O’Boyle: Cinderella has nothing on Bhutan
Daniel O'Boyle | Friday, March 27, 2015
Earlier this month, one of the greatest events in all of sports began, and a huge underdog pulled off an unlikely upset to begin what they hope will be a great Cinderella story. They may not have any hopes of going all the way, but they’ve already made some great memories.
I’m not talking about March Madness, or about basketball at all: I’m talking about the 2018 FIFA World Cup and the Bhutan national soccer team.
Maybe you’re confused: shouldn’t the 2018 World Cup be happening in, well, 2018? They haven’t moved the date of this World Cup too, have they? And what exactly did Bhutan do that’s so impressive? The answers are it’s the early stages of the Asian qualifying section — the first official matches of the World Cup to eventually decide which teams travel to Brazil just over three years from now — and Bhutan beat Sri Lanka, 1-0 away and then 2-1 at home, to qualify for the second round.
Maybe that still doesn’t help, it just looks like a game between two obscure Asian nations with little claim to soccer fame. But Bhutan isn’t just any minnow of international soccer: before it played Sri Lanka, the national team held the title of the worst international soccer team in the world.
I don’t know much about Bhutan. Wikipedia tells me it’s a small state — just a little bigger than Maryland — at the eastern end of the Himalayas. The capital city is Thimphu. The national sport is archery, but the most popular sport is soccer. In 2006, Business Week rated it as the happiest country in Asia, but starting in 2008 it might have gotten a little less happy as the national soccer team lost every game for six years and nine months.
That run saw them fall down the FIFA World Rankings. In December 2012, they fell into a tie for last place, with zero ranking points. On November 15, 2014, San Marino — Europe’s bottom feeders — played out a 0-0 draw with Estonia, dooming Bhutan to last place. Bhutan’s streak included losing 7-0 to Turkmenistan and Pakistan, 8-1 to Afghanistan, and three games against the Sri Lanka team they would later defeat: losing 6-0, 3-0 and 5-2. Before that, Bhutan’s soccer history isn’t much better: they’d never won a World Cup qualifying game before, and in 2000 they lost a game against Kuwait 20-0.
So expectations for Bhutan weren’t high when they were to face Sri Lanka again. The island nation may be better known for cricket, but at 173rd in the world and their dominant head-to-head record, they were a powerhouse compared to Bhutan. To make matters harder for the Bhutanese team, they were without a full time coach, relying instead on former player Chokey Nima after their last coach left the role. Like most South Asian, usually Bhutan brings someone in from a country with a stronger soccer set-up, like Sri Lanka’s German coach, but Nima was able to call on the national pride and do what three coaches before him couldn’t: win a game.
But win they did, twice. A late goal in the first game was enough to ensure victory in Sri Lanka, and in front of a sell-out crowd at Thimphu, with the second game at 1-1, Chencho Gyeltshen scored his second goal of the game in the last minute to seal the victory.
Making it all the way to the World Cup still looks outlandish for the Bhutan national team and its fans. They’d have to make it through two group stages against much tougher opposition than anyone they’ve faced in their history. But just making it this far is an achievement: Bhutan will be drawn in a group with at least one of Asia’s top teams — perhaps Tim Cahill’s Australia, or Shinji Kagawa’s Japan. It may not be a real glamour game like Brazil, Germany or Argentina, but for Bhutan, it’s something their players will have dreamed of.
So if you’ve liked watching teams pull off unlikely upsets this March, Bhutan might be a team to watch, just in case their Cinderella run has another surprise. Or maybe you should root for Anguila, who take over the reins as the world’s worst international soccer team.