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.
In 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.
Since 2012, FIFA has donated almost $3 million to improve the soccer infrastructure in Bhutan, according to Shaji Prabhakaran, the FIFA regional development officer. The most visible aspect of that investment was transforming two grass fields into artificial turf stadiums in Thimphu. They immediately became local attractions as, elsewhere in the country, it's extremely difficult to find a large plot of land for a soccer field.
Apart from being physically remote, Bhutan is also politically isolated, and still untouched by many standards of the modern world. Until as late as the 1960s, Bhutan didn't have a paper currency, hospitals, roads, electricity, and even diplomatic relations with any other country. About 70 percent of Bhutan's 753,000 people still live without electricity. Since 1971, Bhutan started measuring the country's progress through Gross National Happiness, a rare index that it values much more than its GDP.
They want soccer to have the same impact, says national team coach Chokey Nima, they want it to make people happy. "Through football, we can achieve more happiness," Nima said on a phone call.
This win in the World Cup qualifier helped them get there. "The image of football has changed in the country," said Nima. "Everyone's supporting it." The win also turned things around for the Bhutan Football Federation. Bhutan's national team didn't have a commercial kit sponsor, but now negotiations are on to bring one on board. The country's young soccer fans hardly ever got a chance to see the national team play, because Bhutan rarely played home games and their away games were never broadcast live.
In fact, Bhutan has an interesting relationship with television. It was the last country in the world to lift a ban on television, with its ban ending in 1999. "Dear Editor, TV is very bad for our country… it controls our minds… and makes [us] crazy. The enemy is right here with us in our own living room. People behave like the actors, and are now anxious, greedy and discontent," a Guardian story from 2000 quoted a letter to the editor.
Some of the older members on the team grew up without any access to watching soccer, and the only way to watch even World Cup matches was to wait for match recordings to be made available on video cassettes.
But the team's win has made a case for the players to make their television debut, and the federation is negotiating TV rights for the group qualification stage. That would also help Bhutan's 35-year-old King, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, a big-time soccer fan, follow his team. Having studied in the U.S., King Wangchuck was sold on NBA games, but now soccer is a part of his weekly schedule and he makes sure he returns to Thimphu to play a match every week at the Changlimithang stadium. He couldn't make it to see Bhutan's big victory, but that doesn't change his reverential status among his people.
"Actually, we believe it's due to his blessing only that we were able to win," said Nima.
More importantly, Bhutan has managed to get the monkey off the back. It's no longer the worst team in the world.