THIMPHU, Bhutan – Even at the press conference the day before, we could sense the merry-go-round beginning to turn here in Thimphu. One coach arrives, another coach leaves …

Brand-new Maldives head coach Ricki Herbert kicked things off on a chipper note, talking about football as a way of building bridges between countries, playing up the fact that both Bhutan and Maldives are tiny countries with very short histories in high-level international football. After a couple of questions, it became clear why he was keeping things general.

Herbert was hired to coach Maldives in early September, replacing Bulgarian Velizar Popov, who had enjoyed great success in the Maldivian club league but lasted fewer than six months with the men’s national team. Herbert had only met his team the week before, and as he admitted, had “only seen them practice once, yesterday, in Calcutta.” A reporter asked him about preparations for the Bhutan match, and Herbert admitted that he’d only seen a bit of Bhutan’s 15 to zero loss to Qatar.

After the Maldivian representatives left the room, Bhutanese head coach Norio Tsukitate and player Passang Tshering addressed the press. On Tsukitate’s entrance, everyone stiffened. The room had the feel of a wake, and not a fun wake, like that of a beloved uncle or a best friend. This was more of a Joyce-ian affair, where no one liked or respected the deceased, but was going through the motions because it was a necessary step towards getting the old man in the ground.

After Norio’s perfunctory opening remarks, a Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) reporter immediately jumped in with the first question: “After we lose [to Maldives] tomorrow, will you resign?” (This same reporter had, to the Maldivian coach, repeatedly invited the coach to describe the Bhutanese team as “dismal.” Herbert wisely crafted his answer in such a way as to avoid the word.)

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It was a fair question. Norio was brought in after the two surprise wins against Sri Lanka to coach Bhutan in the second round of World Cup qualifying. He replaced popular coach and former national team player Chokey Nima, who was seen as responsible for bringing the team to this level. But since Norio’s hiring, Bhutan had lost its first three group matches to China, Hong Kong, and Qatar by a combined score of 28 to zero.

Making matters worse, Norio had for months been in a very public feud with his team manager, Hishey Tshering. Norio blamed the team’s shortcomings on a lack of conditioning and fundamentals, while Hishey blamed it on a complete lack of vision, strategy, or tactics on the head coach’s part. Hishey was quick to point out that Norio belittled the young, amateur players and frequently forced them to play out of position.

Just as importantly, Norio never bothered to cultivate support among the fan base. And in a small country like Bhutan, where everyone knows or is related to someone on the team, that’s fatal. “Unnamed sources” within the team would criticize the coach in the papers or on social media, and Norio would stoically demur, refusing to engage his detractors. His demeanor at press conferences was, as one commentator noted in our last dispatch, positively Belichickian. “You’ll find out tomorrow.” “Don’t ask, that’s a secret.”

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Norio answered the question the only way he could. He expressed that he had no plans to leave, and was focused on the next game. He noted that the decision was, ultimately, in the hands of the Bhutan Football Federation. Lacking his Maldivian counterpart’s finesse, he concluded: “If the Federation decides to sack me, they can sack me.”

It was this phrase, and not the context, that the fans and reporters focused in on. They used it to characterize Norio as ready—even eager—to leave the team, and the quip led to day-long whisperings that Norio was actively sabotaging the team to provoke the Federation into firing him.

Another reporter asked him about strategy and tactics—an innocent enough question, except that this was a long-running complaint about this coach. Norio once again waved off the question, complaining, “If you cannot kick with purpose, you cannot have tactics or strategy!”

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Passang, by far the oldest member of the Bhutanese side (at the ripe old age of 32), focused on the next day’s match. He noted that this was Bhutan’s best—he said “only”—chance at a win in group play. Even though Bhutan would get another shot against Maldives, on the road, in several weeks, he noted “We have played two or three matches at Maldives and have never won.” So tomorrow, hosting Maldives, was a Big Game.

The Maldivian team arrives.


After the press conference, I took the BBS reporter (“dismal” … “Will you resign?”) aside and asked him about his questions. “The coach is being criticized for bad and wrong decisions.” He pointed to the Qatar game. For the first 70 minutes of the game Qatar abused a personnel mismatch on Bhutan’s left defensive side, and Norio waited until late to correct it with a substitution. “If he was a better coach, he could have made a difference.”

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As I watched the open practices that evening, I couldn’t help but feel optimistic. The Maldivian team was much smaller and not as well-organized as China, or for that matter Qatar. They had a brand-new head coach who, by his own admission, didn’t know his own team. And altitude, man, altitude. The entire Maldives archipelago ranges between zero and seven feet above sea level, and the team had practiced the previous day in Kolkata, India, altitude 30 feet. By contrast, Bhutan’s Changlimithang Stadium is a mile-and-a-half above sea level.

Among my friends and co-workers, the mood was guarded. The usual prediction was a narrow Maldivian win, with nearly everyone just hoping for a goal—the long-awaited first score by Bhutan at the Asian Football Confederation second round of World Cup qualifying in team history.

“We need a bit of magic,” one reporter said, outside the press conference. “A first goal, a win, something. If this is another blowout, it might well kill enthusiasm for the sport in Bhutan.”

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I have nothing but love for the Bhutanese fans. Notwithstanding the months-long drama surrounding the coach, and the drubbings at the hands of the three previous opponents, they once again came to celebrate.

A die-hard group of boosters had commissioned the largest Bhutanese flag in the country (25 meters by 15 meters) for the game, and made sure everyone in the media knew when and where it was going to be unfurled. (I have been cautioned not to say “the largest Bhutanese flag in the world,” since they don’t actually know that. I wonder if there’s an even bigger Bhutanese flag in a litigious billionaire’s private collection somewhere.)

Team boosters were handing out inflatable orange and yellow “thunder sticks” to fans at the gate. They had previously posted a Youtube video to instruct fans in the assembly and proper usage of the sticks:

About a hundred fans—Bhutanese and expats—arrived more than an hour before the match to practice chants, inflate their thunder sticks, and unpack the mammoth flag. The rest of the stadium filled by game-time, and this core vanguard greeted and briefed the late arrivals.

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I say “filled,” but that’s not quite right. Like the China match, stadium officials had reserved the north end of the stadium for visiting-team fans. This time, however, the visitors’ section was almost empty. (Understandable, I suppose, as Maldives has fewer than 400,000 inhabitants, some 70,000 of whom are foreign workers.)

The two teams took the pitch and the Maldivian national anthem was played. It was quite peppy, like something from Whoopie John or Six Fat Dutchmen. With the first notes of the Bhutanese national anthem, the fans slowly unfurled the giant Bhutanese flag, and the crowd went wild, cheering and banging their thunder-sticks. The exuberant noise continued unabated for the first 20 minutes of the match.

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The largest Bhutanese flag (in Bhutan).


The Bhutanese side gave them a lot to cheer about, for a time. For the first 10 minutes of the game, Bhutan seemed in control. I was positioned behind Bhutan’s goal, and watched the game unfold far away, in the Maldivian third. It seemed like any time a Maldivian defender interrupted the Bhutanese attack, a Bhutanese midfielder was in position to break up the counter and send the ball back to the strikers. Bhutan even got a couple of realistic shots on goal.

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Then, in the 11th minute, disaster! A Maldivian midfielder kicked a high ball down the center of the pitch, resulting in a one-on-one sprint towards the ball—and the goal—between forward Ahmed Nashid and a Bhutanese defender. Seeing that his defender was going to lose, Bhutanese keeper Hari Gurung tried to close on the ball before Nashid reached it, but Nashid managed to arc a slow shot over his head for the evening’s first goal. One-nil, Maldives.

Bhutan immediately brought the crowd back to their feet with a quick cross from forward Tshering Wangdi to Bhutanese superstar Chencho Gyeltshen (a.k.a. “the Bhutanese Ronaldo,” a.k.a. “CG7”), who narrowly missed a contested shot on goal.

Maldives countered with another long, high pass down the middle from midfield, just like the first goal. Once again, the Maldivian striker outran his man for an open shot on goal—this time, it sailed safely high and wide.

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At a little after 20 minutes, the fans finally sat down to conserve their energy. We were, it seemed, in this one for the long haul. But as if on cue, Maldives scored its second goal. This time Hari deflected a weak shot from his right side directly into the feet of a waiting Maldivian striker (team captain Ali Ashfaq), a couple feet in front of the goal. Ashfaq tapped it in, and we were down, two to nothing. “Here we go,” I thought. This was how the last two matches had started.

Eight minutes later, Maldives scored again, this time on a pass from Nashid to Ashfaq, who headed it in from just in front of the goal. Three to nothing. And a Maldivian forward intercepted the ensuing kickoff and Nashid raced in for what would have been the fourth goal, had keeper Hari not unceremoniously collided with him.

So … three to nothing, 34 minutes into the match. Business. As. Usual. No “magic” today, now it’s just a question of keeping the score respectable. And a couple of minutes later, Nashid received another long, slow pass over the middle and outraced his sole defender. With an open shot on goal, he missed, through no fault of the Bhutanese defense.

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As the half wound down, the crowd found life again when Bhutan took a couple of low-chance shots on goal from outside. It was clear that we were now just hanging around in hopes of that historic first goal.

Bhutan’s forwards attack the Maldivian goal.


Without the sizeable foreign press contingent that we saw during the China match, halftime was subdued in the media center. I complained, “Nashid’s going to be able to score at will if they keep lobbing the ball over our heads.” My photographer, Nima, pointed out that Maldives was starting to look tired. They had, he pointed out, taken a couple of long injury delays in the final 10 minutes of the half, and weren’t running the ball down like they were in the middle minutes of the half.

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Someone also grumbled that coach Norio once again had started at least two players out of position. “If this score blows up, coach is done tonight.”


I didn’t notice the change at first.

The teams came out for the second half, kicked off, and a dog promptly ran out on the pitch. Parking a couple dozen feet to the Maldivian keeper’s right, he sat down, scratched and cleaned himself, and rolled over to scratch his back on the grass. I screamed at Nima, “Get a shot of the dog!” He stayed out there for two full minutes before trotting off, of his own accord. The dog walked past me nonchalantly, and a police officer tsk’ed at him, trying to encourage him to leave the stadium. It had the opposite of the intended effect, and the dog turned around and re-entered the pitch from the keeper’s left and casually walked the length of the field. “Put an orange jersey on the dog,” someone helpfully suggested.

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Who’s a good boy!


And then, just as the dog left the stadium for good, Bhutan showed sparks of life. For four minutes, Bhutan kept the ball in the crowded Maldivian defensive half, setting up shot after shot, only to waste numerous opportunities with too many short passes inside the penalty box. The crowd was back into it in force—win or lose, we were going to see the first-ever Bhutanese goal. I heard a couple of fans behind me, desperately screaming “SHOOT, SHOOT LA!” as Bhutan passed the ball back and forth in front of the goal.

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I had to agree with Nima’s halftime assessment: Maldives was looking tired. And with 40-plus minutes left to play, that boded well for a chance historical goal.

And then, nearly 10 minutes into the second half, one of the Bhutanese journalists noticed the change.

“Where’s coach?”

We looked up and down the sideline, looking for Norio Tsukitate. No sign.

“I have to admit, I wasn’t paying attention,” I replied. “Was he there in the first half?” I was assured he most definitely was.

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Ashfaq scored a penalty a couple of minutes later, and was promptly subbed out. Four to nothing Maldives, and it looked like they were shifting to a defensive posture to run out the last 30 minutes. The crowd, spent, was quiet. There were even a couple of pockets of hecklers.

The restless crowd.


And then, suddenly, it was the 80th minute. The end-of-game rituals began. People started checking their watches and cell phones, and the orange-clad stadium security staff filed in, lining the stadium to assist in the mass egress. Taking advantage of the winded and weary Maldives side, Bhutan had had a couple of nice breaks in the interim, but nothing came of them—“shot wide,” “pass to nowhere,” “offside,” my notes read, minute after minute.

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Bhutan had controlled the game for 10 minutes, but was simply unable to put the ball in the net. The Maldivian side was running on fumes, but still able to do just enough, every single time, to break up the Bhutanese attack.

Goal.

What?

The crowd goes dead silent for a heartbeat or two.

GOAL. On a decidedly broken play, Tshering Dorji recovered the ball off the keeper’s foot and delivered a well-kicked bullet past the leaping keeper. And suddenly there it is. Three games and 85 minutes later, we have our goal. By the time the crowd reacted, the players were already celebrating.

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You’ve been there before, so you know what happens next: everyone’s on their feet, everybody is hugging each other. Four to one, but who cares? The nation has its goal, it has its hero, it has its magic. Things are going to be just fine. It was a nice way to go out.

Everyone was still celebrating when, three minutes later, CG7 dribbled half the length of the pitch, weaving between lifeless Maldivian defenders, and punched in Bhutan’s second goal. Now, we were delirious. Two goals in three minutes!

Our media liaison stomped around the press pavilion, telling anyone who would listen, “IT’S OKAY! IT’S OKAY! IT’S ALL OKAY!” For my part, I was a little sorry that “Bhutan’s Ronaldo” hadn’t scored the first goal, but at least he got his goal. Maldives set up for the kickoff, and the officials indicated five minutes of stoppage time.

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The last five minutes clearly seemed like ages to the Maldivian side. They kicked the ball around lifelessly before giving it up unchallenged to a Bhutanese midfielder. Bhutan intercepted and raced it towards goal. Several shots at or near the goal, some chaotic fighting over rebounds, and then …

A third goal. CG7’s rifle-shot bounced off the sidebar, and ricocheted with full force back into play. Forward Diwash Subba struggled with two Maldivian defenders to control it, mere feet from the goal, and then the ball squeaked out to Biren Bisnet at the top of the goal-box, and there it is. A third goal. It is now four to three.

There aren’t any clocks in Changlimithang Stadium, so while the crowd is aware that we’re well into extra time, nobody’s really sure how far. And they also know that the Dragon Boys are scoring more or less at will. We have a chance to tie.

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Suddenly, no one’s celebrating anymore. The crowd is on their feet, shouting, urging their team on. We have a chance to tie.

Within seconds of the kickoff, Bhutan’s midfielders had taken the ball back from the Maldivian front men. One long pass down the nearside later, and an open shot! Deflected. Another pass into the center, an aborted shot. A clean look for CG7, no shot. The crowd is panicked. “SHOOT LA SHOOT!” We have a chance to tie. Then a minor foul on Maldives, and Tshering Dorji—the first man to score at this level in Bhutanese history—is rushing to set up the restart, just outside the penalty box to the keeper’s left.

I check my watch. We’re at 90 plus four. This is our last chance, and everyone knows it. Maldives brings everyone down to defend, and the officials are holding up the kick to make sure everyone’s in position. Nine of our guys and 11 of theirs crowd the penalty box. Tshering Dorji is champing at the bit, he—all of us—want to get this thing started. We have a chance to tie.

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Goalscorer Tshering Dorji post-game


On the walk down to the press conference, I run into a reporter from Kuensel. “Four to three, huh?” I asked, exuberant. “I think you’ve got your story!” He’s happy, but thoughtful. Unlike me, a real reporter. “Do we know what happened to Norio?” he asks.

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“I don’t know, but I’m sure we’re about to find out.”

Back to the carousel: one coach on his way in, one coach on his way out.

Any restraint on Ricki Herbert’s part is gone at the post-game press conference. Even before sitting down, he exults, “Awesome, wasn’t it? Great for the crowd!” A lot of “we were the stronger side,” “a lot to build upon,” the usual winning-coach stuff. Asked about the effect of the altitude, he laughs, “I’m out of breath myself, and I’ve only been standing on the sidelines.”

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“But seriously, I could have written the script for that game: that we’d start to flag in the 70th minute.” He reveals that, pre-game, he told his players that they needed to “get at Bhutan very strongly and make it difficult for them” at the outset, and score as many goals as possible before the altitude kicked in. And, he reminds us as he leaves, that’s just what they did.

Herbert leaves, and we all turn. No Norio. Instead, team manager Hishey Tshering walks in and sits down. But no one asks what we’re all thinking. Instead, he gets a couple of questions about the match. “I wish we had another two minutes,” he says. “Our shoulders never dropped.” “Never say die.” Then, finally, Hishey looks at us and says, “I’m surprised no one has asked about …” We all nod, eagerly. Go on, go on.

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Norio Tsukitate, when he still coached the team, giving a pre-game interview.


“First of all, I have never seen a national team coach, on the eve of one of the most important games ... I don’t know what made him say, ‘If the Federation wants to sack me, they can sack me.’”

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Hishey went on to explain that, at the half, he and the head coach had argued about players playing out of position—in this case, starting lifelong forward Tshering Dorji at midfield, and career midfielder Tshering Wangdi at forward. “I said to coach, ‘How about changing the game plan?’”

According to Hishey, the head coach replied, “Do you want to run the team? You run the team!”

After the team emerged from the half, Hishey was seated on the bench. The head coach approached him and asked, “Can I sit here?” Hishey replied, “I don’t have the authority to tell you not to sit here.” And with that, Norio left. At the half. “I hate to believe he set the team up to lose,” Hishey shook his head. “But as soon as he left, we scored three goals.” (It wasn’t lost on anyone that, once moved from midfield to forward, Tshering Dorji scored the first goal for Bhutan.)

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A reporter asked if he was suggesting that Norio’s player-swapping was deliberate sabotage. Hishey said, “I didn’t say that. I said ‘I hate to believe he set the team up to lose.’”

By the time I got home and fired up my computer, Twitter and Facebook were already reporting that Norio had gotten the sack. The newspapers and even the official Bhutan Football Federation Facebook feed have given conflicting information over the past couple of days—he was sidelined at the half, or he chose not to coach after the first half; he was fired, or he was asked to leave, or he left of his own volition.

(On Friday, the President of the BFF himself posted to the Federation’s feed: “As the president of Bhutan Football I have to ask the coach to leave. I have not fired him or asked him to resign. He was not sidelined also. He refused to coach the team in the second half after he had argument with the manager.”)

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On Saturday morning, national newspaper Kuensel announced that Pema, who served as an assistant coach under Tsukitate and who played for (and captained) the Bhutanese men’s national team for more than 13 years, will take over as interim coach to prepare the team for its home rematch against Hong Kong on Tuesday. The fans support the move: not only is he regarded as one of the great players in Bhutan’s history, but just last month, he coached Thimphu-based “F.C. Terton” to a championship in the Bank of Bhutan national league, Bhutan’s top level of club soccer.

And the carousel never stops spinning …

As for the Dragon Boys, in addition to Hong Kong on Tuesday, the team has rematches against China and Maldives on the road, and Qatar at home in Changlimithang. There are more than 700,000 people praying that these three goals won’t be the last.

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I’m told that the die-hard boosters have been meeting all weekend to work on chants.


This account of last Thursday’s match was written over the weekend. On Tuesday Bhutan turned in their best game of qualifying group play, losing to Hong Kong 1-0 on a heartbreaking 89th minute goal.

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Michael Peil is a consultant who lives and works in Thimphu, Bhutan. He is the author of Scholarly Writings as a Source of Law: A Survey of the Use of Doctrine by the International Court of Justice, which inexplicably has not yet been made into a full-length feature film.

All photos courtesy of Nima Dorji