Football: Football, like most sports in the country is still in its development phase. But it has become the most successful and popular sport in the country.

It was the historic win in the two-leg encounter against Sri Lanka last year, which revived the popularity of the game among Bhutanese once again.

Players became national heroes overnight. The national team garnered  support from both local and international football enthusiasts. The major development was that Bhutan was no longer at the bottom of the FIFA World Rankings.

However, over the next year, during the second round of the World Cup qualifiers, the team’s performance started deteriorating. The numerous defeats Bhutan suffered was almost inevitable as the country was up against some of the big names in the game. It was the expectation and standard that was set during the game against Sri Lanka that generated much criticism for the team.

But the team today has grown much stronger and players, more intelligent. It was the exposure the players gathered over the period that displayed itself during the games against Bangladesh recently.

We saw a much calmer, composed team at Changlimithang Stadium on October 10. A systematic and tactical approach from the team gave the Dragon Boys, a much-deserved win. As the new German coach said, the game wasn’t just “kick and rush” but more of technical and tactical play.

The game-management sense among the players according to senior national player Karun Gurung, has also improved over the years. The goalless draw in first leg of the qualifiers at Dhaka was the best result the team could manage.

“Winning the match in Dhaka would have been a great result but we were more concerned of not losing it,” said Karun Gurung. “Since this was a home and away game, our plan was to think for 180 minutes and the first 90-minutes away-game was very crucial.”

Everything went according to the German’s plan at Changlimithang Stadium. An early goal in the fifth minute gave the team much-needed motivation.

Not many changes were made to the first-11 at home. Hari Gurung was at the post safely guarded by the tall defender Jigme T Dorji, along with Choki Wangchuk, Nima Wangdi and Tenzin Dorji.

The experienced Karun Gurung and skipper Karma Shedrup Tshering formed a smart and physical mid-field. The technically intelligent, Tshering Dorji and Biren Basnet, provided agility to the team from the sides and goal-hungry Chencho Gyeltshen and Dorji at the front.

The revamped Bhutanese team under a new coach dominated throughout the match. The game just wasn’t dominated by a single player but by a collective effort starting from the goalie to the striker. The result: a 3-1 victory at home.

Bhutan Football Federation’s (BFF) investment in grassroots football has also started to pay off recently. Of the 23 players in the squad, 13 of them have come through the football academy under the federation. Four of them made the first-11 on October 10. BFF started the academy some 10 years ago.

The competition to qualify into the national team is now starting to become stiffer. At the same time with more academy players maturing in the game, it provides more choices to form a stronger national squad.

For a stronger and better national team, the ultimate platform is a stable and robust local league and clubs. Currently there are about eight clubs in the A-league and 13 in the B-league.

Younten Tshedup