Once upon a time the game was a craze, now it has become a career
It was a Monday afternoon, February 14, at the Al-Sadaqua Walsalam stadium in Kuwait in 2000. Chokey Nima, technical director with Bhutan Football Federation (BFF), still remembers the day vividly. That was the day when Bhutan conceded 20 goals against Kuwait, the most embarrassing defeat for the Bhutanese team.
It was just too hot and humid for the Bhutanese team. “We were down to nine men and conceded 20 goals, including five penalties,” he said; the right defender, who was put in place of striker that day.
The team played several exposure matches in Nepal before the big game in Kuwait. The first goal came in the 18th minute. Within the next 70 minutes, Bhutanese team would concede 19 more. That was Bhutan’s maiden foray into the continental football scene.
Kuwait striker Bashir Abdullah scored eight goals. The worst came when even Kuwait’s goalkeeper scored one. It was a nightmare for the Bhutanese team on the field.
“We lacked motivation, technical and tactical awareness,” said Chokey Nima. “Playing against a professional team with two men down and the score line combined made all the difference.”
The Kuwait game was the game that changed football in Bhutan. “Yes, we regretted the game but, in reality, the defeat was the foundation of the football that we see today,” says Chokey Nima.
Ugyen Wangchhuk, general secretary of BFF, who once played for the national squad, said that football was more than a game before. “It was the only means of entertainment for Bhutanese people,” he said. “It was the most popular sport in the country.”
Football was considered a game of strength. People, who could kick the hardest and the furthest, used to be selected for the national squad,” said Ugyen Wangchhuk.
Goutam Mukherjee, who played for Druk-11, said that armed forces personnel were selected for the team because of their physical strength. Also, eight out of 11 players were not Bhutanese.
Goutam Mukherjee, who earned the name “the black horse”, played for the national squad from 1979 to 1982, the golden era of Bhutanese football. People from all walks of life came to witness the game at Changlimithang.
Football used to be different, says Goutam Mukherjee. The ground used to be filled with people hours before a match. “Football had improved by much, but we’ve lost the craze.”
Goutam Mukherjee and his mates defeated Mahindra Police Club of Nepal to claim the first Nepal Gold Cup for the team in 1980. A massive celebration followed the win.
Football in Bhutan has made some leaps, of course. It had recently climbed 46 places up from the lowest FIFA had it ranked.
Chokey Nima said that there was still enormous scope for growth. “Eight to nine years down the line, we’ll have a new generation of football players that will challenge the elite teams of the world.”
Football is set to become the face of the nation, with many young talents and improving facilities.
Bhutanese football clubs get more foreign players at the top division leagues, and international companies are taking keen interest in Bhutanese tournaments. BFF is working on ways to export Bhutanese players to play for international clubs.
Ugyen Dorji, an ex-national player, said that football has helped bring people in the country together. “I see drug addicts and little monks come early in the morning to play the game, the way they communicate among themselves through the game is just amazing. There is hope. Our dreams are not small.”
Chencho Gyeltshen said that football for him is more than just a game. “People can make a living out of football now, and that is a reality facing us today.”
BFF’s grassroots football programme in 18 dzongkhags is expected to bring in more football talent. The programme has been training over 6,000 children aged between 6 and 12.
“Future is good; football will be big in Bhutan,” said Chencho Gyeltshen.