Football: The story of football in Bhutan has been nothing less than a fairy tale. Starting from rock bottom, Bhutan jumped 46 places to reach 163rd in the FIFA world ranking, after the memorable double victory in the two-legged encounter with Sri Lanka last year.

Prior to the victory, Bhutan was considered the worst team in the world. Today, this very team was recognised and presented with the award for the AFC aspiring member association of the year by the Asian Football Confederation on December 1.

The award was given in recognition of Bhutan Football Federation’s (BFF) effort in the promotion and development of football including its professional administration conduct in the country.

The 46 member associations of the AFC are divided into three categories: aspiring, developing and inspiring. Member associations are assessed and awarded points on various areas encompassing the association’s activities such as organisation of courses and seminars, competitions, grassroots and youth development, women’s programmes and social responsibility projects.

BFF’s president Ugen Tsechup Dorji said that AFC’s recognition towards the progress and conduct that the federation has achieved in the development of football recently is encouraging. “Recognitions such as this inspires us, encourages us to perform better,” he said. “It lets us know that what we are doing is being appreciated.”

The award is the first of its kind to be bestowed upon the country by an international football-governing agency.

Amidst the corruption allegations against leaders of world football, the confidence placed on the Bhutanese Football Federation by AFC is a benchmark that builds the federation’s credibility said Ugen Tsechup Dorji.

“Knowing that the funds and resources that AFC and FIFA puts into BFF is being utilised in the correct manner, it provides room for consideration when it comes to Bhutan,” he said.

Football in Bhutan came to the limelight when Bhutan qualified into the second round of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers last year. Although the team could not proceed further, the quality of the game saw a significant improvement.

By then facilities and infrastructures that promoted further growth of the game had also started sprouting. Today, artificial turfs, football academies, different coaching programmes to enhance football skills including grassroots programmes are all in place.

Prior to 2008, Ugen Tsechup Dorji said that the federation was working on a hand-to-mouth basis. The support and funds the federation was receiving from AFC and FIFA were just enough to run the programme within the country.

He said that due to the lack of budget several international tournaments were cancelled. “We also had to withdraw a lot of in-country tournaments. There was not much support for the national team. We couldn’t afford quality uniforms and proper dietary provisions for the team.”

Today, however, BFF has made significant improvement both technically and financially. The federation has an approximate bank balance of about Nu 130 million. In 2008, the bank balance was Nu 3.8 million.

Through perseverance, support and good management within the federation, Ugen Tsechup Dorji said that funds were saved wherever possible and unnecessary spending avoided. “We are now comfortable with the financial position we are in and through this financial comfort we are able to provide much more programmes and services to footballers in the country.”

Thimphu alone has two artificial turfs including two mini pitches. Tsirang has one artificial turf. In the next two years, BFF plans to construct artificial turfs in Paro, Punakha, Samtse and Gelephu. BFF also plans to construct a futsal ground in Changlimithang stadium before 2017.

The existing football academy at Changjiji will also be upgraded to international standards along with the upgradation of the women’s academy in Gelephu, the first academy dedicated to train women footballers in South Asia.

With good relations with countries such as Japan and South Korea, BFF has managed to receive technical aid from the Japan and Korean football federations.

One key accomplishment achieved by the federation is in setting up  grassroots programme all over the country. “We are trying to encourage more children to take up football,” said Ugen Tsechup Dorji, adding that the federation’s objective is to sustain a good quality team in the long run.

Considered to be the most popular game in the country today, football like rest of the sports federations receive limited financial support from the government. BFF received Nu 2.51 million from Bhutan Olympic Committee for the 2015-16 fiscal year.

“We recognise that the support from the government is not much given the resources our country has. We have to understand the reality that Bhutan is not a rich country where they can divert, probably in the view of the government, important funds that can be used for other social projects and programmes to sports.”

Ugen Tsechup Dorji said that sports should be developed equally as it contributes to the wholesome development of youth. However, recognising and understanding the constraints of the government, BFF has made its own effort to try and save any amount of money they can.

“The federations needs to be supported by government but at the same time responsibility also lies with the federations and their presidents to promote their games themselves.”

Younten Tshedup