THIMPHU, Bhutan – Six to zero. 6-0. The final score of the June 16 China-Bhutan World Cup qualifier was six to freaking zero in favor of the Chinese. And do you know what the Bhutanese fans did after the game? They sang to the players. They cheered. They screamed with absolute joy when the keeper, Hari Gurung, unofficial Man of the Match, left the stadium. They poured into the streets after the game, not to burn Thimphu to the ground, but to celebrate.
Sure, Bhutan lost. Reeling from a 7-0 loss to Hong Kong just a few days earlier, no one would have been surprised if the crowd had rioted and pulled Changlimithang Stadium down or attacked the visiting Chinese fans or the Chinese team. But the hometown fans were just happy to be participating.
How about that? The happiest people in the happiest nation on earth were just happy (actually more like ecstatic) to be hosting and playing meaningful soccer.
Hi. My name is Michael, and I’m an American ex-pat out living in Bhutan. I have been here more than two years, and while I would never presume to deeply understand the Bhutanese or the Bhutanese mindset, I do know sports and sports fandom. What has happened here, over the last three months, since Bhutan’s back-to-back wins over Sri Lanka in the first round of World Cup qualifiers, is crazy. The Dragon Boys, as they’re known, have taken off. The team, non-professional players, most of whom are students and one of which, famously, is an airline pilot, are national heroes.
Four months ago, there were only three things anybody knew about the Bhutan national football team:
- They were FIFA’s lowest-ranked team;
- They had never lost a match in World Cup qualifying play; and
- They had never lost a match of any kind at home.
The latter two items were simply statistical curiosities—Bhutan had never played in a World Cup qualifier, and the only international match ever played at Changlimithang Stadium was the June 30, 2002, victory over Montserrat, the then-worst team in the world, immortalized in the 2003 documentary, The Other Final.
By the time the Chinese squad arrived at Paro International Airport a couple of weeks ago, the first two were off the books. Bhutan’s two wins against Sri Lanka in March vaulted them up 50 places in FIFA’s rankings, just behind The Gambia, and the 7-0 drubbing by Hong Kong in the opening match of second-round group play had given Bhutan its first loss in World Cup play.
All that remained was the last one, “undefeated at home.”
I scrounged up some media credentials through a combination of whining and begging, and found myself at the pregame presser, listening as Chinese manager Alain Perrin and captain Zheng Zhi addressed a group of about 30 (mostly Chinese) media representatives and tried to avoid using the word “rout.” Heavily favored, they were gracious in presumed victory.
Perrin dismissed Bhutan’s blowout loss just four days earlier, quipping, “Tomorrow is another game.” Pressed to predict victory by a Chinese reporter, Zheng deftly sidestepped, offering caveats concerning the higher altitude and pitch conditions at Changlimithang. In the final question of the session, a Bhutanese reporter put it to them plainly: “On social media, a lot of people assume China will thrash us. What do you expect?” Perrin demurred one last time: “I think it’s more that football makes the people closer.”
The interview with the Bhutanese manager and captain was a bit more animated, if less informative. Asked several times about what he had learned from watching tape of the Chinese side, or what changes we could expect in Bhutan’s game, manager Tsukitate Norio replied, variously:
“I want to keep everything secret.”
“Tomorrow, you’ll know everything.”
“For now, please don’t ask.”
“You’ll find out tomorrow.”
The press conference closed with a question from a Bhutanese journalist: “Has the decisive loss at Hong Kong depressed the team?” Without missing a beat, Tsukitate smirked, “So sorry, I don’t remember a Hong Kong game.”
And with that, the press conference was over.
Bhutanese youth at a FIFA-mandated flag ceremony practice.
With little usable information from the team officials, and with nowhere to be in the two hours before the beginning of the teams’ open practices at Changlimithang, the reporters mingled outside the Druk Hotel, fishing for any news whatsoever—or just lunch and conversation.
The national television station, BBS, interviewed Ma Dexing, deputy editor-in-chief at the Chinese sports magazine Titan Weekly. The interviewer asked him whether the altitude—7,700 feet—would pose a problem for the Chinese side, as it had for Montserrat, Sri Lanka, and for that matter, thousands of tourists before them. She was disappointed to learn that the Chinese had travelled directly to Thimphu from 10 days of training and acclimatization at the Chinese Olympic Committee’s high-altitude practice facility at Kunming—6,200 feet above sea level.
She asked Ma for a prediction. “Bhutan’s team is all amateurs, while the Chinese are all professionals,” he began, then quickly added, “I think maybe Bhutan will make trouble for the Chinese team.” But in the end, he concluded, “I am confident. We will win.”
She asked him whether his confidence was shared back home in Beijing. “Oh yes,” he smiled. “Most people back home agree with me, and think we will score even more goals than Hong Kong.” Asked about a prediction of 15 goals by a Chinese newspaper, he laughed. “Maybe at home, but not at this altitude.”
After the camera was off, I introduced myself to Ma, and followed up with a couple of questions of my own.
(“Introduced myself” is selling the process short, and it bears relaying, since I had to do it dozens of times over the two days.
“Hi, I’m Michael Peil, with…” “You’re a white guy.” “Yes.” “But you’re dressed like a Bhutanese.” “I live here. I came straight from work.”
I wear my gho – the traditional male Bhutanese dress – to work. Partly in a vain attempt to “fit in,” and partly because I, and my wife, and all the aunties of a certain age who work at the local tsongkhang, think my gho is slimming.)
The pleasantries concluded, I asked Ma a couple of questions that his interview had left unanswered. “Has anyone in China even heard of Bhutan?”
“Not really, no,” he replied. “Of course, one of the great things about football is, as soon as we got our group assignments, I’m sure a hundred million football fans were tapping ‘Bhutan’ into their computers, trying to figure out who or what we were playing.”
“So what’s your honest prediction for the game?”
“Ten to zero,” he said.
That morning the national newspaper, Kuensel, had reported that Chinese fans were canceling their trips to Bhutan for the match because of the $200 to $250 per day tariff that Bhutan imposes on all foreign tourists. I asked the Kuensel reporter for more details. He shrugged and said, “Ask her,” indicating the BBS reporter standing next to him.
Without introduction, she started in.
“It’s completely untrue. There were never 2,000 fans expected, that’s a FIFA number of tickets set aside for visiting fans. Twenty percent of the tickets.” She proceeded to rattle off an endless series of statistics, obviously garnered from a harried morning of phone calls to the Department of Immigration, the Bhutan Tourism Council, and individual tour operators, that in sum, convinced or at least intimidated me.
“Did you get all that?” she asked.
“Not all of it, but I believe you.”
After the rest of the reporters left, I hung around. Our media liaison—who was also head of merchandise and stadium facilities coordinator before and during the match, and had just returned from traveling to Hong Kong with the team—rushed over from the parking lot and said, “You should meet these guys!” He then turned, made a low bow, and introduced me to Dasho (Sir) Ugyen Tshechup Dorji, President of the Bhutan Football Federation.
“I’m honoured to meet you, Dasho. My name is Michael, and I…”
“Have we met before?” he cut me off.
I was flummoxed. I had never met Dasho Ugyen before in my life.
“I guess this is the part where you share your entire life story, and I share my entire life story, and we figure out if we’ve met before,” he chuckled. “Don’t worry about it.”
I was then introduced to the manager of the Bhutanese side. We went through the usual “You’re a white guy…” rigamarole, and then:
“Have we met before?” he started.
“Probably,” I replied. “Moving on…”
“What do you want to know?” he asked.
“What should I know?” I asked.
As I mentioned, I’m not the world’s greatest reporter.
“I’ll tell you what I told the other reporters: Control expectations. After the Sri Lanka matches, the newspapers would have led you to believe we had already qualified for Russia. When we went to Hong Kong, everyone was prepared to expect a big win.”
“Got it,” I said.
“You have to understand, football only really started in Bhutan 10 years ago. Everyone on this team is a product of the football academy that is less than 10 years old.”
I asked him what to expect from the match against China. He changed the subject.
“You have to understand, the Chinese manager has probably had a hard time choosing which 23 players to send to Bhutan,” he explained. “He has fifty full-time professional players, and he selected them from hundreds of full-time professional players.
“Here in Bhutan, even though we’re allowed to have 50 players, we only have 32 on our roster. And out of that, we have to choose 23 for the match, and 11 to start.”
He didn’t say it (so I won’t attribute it to him), but from the social media and print editorials and general sentiment throughout the country Bhutan, the further message was clear. The national team has made this country proud, advancing from the very bottom of the FIFA tables to the group rounds of qualification. If the country wants to go further, it’s going to take a commitment. That means money.
We had the run of the stadium during the open practices. The visiting journalists examined the pitch quality closely, and wondered aloud about the enormous lights and their effect on photography. I wandered around, admiring how efficiently FIFA had replaced the stadium advertisements (“Bhutan Telecom,” “UNICEF,” “United Nations and Bhutan: United for Happiness”) with Korean and Chinese ads that, while tailored for the television audience abroad, would be completely illegible to the home crowd. I snapped a couple of pictures of the old ads, now sitting forlornly off to the side, and the new ads, which were being carefully counted and re-arranged by the stadium staff.
The new Chinese and Korean-language ad boards.
A passing photographer—evidently from one of the non-Chinese, non-Bhutanese outlets—interrupted my thoughts.
“Can you believe this?”
“I mean, all of it. The tiny stadium, the press passes, the disorganization. Ugh. I can’t even believe this is FIFA.”
I laughed. You get so few easy set-up lines in life, and even fewer that you correctly and concurrently recognize as such.
“As a resident of Bhutan, and given recent events at FIFA, I’ll take that as a compliment.”
We watched the Bhutanese squad run through their drills. No surprises here—a couple of set plays, a lot of work on offensive positioning and touch passing. They practiced for 90 minutes. As they were wrapping up, our media manager announced, “The Chinese side has announced that the first 20 minutes of practice will be open to the media, after which the practice will be closed.”
The predictable grumbling ensued: “So the Chinese have developed some super-secret play, only for the Bhutan match that they’re worried we’ll leak in tomorrow morning’s newspapers?” “They know that we can watch them practice from the second floor of the restaurants across the street, right?”
The Bhutanese left the field, and 20 minutes later, the Chinese squad entered. We had heard that, on average, they were five inches taller than the Bhutanese team. On initial impression, I’d say it was closer to a foot.
“Big,” I mouthed to one of the Agence France-Presse reporters, as the team jogged in.
“BIG,” one of the Bhutanese photographers whispered to me, as we walked past each other, snapping pictures.
Then we saw them start their drills.
“Big AND FAST,” my Bhutanese colleague muttered, walking past me again. “VERY big and fast.”
The big and fast Chinese side during practice.
The next day, although the game didn’t start until 6:00, the gates opened for the media at 3:00 and for the general public shortly thereafter. My wife drove me to the stadium at three on the dot. I had my laptop and three bottles of water in my backpack. The water was critical, because I was fairly certain that the media center wouldn’t be catered.
I also carried a notepad and a camera in my hoemchu. (The hoemchu is the large pocket formed by folding over and cinching the gho tightly at the waist. I’ve often heard [only from Bhutanese] that the hoemchu is in the Guinness Book of World Records for “world’s largest pocket.” I can’t speak to that, but I can say that, in a pinch, I’ve stored two laptops, a notebook, and my wife’s purse in there. It’s useful, and it’s why, at the last moment, I decided to wear my gho to the match, rather than overstuff the backpack. I also assumed that, while security might search my backpack, it was unlikely I’d get a pat-down.)
The press area was a stretch of grass behind the north goal, connecting the Media Center (a field-level bunker underneath the stands) to the stairs to the Media Pavilion (a mezzanine level about 10 feet above the field). I set my gear down in the Media Center and came back out to snap some pictures of the crowd filing into the stadium. A FIFA official trotted over.
“You’re press, you’re not supposed to have a camera,” she said as she approached.
“Oh, it’s not for professional use. This is my personal camera,” I replied. (It was the first thing that came to mind.)
She pondered this, clearly unconvinced.
“Besides, I’m not taking pictures of the match,” I rallied. “I’m taking pictures of the spectacle. I’ll put it away once the match starts.”
She shrugged. It wasn’t my best excuse, but her threshold was low.
Prior to the game, the Bhutan Football Federation and the Thimphu police had sent around reminders urging the Bhutanese fans to treat the visiting team and its fans politely. Well aware of racist incidents in Europe and, more recently, Hong Kong fans booing the Chinese national anthem at the Bhutan-Hong Kong match, the local officials wanted to make sure that Changlimithang’s debut as a World Cup venue wasn’t marred by the same kind of bad press.
However, any worries were quickly washed away as the Bhutanese fans gathered not to cheer against China, but to cheer—in the noisy, jubilant way that only the best of football crowds can—for Bhutan. They wanted a win, of course. But more than anything, it seemed like they were just happy to be there.
Although the nation’s official sports are archery and khuru, a much more dangerous form of lawn darts, Bhutan is a football country. The 8,000-plus Bhutanese fans gathered at Changlimithang had watched the Premier League, they’d watched the World Cup last year, and they’d followed whatever other international football they could stream. More than that, they’d watched the crowds: the singing, chanting, hugging, and jeering crowds. And now it was Bhutan’s turn. It was their turn.
For the March match against Sri Lanka, the crowd was enthusiastic, but chaotic. They were unprepared for the international spectacle which had, without warning, been dropped upon them. Tickets were free, and no one was keeping track of the head-count. As a result, fans were hanging off the fences, sitting in the aisles, and generally packed cheek-to-jowl.
For Tuesday’s match, the crowd was equally enthusiastic, but much more organized. New fight songs were written and propagated via Facebook: “Practice this and Share it with your friends!” During the national anthem, hundreds of fans held up placards that formed the distinctive red, white, and gold of the Bhutanese flag. Provocateurs in face-paint (both Bhutanese and at least one long-term ex-pat), wielding megaphones and drums, led the crowd in ever-more complicated chants.
By the time the match started, it sounded like a proper football crowd.
The Bhutanese side is ready for the match to start.
In case the authorities had any lingering concerns about the mood of the crowd, an incident shortly before kickoff put it to rest. The Chinese fans were relegated to a small section at the north end of the stadium (just above the press area). They were loud and enthusiastic, but hopelessly outnumbered. Just before the flags were brought onto the pitch, a megaphone-wielding Bhutanese ringleader behind the Chinese section called for “The Wave.” As one, the section rose, and The Wave crested majestically across the public side of the stadium.
Not to be outdone, the couple hundred Chinese fans did their own, smaller version of the wave, which lasted 50 feet and about five seconds.
After some disorganized shouting between the Chinese section and their Bhutanese neighbors, the Chinese section was told to “try it again!” The Chinese fans rose again, and their wave was picked up by the thousands of Bhutanese fans, who took the “Chinese” wave to the end of the stadium.
The Chinese fans responded to the hospitality by chanting something about the host nation. I roamed around, trying to find a Chinese journalist who could translate whether this was a slur and, if so, what it meant. None of the Chinese could help. Finally, with the help of some of the Bhutanese support staff, we figured out that they were chanting “Kuzu Bhutan,” the first word being the short-form of Kuzu zangpo, the customary greeting and welcome in Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan.
The Chinese section of the stadium.
The match finally started. With the Hong Kong game still fresh in our minds, everyone was prepared for a blowout. After all, Hong Kong was ostensibly the fourth seed in our five-team group (we’re the fifth), while China was the top seed.
Our worst fears seemed about to realized. The first 10 minutes were spent almost entirely in Bhutan’s defensive third of the pitch, with keeper Hari Gurung forced to make one diving, stumbling, reaching, or blocking save after another. But manager Tsukitate’s “secret strategy” was readily apparent. Unlike in the Hong Kong match, where the Bhutanese let their opponents operate with impunity, every time one of the huge Chinese forwards gained possession he was immediately engaged, toe-to-toe, by a defender or midfielder. More often than not, the forward was too fast for the defender, but the overall effect was to break up the Chinese attack, and force the forwards to take the shot that was available, rather than the shot they wanted.
In the ninth minute, Hari drew a yellow card for handling the ball outside of the box. Coming about 30 seconds after a very questionable non-call against a Chinese defender at the other end, this drew some boos from the crowd. But, following an unsuccessful free kick, the incident had the effect of slowing the rhythm of the game to the pace it would assume for the rest of the first half: Chinese attack, followed by Chinese corner kick, followed by Bhutanese goal kick, followed by a struggle at midfield, followed by Chinese possession. Wash, rinse, repeat.
For some reason, whenever I attend these matches, I’m the only person who bothers to start a stopwatch when the half begins. And there’s no clock in Changlimithang. As such, I was the first person to notice we were approaching a milestone.
“Hey… We held Hong Kong scoreless to the 17th minute… We’re at 19 minutes now!”
If you watch replays of the match on Youtube, you’ll see that, as the clock crosses into the 20th minute, there’s a tiny cheer from the left side of your screen. That’s us, a handful of reporters, cheering that the Dragon Boys had held the Chinese scoreless, and thereby, somehow, already gained a victory.
As it happened, it was scoreless for the first 45 minutes. Chinese shot after shot either sailed wide or somehow found itself entangled in the hands, arms, and sometimes legs of the invincible Hari. “It’s like there’s a wall in front of the net,” someone said. “Sshhh!” I replied. “You’ll scare the wall!”
But then, with 20 seconds left in stoppage time, the wall finally cracked. A series of rebounds left Hari out of position, and a dozen or so Bhutanese defenders and Chinese attackers in front of the net. It’s not so much that Chinese forward Yang Xu scored, as he was the guy off of whom the ball last ricocheted before it rolled into the empty net. (In all fairness to Yang, the next two goals of his hat-trick were well-earned.)
So there it was: One-nil at the half.
As the whistle blew for halftime, I jogged down to the Media Center to upload some photos and send a couple of tweets. As I made my way across the grass in front of the pavilion, I heard my name from above. “Michael!” It was Ma Dexing, he of the 10-to-nothing prediction.
“Listen, do you remember what I said yesterday about the score?” he shouted over the noise.
I laughed. “I do, I do.”
“I said four to nothing, right?”
I laughed again, gave him a thumbs up, and shouted, “Yes. That’s exactly what I heard. You’re a prophet.”
There is, I am told, an ancient Bhutanese maxim concerning authority. “If you are ordered to go kill a man, beat him. If you’re ordered to beat a man, warn him.” It’s supposed to say something about the ordinary Bhutanese mitigating the sometimes capricious whims of their superiors.
The press was restricted to our little corner of the stadium for the duration of the game. We couldn’t mingle with the fans and, most frustrating to the photographers, we couldn’t get up to the top of the stadium to take panoramic shots of the crowd and the pitch. Nonetheless, several of the them tried, trotting purposely past the cops guarding the stairwell with lame excuses like “I forgot my, ah…” and “Isn’t this the bathroom?” The most successful of their number actually got to the top of the stairwell, a good 15 feet above the media pavilion, and started quickly snapping pictures. A young Bhutanese policeman was dispatched to bring him back down.
From below, we saw them chat for a bit, then peer into his camera. Then the cop marched him back down and sent him on his way. After the photographer returned to the grass, I asked the cop, “What was that all about?”
“I wanted to see if he got any good shots,” the cop replied.
The teams switched sides, and before we’d even settled in, winger Chencho Gyeltshen fired off a shot from the near side that nearly evened the match, missing by a yard or less. (Chencho—“the Bhutanese Ronaldo,” who is about to become the first full-time professional football player on the Bhutanese squad, having signed with Thailand’s Buriram United earlier this year —was also known as “CG7” before a controversial decision to renumber the player’s jerseys. “CG10” has not yet caught on in Bhutan.)
Bhutan fired off two more shots on goal—and one other shot-not-so-much-on-goal in the first six minutes, and one of the Bhutanese reporters remarked, “Maybe it’s just this end of the pitch…”
Alas, things fell apart after that. Wu Lei scored in the 55th minute to make it 2-0, and the Chinese side scored roughly every six or seven minutes after that. Hari and the Bhutanese defenders made several heroic stops to keep it from getting further out of hand, but the last 30 minutes played out as you’d expect. China took the match 6-0.
Blah blah blah. Bhutan now has zero wins, two losses, and a goal differential of minus-thirteen in the eight-game home-and-home group play. They still have two matches against Qatar and Maldives, and rematches against Hong Kong and China over the next 12 months. As one Bhutanese noted, disgusted by all the happy “WE SUPPORT OUR TEAM, WIN OR LOSE” posts on Facebook, “A loss is a loss.”
That’s fine, as far as it goes. But as far as I’m concerned, this is a country that only started taking football seriously within the last decade. It’s a country whose entire population would comfortably fit within a portion of one of New York’s boroughs or one of Beijing’s districts. It’s a country that only introduced the internet—that only introduced television—within the recent memory of adults.
Winning the World Cup isn’t within Bhutan’s grasp this year (or perhaps any year). For that matter, advancing to Russia isn’t going to happen. But the growth we’ve seen in the last four months—on the field and in the stands—gives cause for hope, even if the dreams are modest ones. Hope that the “Ronaldo of Bhutan,” CG7/10, will someday score against one of the hero goalkeepers we watch on television, and hope that Hari Gurung will someday soon face down a penalty kick from one of the European and South American stars we only read about.
For now, they’re the heroes we’ve got. And, God and Buddha help us, we’re all proud of them.
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 Michael Peil