Bhutan pulled it off! The tiny landlocked Himalayan nation advanced to the second round of World Cup qualifying—where they could be placed into a pool with Asian heavyweights like Iran, Japan, or South Korea—by knocking off Sri Lanka 2-1 yesterday, winning the two-legged tie 3-1 on aggregate. The next time FIFA releases world rankings, there is no way little Bhutan will be dead last.
The match took place at Changlimithang Stadium in Thimphu, Bhutan's largest city. Located 9,000 feet up in the mountains, it's a stunning venue, and was packed to the gills (and then some) with excited Bhutanese:
I could give you a recap of the 2-1 win, but it's better to hear from somebody who actually attended. Deadspin reader Michael is an American expatriate who lives in Bhutan, and attended the game with his daughter. He passed along the following (lightly edited and condensed) recap:
"Altitude is the twelfth man." Seattle has nothing on Thimphu when it comes to the 'twelfth man.' Even the Sri Lankan manager had conceded that his side were winded during their practices in the days leading up to the match. We beat them at sea level, so the reasoning went; they don't stand a chance at 8000-plus feet.
Most of the schools in Thimphu (population: approximately 100,000) let their students out to watch the game. My daughter's school was one of the few exceptions, so by the time I picked her up at 3:00 (an hour before the game), Changlimithang was already packed. We drove — packed like sardines (not available in Thimphu) with a handful of other expat families — to the downtown stadium. Even from blocks away, we knew we'd missed our shot... Hundreds of people were pressed against the closed doors of the stadium, complaining to anyone who would listen that, even though the venue listed a 30,000-person capacity, everybody knows that it could hold double that.
That's fine — we thought. It's a small town. We know people. We'll make some calls. Unfortunately, thirty thousand people packed into a tiny coliseum, all texting and Facebooking and phoning, had overtaxed the network. The automated voice on the other end (who I believe is the same young woman who does the stadium public address) informed us that most of our calls could not be completed.
Further problem: it's a very small town. Everyone knows everyone. If we know people that can get us into the stadium, everyone knows people that can get them into the stadium. We walked around the stadium, looking for an alternate ingress. Along the way, we noted that all of the good lines-of-sight — the Bhutan Olympic Committee office, the low fence between the children's soccer field and the main stadium — had long been claimed by well-stocked, better-prepared fans who had clearly staked out these spots hours in advance.
(I have no shame: At one point, I put my seven-year-old daughter on my shoulders and told her, "Look sad." I then said things to the cop at the gate like, "Come on... You've got kids, right? Look at her...)
Fifteen minutes before the game began he made it in (he didn't say how), and was asked by the American next to him "'I wonder if they're going to do 'the wave.'"
They did. Over. And over. And over. Clumsily at first, but by game-time, they had it down pat. Several chants — in Dzongkha and English — competed for primacy among the crowd. They one that won out — "BhuTAAAAAAAN, Bhutan" — made up for its lack of originality for its exceptional chantability.
The fans certainly did have it down pat, making the wave look fun and cool for perhaps the first time since it was invented:
Bhutan went up 1-0 in the fifth minutes on a goal by Chencho Gyeltshen, the only professional on the Bhutanese team (he plays in Thailand), and who is nicknamed "The Ronaldo of Bhutan." But Sri Lanka pulled one back before halftime, meaning another Sri Lankan goal would tie the series on goals 2-2, but see Bhutan lose out on the away goals rule. It set up a nervy second half for fans of both teams.
The second half was all Bhutan. Apart from a scary cross from the left side midway through, Sri Lanka never seemed to be able to put it together. Admittedly, the conventional wisdom about altitude was proven wrong — the Lankan side was still able to outrun and out jump the Bhutanese defenders even into stoppage time — but whenever Sri Lanka got a break, the Bhutanese defensive formation always seemed to have the right man in the right place at the right time.
Bhutan found the back of the net a couple of times — both called back for offsides — and had several other near-misses. Each time, the crowd rose to its feet and, as the local Facebook and Twitter feeds say, "the Dragon roared." But as we crossed the 80th minute, the fans around me — Bhutanese and expat — were tapping me on the shoulder with increasing frequency, asking to see my stopwatch. We were playing for a draw.
It was about this time that everybody noticed "The Ronaldo of Bhutan" Gyeltshen was sitting on the pitch stretching his calves, and later on everybody would learn he was battling the same flu that Michael says has been ripping through Thimphu the past two months.
When it happened, it seemed like nothing unusual. I had just looked down at my phone and announced to the fans around me "less than a minute left, plus stoppage." At midfield, the Sri Lankan defender had — for the dozenth time in the game — misplayed the ball, and Bhutan had yet another shot at goal. The crowd roared, but not quite as enthusiastically as it had the previous six times we had seen this happened.
This time, it happened. Chencho Gyeltshen — whom none of us remember getting up from the ground, had the ball, and punched it in from the left side (our near side). There was — if memory serves — a couple-second delay in reaction, as the crowd waited for the referee to once again call it back. But there was Team Bhutan, piling on top of each other at the top of the box, celebrating. And all eyes were on the referee — for the first time in 84 minutes, he made no reaction other than to jog to the center of the pitch. The crowd erupted — we all erupted. (My wife, who was watching the game at home with our toddler son, says, "The country erupted. Even if I wasn't watching it on TV, I could have told you what happened — it was echoing all over the valley.")
It doesn't look like much—the terrible GIF quality doesn't help—but here is that glorious goal:
Bhutan is a football nation. Unlike the rest of South Asia, there's not a cricket culture to speak of. Chelsea and Man U. and Man City — and, to a lesser extent, Arsenal and Barcelona — car stickers are ubiquitous. We dissect Bundesliga and Premier League matches — available here because of the recent introduction of cable television and the Internet — with our morning tea. They get that this is not a run to a World Cup title. But for the moment, the Yellow Dragons are undefeated — 2 and 0 all time — and we allow ourselves the self-aggrandizing question, "How would Germany fare at 8,000 feet?"
Here was the view Michael had from his seats:
This will likely be the high point of Bhutan's World Cup qualifying campaign. The second round is much more unforgiving than the first, and even the worst team they'll play will be better than Sri Lanka. But right now Bhutan, at 2-0 all-time, is the only nation to have never lost a World Cup qualifying match. They have played the games on their schedule and won them both.
And who knows what could happen? As the announcer shouted when Bhutan scored their second, "It might be still early to say so, but Bhutan is on the road to Russia!"