri Lanka hit the bar. Towards the end of the game, with the score still 0-0, Bhutan’s Tshering Dorji scored, which was enough to give Bhutan the shock win in their first ever World Cup game.
Despite that win, it was still believed that Sri Lanka would be too strong for the return leg in Thimphu. Bhutan were counting on a few home advantages though. For a start, Bhutan isn’t easy to get to; Sri Lanka had to take four flights and travel for 24 hours to get there. Also, Thimphu is at extremely high altitude, and it would be cold and windy. Also, unlike in Sri Lanka, the game would be played in front of a vociferous crowd cheering the home team on.
Those advantages turned out to be true. Roared on by 20,000 fans who had been allowed in for free, Bhutan scored early through Chencho Gyeltsen, who by playing for Thai side Buriram United is Bhutan’s only professional player. Sri Lanka’s Zohar Mohamed Zarwan equalised just before half-time, but Gyeltsen scored again to send the crowd into raptures and Bhutan through to the second round of qualifying.
Sri Lanka’s Serbian coach, Nikola Kavazovic was gracious in defeat saying:
“At the end, we met a team that was raised from nowhere,”
“I can say, deep in my heart, I will cheer for Bhutan in the group stage...Look at the crowd. They deserve this. This country deserves it more.”
Bhutan will find out who they play next month when the draw is made, but the second round is 8 groups of five teams, meaning Bhutan have guaranteed themselves 8 games and at least two of those will be against one of Asia’s stronger teams such as Japan, Australia, Iran or South Korea.
As well as that, Bhutan could qualify directly for the 2019 Asian Cup. Even if they finish bottom of their group, Bhutan could end up in the third qualifying round for the 2019 Asian Cup if they are one of the four best bottom-placed teams.
Bhutan weren’t alone in making history during Asia’s first qualifying round. Brunei Darussalam beat Chinese Taipei 0-1 to record their first ever World Cup win following 12 straight defeats, though Taipei ended up winning on aggregate. East Timor, Cambodia and India joined Bhutan and Chinese Taipei in qualifying for the second round, with the last spot going to the winner of Pakistan v Yemen, which was postponed for safety reasons. Yemen leads 3-1 from the first leg