The world’s worst football team
For decades, the mountain country of Bhutan existed in near-total isolation from the rest of the world. In recent years it has made tentative steps towards opening up, including the decision to compete in the 2018 football World Cup. The only problem is its team, which is ranked 209 out of 209 by FIFA. In other words, the worst football team in the world. But then they played Sri Lanka in their first-ever qualifier, and what happened next was extraordinary.
For a city with a metropolitan area populated by 5.6 million people, choked by a perennial mix of traffic, smog and noise, the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo is uncharacteristically still. A tuk tuk potters through the city’s near-empty streets towards the Sugathadasa Stadium as the sun began to set on another hot day. In a few days the long road to the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia will begin here and five other cities across Asia, almost simultaneously. Sri Lanka are due to play Bhutan, the world’s lowest-ranked team, according to FIFA, but the country’s excitement has been exhausted by a different tournament. Colombo’s streets have emptied for a cricket World Cup match between Sri Lanka, who won the competition in 1996, and Australia. As the tuk tuk nears its destination, images of life flash past down the deserted side streets: groups of teenagers playing impromptu cricket in the middle of the roads, using upturned wooden boxes or plastic crates as wickets.
Sitting inside the deserted Sugathadasa Stadium, Sri Lanka coach Nikola Kavazovic is well used to football taking a back seat role to the country’s national game. He has been waiting for an interview with one of the few newspapers that has expressed any interest in the match. The journalist has yet to turn up. “This is the most important match ever for Sri Lanka,” he says with a shake of the head. “I didn’t expect people, fans, or anyone else to support this national team. I was prepared that we would not have any support. Unfortunately, I was right.”
After a successful spell in Tajikistan, Kavazovic was appointed in 2014 and charged by the country’s federation with taking the team past the first round of qualification, where 12 of Asia’s lowest-ranked teams were drawn against each other in home and away ties. The winners will qualify for the group stage and the chance of playing eight competitive matches against Asia’s best teams — a boon for countries on the edges of the international game who can sometimes go a year without playing a meaningful match.
A draw is considered to be as good as being handed a bye for many in Sri Lanka against Bhutan. The isolated kingdom in the Himalayas has a national side that is not only considered the worst team in the world by FIFA but which is also playing its first-ever World Cup qualification match. “Two matches against Bhutan and we can change the history of Sri Lankan football,” Kavazovic says, although he has no illusions about qualifying for Russia. Reaching the group stage, not finishing last and improving Sri Lanka’s chances of qualifying in future tournaments are more realistic goals. “I told them once: ‘Boys, this is do or die’,” he recalls.
“If we win against Bhutan you are going to play against players such as Ashkan Dejagah [Iran], Keisuke Honda [Japan and AC Milan] and Tim Cahill [Australia]. Otherwise you will only play the South Asian Cup [the South Asian Football Federation Championship]. And I think you are sick of the South Asian Cup.”
“Yes, it is embarrassing, losing to the worst team in the world,” says Sri Lanka’s coach. “But I expect we will win the second game”
The Serb coach has a far stricter way of doing business than the Sri Lankans have been used to in the past. “Flexible communism. Everyone is equal. I’m the first among equals,” he deadpans when asked to describe his coaching style. Earlier, the team manager had wondered outloud how he was going to break the news to the coach without getting his head ripped off that the only way of getting to Bhutan for the return match was via four flights over 24 hours. The tickets have yet to be booked and the match is less than a week away. “Sometimes they are afraid of my reactions because I’m Slav,” he laughs. “My temperament is sometimes very bad.”
His players don’t appear cowed or fearful, however, but rather relaxed and confident. After training, the team members present a cake for one of the player’s birthdays, their striker Shanmugarajah Sanjeev. Captain Sanjeewa Edirisuriya lights a candle. As Sanjeev approaches, he is squirted in the face with whipped cream, as others smear chocolate cake over his face. “All countries dream of the World Cup,” he says confidently through a wide smile, cake still smeared on his face. “We are planning a 4-0 score.”
It is early morning in Colombo, far from the home of the Bhutan players who are still sleeping, with the exception of team captain Karma Shedrup Tshering. He is still awake and hasn’t stopped smiling for half an hour, even as he talks about vomiting due to the intensity of their training schedule. “A few of the boys were sick on the first day,” explains Tshering eagerly as he describes his team’s preparations for the biggest games of their lives.
The 25-year-old captain of the Bhutan national team is sitting in an average hotel on Colombo’s beautiful sea front. He seems proud that the new training regimen has provoked this kind of reaction in his players. “We’ve been to Bangkok for 10 days so that the players can adapt to this weather,” he says of the 32 degrees outdoor temperature. “We have a young team and we are underdogs.
We have nothing to lose. We will fight with everything we’ve got.”
His confidence belies the team’s woeful international standing. They are 209th out of 209 by FIFA’s reckoning, and therefore officially the worst team in the world. This is perhaps not a surprise when you consider the country of Bhutan, an isolated kingdom on the eastern fringes of the Himalayas that is landlocked between India and Tibet. TV was banned here until the late 1990s, and many of the players have never before ventured abroad. Despite being members of FIFA since 2000, a membership granted just months after a then-World Record 20-0 defeat to Kuwait, they are about to play their first-ever World Cup qualification match in 24 hours’ time. No one has given them any hope of success. Sri Lanka are overwhelming favourites to progress.
Tshering is one of the few players used to jet lag. He spent six years living in Melbourne and speaks with a slight Australian accent. As well as anchoring Bhutan’s midfield he is also a pilot of Bhutan’s national airline, Druk Air, hence he is still awake even after a gruelling few weeks of fitness training and matches. “It is tough adapting your two lives,” he says. “I fly every day and have to train. It’s a lot of pressure. You can’t really make a living out of football.” After the Sri Lanka game, Tshering will fly back to Bhutan and then go straight to work, flying passenger jets to Bangkok and Singapore, training in between flights and returning the morning of the big match. “I wish I had time for a girlfriend!” he says half jokingly, half wistfully. Only one player in the squad, the 19-year-old striker, Chencho Gyeltshen, has any experience in professional football, and that is only a handful of games in the Thai league. Sri Lanka’s coach has identified him as a threat before the game, largely because he’s the only player he could find any information on.
Victory in the Sri Lanka match will allow Tshering and his teammates the chance to reach the group stage. That would mean eight matches, home and away and the opportunity to finally concentrate on just playing football. It would change their lives. For the losers, as Nikola Kavazovic has tried to drum into his Sri Lankan players, it’s back to the international wilderness. “It’s going to go down in history,” Tshering says of the match ahead. “There’s a lot of pressure, especially on me. We have a really young team.”
Only one man in the Bhutanese set-up has seen it all before: team coach, Chokey Nima. The charismatic 45-year-old technical director of the Bhutan Football Federation played in Bhutan’s ill-fated 20-0 thrashing by Kuwait back in 2000. “That was the moment we can never forget,” he says after joining Tshering on the couch. “We conceded five penalties and two red cards,” he adds, misremembering that it was actually four penalties. “Spending 90 minutes on the pitch was tough. We were not aware of tactics.”
That wasn’t surprising either. For the second half of the 20th century, the mountain kingdom of 700,000 people was kept in virtual seclusion. Nima, like his fellow players and coaches, grew up with no television, which meant no live football. The only football they could watch, and be influenced by, was on smuggled VHS cassettes of famous European Cup and World Cup matches. By the end of the 1990s, Bhutan’s fourth king declared that TV be legalised. The first match shown live in the country was the 1998 World Cup final. “I’m very lucky. When I was brought up, TV was already there,” says Tshering. “The first match I remember was France 1998, so my favourite player was Zinedine Zidane. Television was a great influence for me. It really helped me to play the way I do now.”
It came too late for Nima and his players on that fateful night in Kuwait City. But now live football is piped into every home and bar in the capital, Thimphu. “We now have a chance to see the modern aspects of the game,” Nima believes. “The team now is much, much better because of the exposure to TV. At the individual level, the psychological, tactical and physical level and experienced coaches.”
This World Cup qualification campaign is the litmus test. Even as late as December 2014 the Bhutan federation had decided that the 2018 World Cup qualifiers had come too early, perhaps unsurprising in a country that has taken slow, incremental steps towards everything from legalising TV to introducing multi-party democracy. They had decided not to enter and instead spent their meagre resources on improving facilities for youth players. But FIFA offered them $300,000 to cover the considerable cost of moving a squad of 30 players and officials across Asia. The team had been together now for an intense one month of preparation, including the training camp in Thailand. Nima has seen such a steep improvement that he now thinks Bhutan have more than enough potential to reach the second round. He seems annoyed by the mere mention of Bhutan’s lowly FIFA ranking. “I think it will be the biggest day for Bhutan, not just the players,” he says of the reaction back home if, as he believes will happen, Bhutan beat Sri Lanka. “The nation will be proud. We are ranked 209, but that doesn’t mean we are the worst country playing football.”
On the morning of the match, the Bhutan team carry their own slabs of bottled water to the coach. A police escort then leads them to the Sugathadasa Stadium and the players sit in nervous silence as they slice through Colombo’s perma-gridlocked traffic. That morning the Bhutan hotel had been abuzz with scandal. The team learned that a former Sri Lanka captain had been quoted in the press questioning whether his team should even be playing such a lowly team as the Bhutan, or the “Basement Boys” as they had been dubbed in the piece. Coach Nima had gathered his players in the lobby and used the article as motivation for his team, pinning it up on the dressing room wall. But no one else outside the Bhutan camp appeared to believe in Nima’s upbeat assessment that a victory for his team was possible.
The Sugathadasa Stadium is virtually empty as the countries’ national anthems are played. The Sri Lanka federation had hoped a few thousand would attend, but kick-off has been arranged for 3pm on a work day, a ruse to give the home team an advantage in the heat. Cricket has also intervened, but this time not the World Cup. A famous school cricket match, the second oldest in the world, is starting today. A crowd of 30,000 is expected across town, but only a few hundred fans have come to see the national football team play. Most of them seem to be Bhutanese students who had travelled from across the country to be here.
“From being derided as the lowest ranked team in the world, as ‘basement boys’ and cannon fodder, Bhutan have won two matches in a row, after having only won three in their entire history”
When the match begins, Bhutan fly at Sri Lanka. It’s clear within a few moments that they are far better than their ranking suggests. Not only do they seem fitter in the sweltering afternoon heat that was supposed to confer a huge advantage upon Sri Lanka, but technically they have the upper hand too, with Chencho, the player picked out by Nikola Kavazovic before the game, terrorising Sri Lanka’s defence with his pace. The first half ends goalless but each team has hit the post and bar.
Chances come and go in the second half as both teams inevitably tire. But Bhutan always look the more likely to score, and with a few minutes left they do exactly that. Chencho flies down the wing and cuts the ball back to Tshering Dorji. The midfielder blasts it home to secure Bhutan’s first-ever World Cup victory. “I can’t explain the feeling right now, but it feels so good,” shouts captain Karma Shedrup Tshering after the final whistle blows as his team mates hug and scream on the pitch around him. “We came here as underdogs. We really worked hard at it this!”
Sri Lanka’s players walk back to the dressing room in a sullen mood as Nikola Kavazovic leaves to confront a bewildered press conference, where the press had expected to talk about victory. “Yes, it’s embarrassing, losing to the worst team in the world,” he says outside after a tetchy exchange with the few journalists who turned up. “But I expect we will win the second game. And if we don’t,” he adds with a knowing smile, “I will have an unexpected holiday for a few months.” By which he means of course, the sack.
There is no police escort to accompany the Bhutan team back to their hotel. “They talked too much and were over confident,” says Tshering of Sri Lanka’s players as the coach jerks slowly through more rush hour traffic. He speculates how the “freezing” weather conditions in Bhutan will give them further advantage. Then the bus pulls up outside the team hotel and they troop off to KFC to celebrate. The total bill is $400. “There was too much chicken, I ordered a bucket for each player,” Bhutan’s team manager will recall with regret the next morning. For the players who had never left Bhutan, it’s their first taste of Western fast food. The next day they gather at Colombo airport for the flight home via Bangkok. One of the players who’s new to foreign travel tries to check-in two buckets of leftover chicken with his luggage.
When the Bhutan players land in Paro, around 40km from the capital, Thimphu, a welcoming party waits for them in traditional dress, singing traditional songs and holding banners. “We Love Team Bhutan” reads one. “Proud of You, Heroes of Druk” reads another. Druk means “Dragon” in Bhutanese, which is also the nickname of the team. A group of students has brought three cakes with them, which are cut and distributed among the players. One is decorated with “SwatProof” on it, referring to the boast of one former Sri Lankan player who had said they would “swat” Bhutan aside in Colombo. “I heard that people were discriminating against our team-mates,” says one 22-year-old female medical student waiting outside. “We are very proud that our team proved them wrong.”
The players sing as their team bus leaves the airport and careers around mountain roads towards Thimphu, through stunning valleys and mountains. Monkeys can be seen in packs by the side of the road, going about whatever business wild monkeys get up to. The victory has transformed the narrative around the Bhutan national team, who have gone from perennial losers to genuine possible victors.
Over the next few days, Bhutan is gripped by World Cup fever as the country’s one national television channel beams wall-to-wall coverage of the team. The federation has sold out of national jerseys within a day and the government has announced that all civil servants will get the afternoon off to watch the historic second match. Entry to the stadium will also be free. The team has visited monasteries and received blessings from monks, settling back into their unique surroundings 8,000 feet above sea level. They’ve trained in the thin air surrounding Changlimithang Stadium, the third-highest in the world and the highest outside of South America.
Sri Lanka, meanwhile, have endured a hellish journey, sleeping on benches in airport lounges at Indian airports.
“The journey was very difficult and we are in a bad situation,” says Nikola Kavazovic outside his team hotel in Thimphu on the morning of the match. “But we made a mess in Colombo and now we have to fix this mess.” Drastic measures to protect his players from the embarrassment of the first result included confiscating all their phones so they couldn’t read any comments about their performance. He insists, however that his players have recovered from the journey and the previous result and are not feeling any ill effects of the altitude or colder weather. He also claims they are looking forward to playing on Changlimithang Stadium’s artificial turf. “We cannot be underdogs in this match,” he insists. “We are a better team than them.”
Just two hours before kick-off, the Bhutan players decide to take a detour on the way to the stadium, to a famous monastery high up in the hills surrounding Thimphu. With the second round tantalisingly close, they are seeking all the help they can get. Inside the monastery, a monk in orange robes blesses each player before they sip holy water from a brass jug. Then the dice are produced.
Bhutan is a devoutly Buddhist country and the throwing of dice to make important decisions is common, including, allegedly, with the Dalai Lama. As captain, Karma Shedrup Tshering is nominated to make the throw. “I threw three threes,” he says happily outside afterwards. “I think it was a good throw.” Even numbers are bad luck, a team official explains. Odd numbers, good. As well as the potential boost of good fortune, Tshering will also be fresh for the game. After the victory in Colombo, his employer Druk Air had wisely given their pilot the rest of the week off to prepare.
One hour before kickoff, the Changlimithang Stadium is full, with as many as 30,000 people filling every space inside and outside. And within five minutes that crowd erupts, after Chencho chases a hopeful long ball and somehow flicks it past the onrushing goalkeeper to take an early lead. Bhutan appear on course for victory. But Sri Lanka finally score late in the first half.
The game swings back and forth in the second half with Chencho bursting through time and time again. He has a goal disallowed before Sri Lanka hit the post with minutes left.
A goal either way will clinch progression.
Finally, the altitude takes its toll. A tiring Sri Lanka’s luck runs out and Chencho fires home his second in the 90th minute, injuring himself in the wild celebrations that follow. Almost every Bhutan player is in tears when the final whistle blows. From being derided as the worst team in the world, as “basement boys” and cannon fodder, they have won two matches in a row, after winning only three in their entire history before 2015.
And what of Sri Lanka? Coach Kavazovic visits the Bhutan dressing room to congratulate the winning team. He asks for Chencho’s shirt; the man, he jokes, who has just cost him his job. “I can say, deep in my heart, that I will cheer for Bhutan in the group stage,” Kavazovic says after the game, with the home crowd still producing a deafening roar in the background. He looks more than likely to be heading for the enforced “holiday” that he wryly talked about after the shock defeat in Colombo. “Look at the crowd,” he says, standing in front of the still-celebrating main stand. “They deserve this. This country deserves it more.”
Bhutan now move on to the group stage. They will enjoy a huge advantage at home, in the altitude, much like Bolivia and Ecuador do when they play, and regularly beat, Brazil and Argentina at home. “They heard The Dragon roar!” shouts captain Tshering on the pitch as the players linked arms and bow in thanks and respect towards the crowd. It will be coach Nima’s last game in charge as he has only been temporarily occupying the role. The Bhutan federation had so little faith in progression at the start of the year that they had hired a Japanese coach, who couldn’t start until after March. So Nima held the fort until his arrival, and has thrived, though he insists that he’s happy to step back into his old role of technical director, even after becoming a national hero. Still, the Bhutan national team’s Facebook account will later release a statement denying that he has been fired, after angry fans demand he be kept on.
There will be no celebrations at KFC this time, mainly since KFC doesn’t exist in Bhutan. Neither will there be any alcohol, as Tuesday has been long designated a dry day by the Bhutan government. Instead, the players and their families meet in a local hotel to eat, celebrate and even cry a little. “It feels amazing, but I haven’t thought about what happens next,” Tshering says in the lobby. It’s clear, though, that, after their story has been heard around the world, that all of their lives are about to change forever. “Maybe,” Tshering adds with the same smile he had worn in training, at the monastery, and as he played with a joy seldom seen in international football these days, “it might even help me get a girlfriend.”
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James Montague is a British writer and journalist. He is the author of the book ’Thirty One Nil: On the Road with Football’s Outsiders’