Saturday, June 19, 2021
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A Flash In Bhutan

Bhutan Football Federation Logo (via Wikipedia)

Before San Marino took the crown as worst national team in the world, according to FIFA rankings, there was Bhutan- & it would seem a common thread of tardiness in assembling an infrastructure is at least part of the problem…

 

 

A truly national side wasn't assembled until 1982 despite football in the country being recorded as early as 1872, when schoolteachers from India & Europe brought the game with them during colonial rule (Bhutan having agreed treaties with the Indian government). The first game for a nominal Bhutanese national team coming when they were invited to go to India for an Indian Independence Cup tournament- although the majority of its players had been tempted over from the host country with plum jobs in the civil service, the pen-pushing was only for show as football was put first!

 

This was around 1968, & the eventual return of the majority of these players to their own home land would prove the first stumbling block on the slide to the bottom. Somewhat unbelievably, it would take around twenty years from this point for Bhutan to develop its own national league competition- the A Division.

 

A first appearance at the Asian Games in retrospect offers some glimpse of the quality of play. As despite catching up with the majority of the rest of the world, & having an organised league system in effect feeding the national team, they would lose all their matches & finish bottom of an admittedly small group also containing Bangladesh, the Maldives & Nepal.

 

The following year was no better, entering again & losing to Nepal & India. Where 1984 & '85 would prove write- offs, the next few year passed without any competitive football as the Games became bi-annual rather than yearly. In a sense 1987 saw recent history repeating itself, as once again Bhutan were soundly beaten by Bangladesh & Nepal to finish bottom of their group.

 

In perhaps an extreme case of being sore losers, they would then not return until 1999, missing four editions of the tournament! A 7-0 defeat to Nepal was perhaps not the welcome back they would have wanted and beatings all round, even in a dead rubber of a play- off game against Pakistan which they oh so cruelly led through Dinesh Chhetri's strike before two second half efforts, ensured it was all in vain…

 

That proved, at least, to be the first time they had actually led a match in their comparatively short international history. The turn of the millennium would mark another notable first in that they broadened their net & competed in the Asian Cup, meaning they would be up against a whole continent's worth of opposition rather than staying rooted in the south, a move which got them a first true hiding after the by now obligatory loss to Nepal.

 

 

Kuwait were next up & promptly tanked Bhutan 20-0, with seven different outfield players scoring at least once & four penalties conceded thanks to challenges with more of a place on the rugby field according to observers! And while it didn't get much worse it certainly couldn't get any better as Turkmenistan put eight past them, followed by Yemen helping themselves to eleven, and FIFA seeing enough to admit the Bhutan Football Federation as a member & quickly sticking them above only Montserrat in the rankings.

 

If you're wondering how any contest between those two might have played out, wonder no more!

 

For having seen their own team- the Dutch- fail to make it to the 2002 World Cup, ad-men Matthijs De Jongh & Johan Kramer set out to find a definitive answer by inviting the two teams to settle it on the field in Bhutan the same day as the actual World Cup final. What became known as ‘the Other Final’ documentary, rather wonderfully ended in a 4-0 win for the hosts.

 

Alas, this was to be no springboard for an upturn in form where competitive football was concerned! In fact quite the opposite, as amateur coaches couldn't get the best out of mostly equally amateur players, most of those with no job outside the beautiful game struggling on paltry expenses payments. Although they would have their day in the sun during the qualifiers for 2004's Asian Cup, with a 6-0 victory over Guam giving them a record victory of their own.

 

A 0-0 draw with Mongolia was the end of this miniature run of form as Saudi Arabia, Indonesia & Yemen then proved too much & sent Bhutan spiralling on a winless run which would end only with a goalless draw with Brunei in the first ever AFC Challenge Cup three years later.

 

Another lengthy withdrawal meant they would not play at this level for nearly 18 months, only emerging once more from the wilderness to play friendlies with Nepal in March 2011, before qualifiers for the 2012 Challenge Cup. Their only match in all of 2012 was a 5-0 friendly defeat by Thailand. Difficulty sustaining a living from football cost Bhutan the services of Yeshey Dorji, the striker walking away from the national team after one goal in eight games & the withdrawal of expenses payments by the country's FA, though money was still invested at grassroots level.

 

However, this wasn't enough, as then- national coach Kazunori Ohara noted that potential recruits often dropped out of playing after leaving school. Yet, despite the grim outlook, by 2015 the country made its first attempt to reach a World Cup & swept aside Sri Lanka in the 1st round of qualifying, perhaps safe in the knowledge that all players not on national FA scholarships would at last have their financial needs met to be able to take part in what even Sepp Blatter called a historic day. The team made the national news after the second leg, when the country's only professional player, Chencho Gyeltshen, scored twice to clinch a 3-1 aggregate win on a day declared a half- holiday so his countrymen would have chance to bear witness to Bhutan's biggest game to date.

 

Round two of qualifying then ended the party rather abruptly as China, Hong Kong, the Maldives & Qatar awaited in the group phase & promptly took turns to dismantle them. With the honourable exception of a 1-0 defeat to Hong Kong, which pleased Bhutan's FA so much they in effect got a bonus for a close defeat!

 

 

And to close, bringing things up to date, a 5-1 aggregate defeat to Guam (after winning the home leg 1-0) means they'll miss out on the 2022 World Cup, the Dragon Boys once again failing to fire...

 

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