Cristiano Ronaldo has long been an inspiration for young players across the globe. But perhaps even the Portuguese icon is unaware what an impact he has made on a teenager from Bhutan.
When Chencho Gyeltshen and his side entered their maiden FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaign as the world's lowest-ranked side in March, few gave them hope of being more than whipping boys. Indeed, even their own supporters had modest expectations for their opener against Sri Lanka, a side against whom they had never beaten.
Even when the Bhutanese pulled off a shock 1-0 win in the first leg courtesy of Tshering Dorji's late strike, it was seen as just a flash in the pan. But the Land of Thunder Dragons went on to win the return 2-1 at home, with Gyeltshen striking in either half. Bhutan thus progressed in unexpected fashion, while the 19-year-old lived up to his nickname of 'Bhutan's CR7'.
"It was a dream come true," the striking prodigy, donning the same No7 jersey as Cristiano Ronaldo, told FIFA.com. “And there's yet another dream to fulfill. We have proved we are good as a team, but still there's room for improvement."
"Cristiano Ronaldo is my favourite football star. He has inspired all these years. He wasn’t born talented - his hard work and love for football has made him what he is today. For me, 'Bhutan's CR7' means more than just a nickname. It is the biggest compliment I have ever received and I would like to thank everybody for acknowledging me with this name."
*Footballing passion *
Football is not usually associated with Bhutan, with the Himalayan kingdom not affiliated to FIFA until 2000. They have made little impression on the international stage and the national team had been inactive for 18 months leading into the Sri Lanka encounter. While such a humble football image remains for Bhutan, Gyeltshen is quick to explain the progress they have made.
"Football is loved and played by most of the people in Bhutan now," he said. "Even though archery is our national game, football has made an impact of its own and is now gaining more popularity and attention, especially after the qualifying victories against Sri Lanka."
"Back in my village, I had a lot of cousins and friends who played football," Gyeltshen says. "I too started playing along with them at the age of six. I developed my skills by working on my flaws every day. My brother inspired and encouraged me to play football. He always said that I had a unique style of playing football and encouraged me to take up football as a profession."
It didn't take Gyeltshen long to prove his brother right. He was recruited by local giants Yeedzin in 2013 before moving to capital side Thimphu FC at the start of this year. While dazzling local fans through his pace and goal-scoring flair, Gyeltshen's talents didn't go unnoticed beyond as he received a trial offer from Thai champions Buriram United.
"I trained with Buriram for a month this year and they have asked me to come back for a trial in June. I will grasp every opportunity to play in a top-level Asian club. It’s my dream to play in a top-quality club in a high-level league," he said.
*Fresh challenges *
The reward for Bhutan's success is a place in Asia's second qualifying round for Russia 2018, where they are pitted against China PR, Qatar, Hong Kong and Maldives. Awaiting them in the opener is an away fixture in Hong Kong on 11 June before they entertain China - arguably the section's favourites alongside Qatar - five days later.
Gyeltshen, though, remains undeterred facing massive hurdles. "We are a young team and the youngest player is only 18 years old," he said. "More than half of our squad played their first international match (against Sri Lanka). But with our hard work and the support of our people, we pulled off a big surprise. We have played against many Asian teams and we know they are stronger than us. But we are going to train hard and work as a team to provide tough competition. Hard work never goes unrewarded."