The FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking provides constant intrigue through the sometimes unexpected ups and downs of teams from every corner of the globe. But while unfamiliar sides occasionally steal the show by springing surprises, few can match Bhutan who bounced off the bottom to soar a massive 46 places to 163 up the world pecking order this month on the back of their history-making victories in Asia's first round of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
Their results are all the more impressive considering that the landlocked Himalayan kingdom, with a population of over half a million, had spent recent years languishing at the lowest reaches of the global ladder. They began being ranking 201 when they became affiliated to FIFA in 2000 and it took them four years to gradually climb 14 rungs to 187. The following years saw the team, nicknamed Land of the Thunder Dragon, take a downward spiral slipping to 209th and bottom place in March.
Understandably, neutrals can be forgiven for ignoring the Bhutanese when the team began their first-ever FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign against Sri Lanka, a team 35 places above them. As a matter of fact, even their own supporters casted doubts over their prospects against the South Asian islanders against whom they had never won.
With not a single match played in over 18 months - their last international appearance came in a 5-2 loss to the same rivals Sri Lanka at the 2013 AFC Challenge Cup - Bhutan, under Chokey Nima, travelled to Colombo as an unfancied side. At the disposal of the former Bhutanese international was arguably the youngest side of this campaign, featuring as many as 13 U-23 players including teenager strikers Tshering Dorji and Chencho Gyeltshen.
Inexperienced though they may be, Nima's young charges showed no stage fright in the nation’s maiden FIFA World Cup qualifying match. Having kept the aggressive hosts at bay for an entire 84 minutes, while 19-year-old Dorji netted the winner as the visitors opened with a surprise triumph.
The historic occasion came five days later on 17 March, when Bhutan entertained Sri Lanka knowing a draw would be enough to see them through to the next stage. Playing in front of their own supporters at the Changlimithang Stadium, Thimphu, the home side made a dream start when Gyeltshen opened the scoring for the hosts inside five minutes. Sri Lanka drew level through Mohamed Zarwan ten minutes from the break to put the match on a knife's edge, but Gyeltshen, nicknamed Bhutan's CR7, eased their worries by scoring the match-winner with a last-minute strike. The result, coupled with the opening victory, saw Bhutan progress at the expense of their strongly-favoured opponents as they produced the first round's biggest surprise.
"It came as a dream come true for me," the Bhutanese two-goal hero told FIFA.com in a recent interview. "But there is yet another dream to fulfil. We are good as a team but still there’s room for improvement. More than half of the squad played their first international match (in the World Cup qualifier). The youngest player we have in our squad is 18-years-old. Our success should be attributed to both players and the coaches who have worked hard. And we owe thanks to our people for their love and support."
Bhutan have been rewarded with a place in the second round but the draw looks far from kind as they are pitted against China PR, Qatar, Maldives and Hong Kong. Despite these hard assignments, Gyeltshen maintains his optimism of seeking a further breakthrough. "We are aware that all these opponents are stronger than us," he said. "But we will train harder as we aim to play well as a team to mount a tough challenge against them. We won't give up without a fight."
Boost for development
The qualifying achievement proved a timely boost as the nation aims for further football development. "The success of Bhutan football is the result of our concentrated efforts and plans in developing all aspects of the game despite resource constraints," said President of the Bhutan Football Federation (BFF), Ugen Tsechup Dorji, during a recent FIFA Financial Workshop for South and Central Asian football associations. "We have to enlarge the base of football to meet future expectations and challenges that will require significant investment and resources. We will set up strategies in the coming months to attract sponsorship and funding from commercial partners and international organisations."
As the BFF President pointed out, FIFA has provided consistent help with five Goal projects and six Technical and PERFORMANCE activities implemented since 2001. As a result, BFF headquarters, a technical centre as well as artificial turf pitches and mini pitches have been constructed. “The support and expertise of FIFA and the AFC are fundamental at all levels, including grassroots, women’s football and the creation of top-class infrastructure," he added.