Bhutan are the lowest ranked team in the world. James Montague was there to see how they fared in their first ever World Cup qualification match against Sri Lanka.
It was early morning, far from home, but Karma Shedrup Tshering was still awake and hadn't stopped smiling for half an hour even as he talked about throwing up.
“A few of the boys were sick on the first day of training,” the 24-year-old captain of the Bhutan national team said proudly in the lounge of his hotel in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo. Vomit was proof of sacrifice, and sacrifice was proof of professionalism. “We've been to Bangkok training or ten days,” he added. “It is a way for the players to adapt to this weather.”
The midfielder was about to take part in the biggest game of his life. Bhutan was due to play Sri Lanka in the very first round of qualification matches for the 2018 World Cup finals, just seven months after the last one finished. Eight of the lowest ranked teams in Asia had been drawn against each other home and away. It marked the start of an incredible journey across five continents that would last the best part of three years.
Bhutan had the highest mountain to climb; ranked 209th and last by FIFA. This was also their first ever World Cup qualification match. “We have a young team and we are underdogs, we have nothing to lose,” said Shedrup. “We will fight with everything we’ve got.”
Bhutan can be found on the Eastern fringes of the Himalayas. TV was banned here until the late 1990s, and many of the players had never ventured abroad before. They had been members of FIFA since 2000, a membership granted just months after a then-world record 20-0 defeat by Kuwait. No one had given them any hope of success in Colombo. Sri Lanka were overwhelming favourites.
Tshering was one of the few players used to the time changes of overseas travel. As well as anchoring Bhutan's midfield he was also a pilot of Bhutan's national airline, Druk Air, hence why he was still awake even after a gruelling few weeks of fitness training and matches that left many if his team-mates vomiting pitch side. There were no professional players in Bhutan. “It is tough adapting your two lives,” he said. “I fly every day and have to train. It is a lot of pressure. You can't really make a living out of football.”
On the morning of the match the Bhutan team carried their own slabs of bottled water to the coach, which enjoyed a police escort on the way to a sweltering Sugathadasa Stadium. It was virtually empty as the country's two national anthems were played. Only a few hundred fans had arrived to see history being made. Midfielder Tshering Dorji scored the only goal to secure Bhutan's first ever World Cup victory.
“I can't explain the feeling right now, but it feels good,” said Karma Shedrup Tshering as his team mates hugged and screamed on the pitch around him. “We came here as underdogs. We really worked hard at it this. We are enjoying the moment.” They celebrated by enjoying a $400 KFC treat after the match. There are no KFCs in Bhutan. “It was too much chicken, really,” the team's
manager later confessed. One players tried to check two buckets in with his luggage on the way home.
The job, however, was only half done. Five days later Bhutan's picturesque Changlimithang Stadium was filled with 20,000 fans an hour before kick off. Many wore traditional dress as thousands more were locked outside. Those who couldn't get in gathered on waste ground around the stadium for a glimpse of the team that had captured the country's heart after their unexpected victory in Sri Lanka.
When the referee blew the full time whistle Bhutan had won 2-1. Bhutan's substitutes and coaches rushed on to the pitch and embraced, many in tears. It was a scene of jubilant chaos, but not for the Sri Lankan team who had taken four flights and spent 24 hours sleeping at various airports just to reach Bhutan. “We desperately wanted to reach the group stage,” said Sri Lanka's Serbian coach Nikola Kavazovic. “I can say, deep in my heart, I will cheer for Bhutan in the group stage.”
In March the draw was made for the next round. Bhutan will play Hong Kong, The Maldives, Qatar and neighbours China. They avoided the traditional heavy hitters. As groups go, it gives them the best possible chance of making the final group stage. But Karma Shedrup Tshering doesn't know that yet. Back on the pitch in Bhutan, the captain still can't quite believe his team have made the next round. “We had so many chances, but had one good play and scored the second,” he said as the crowd stayed in the stands to honour their new heroes. “We let them hear the roar of The Dragon.”