Come Tuesday and one of the smallest countries in the world will have a face-off with one of the biggest.
Yes, you heard that right. On June 16, Bhutan will take on China in an attempt to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
With the Bhutanese squad battling past Sri Lanka over two legs (home and away) the Himalayan nation qualified for the second round amidst big celebrations in the capital Thimphu. And, although, football pundits say Bhutan has been drawn in a difficult group with China, Hong Kong, Maldives and Qatar, the atmosphere in Thimphu – where the first leg of the match will be played – is electrifying. And fans are optimistic.
Bhutan kicks of the qualifications with a match against the Hong Kong at the Mong Kok stadium in Hong Kong on the 11th of June 2015.
‘It won’t be a walk in the park for the Chinese team as the altitude they will be playing in will be very high,’ said Tenzin Namgay. ‘With home support, our boys will surely put up a good fight. Nothing is impossible.’
Thimphu is the world’s third highest capital city at 2,648m. So it surely will be tough for any team and not just the Chinese to acclimatize to play 120 minutes of football. But, with over 2,500 Chinese supporters’ crossing over for the game, the Chinese team too will have the support of their fans to pull them through.
Bhutan started its first round qualifiers as the world’s worst team, according to FIFA rankings. But, a late winner from striker Tshering Dorji against Sri Lanka, in the rarefied air of Changlimithang Stadium, gave the country’s position a lift to 163 from 209.
Tuesday’s match will only be Bhutan’s 60th official FIFA fixture since 1982. Of the 60 matches so far, Bhutan has won only 4 games, the fourth win coming against Sri Lanka in April this year. Prior to the match with the Sri Lankans, Bhutan had not played an International game in Thimphu since April 2002.
In 2002, at the time of the FIFA World Cup Final in Japan and South Korea, Bhutan played against Montserrat in the ‘Other Final’ – a game arranged between the two lowest teams in the FIFA rankings. Bhutan had won 4-0 to a packed stadium of Bhutanese supporters.
This time around too, Bhutanese fans are fully behind their team. And the excitement is palpable all around the country. Fans from outside Thimphu have begun flocking into the capital and more are expected to arrive by the weekend.
As far as the Bhutanese team is concerned, coach Chokey Nima said that the boys don’t worry about the rankings and are more focused on the upcoming game and its outcome.
With the beating of traditional drums and fans in the national colors of orange and yellow guaranteed to pack the stadium to its capacity, the mood in the tiny country is upbeat. And if Bhutan does win, the entire nation will be celebrating it for a long time to come.
In the meantime, the eight group winners of the second round and the four best runners-up will advance to the next stage of the World Cup qualifying in Asia. The 12 Asian teams will also qualify automatically for the 2019 Asian Cup that will be held in the United Arab Emirates.