Bhutan and Montserrat rise on FIFA ranking since the 2002 World Cup “Other Final”

Ugyen Penjore and Thinley Namgay

Two decades ago, on the day of the FIFA World Cup finals between Brazil and Germany in Yokohama, Japan, Bhutan hosted Montserrat, a tiny island nation, in what was dubbed as the World Cup’s “Other Final.”

The game organised by a media firm from Holland, KesselsKramer, brought together the two countries on the other end of the FIFA ranking.  Bhutan 202nd and Montserrat, who became the latest FIFA member, ranked 203rd met at the national stadium in Thimphu. Bhutan beat Montserrat 4-0 capping its first international win.

Five FIFA World Cups went by since the Other Final. As both countries wait for the 22nd edition of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar this November, a lot has changed for the two international football underdogs.

Bhutan has jumped 16 places on the FIFA ranking. Bhutan is ranked 186th as of August this year out of 211 nations. The highest rank was 159th in 2015.

The national men’s football team coach Pema, 44, attributes the rise to playing many international games and gaining experience on the bigger stage. Pema had been managing the national team since 2005. “It is due to the participation in many international games. We have appeared in more than 30 international games since 2000,” he said.

“After the 2018 world qualifying games, we won some regional international matches.  Before 2018, we hardly won.   International games give players experience, confidence, and exposure,” said Pema.

He said the improvement in infrastructure, proper training at the BFF Academy, and regular training by the respective clubs over the years contributed to producing quality players.  “All the Bhutan Premier League clubs have licensed coaches and it is paramount in grooming players.”

Another important factor, the coach said, was support. “Over the years parents also supported their children to play football. After the 2018 world cup qualifying games, the support from the parents was huge.”

Some players who were trained and participated in regional tournaments left to focus on school or college.

Coach Pema said that the motivation level in football in recent years is high. “Through football, national players get a salary from the BFF and they are also paid by the respective clubs.” BFF also provides scholarships to some players.

The national team’s ranking started to improve after its first-ever qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. Calling themselves Thunder Boys, the national team beat Sri Lanka home and away in group C which included China and 2022 World Cup host Qatar. In recent years, on their road to Qatar 2022, The dragon Boys beat Guam 1-0.

Montserrat: from  minnows to 178th

However, it is Montserrat, the beaten finalist in 2002, that rose highest on the FIFA ladder among the footballing minnows.

The BBC recently covered Montserrat’s football story in an article titled “Montserrat: Caribbean island’s football team rising amid recovery from disaster.” Montserrat is one of the 14 British Overseas Territories.

As of August, Montserrat is ranked 178th, eight places above Bhutan. The change on the field is attributed to the launching of the Concacaf Nations League in 2018, which provided Montserrat with the opportunity to play opponents of a similar size and standard. Out of the 18 fixtures they played, they won eight under Scottish manager Willie Donachie, who retired recently.  Off-field, it is the rebuilding of the nations that suffered from several volcanic eruptions.

Better days are ahead for the once football’s punching bag with many professional players wanting to play for the island nation. According to the BBC, newer arrivals include Nottingham Forest striker Lyle Taylor, who first played for Montserrat in 2015. Nottingham Forest is playing in the top division of English football – the popular English Premier League.

With 10 goals, Taylor is now their record scorer. Other big names include former Salford City midfielder Matty Willock, whose brothers Joe and Chris play for Newcastle and QPR respectively. Willock made his debut in 2021.

Montserrat missed qualifying for the 2019 Gold Cup, the Concacaf equivalent of the European Championship, on goal difference to El Salvador, a country of 6.5m ranked 100 places above them.

Alex Dyer, Montserrat’s joint-record- appearance holder with 21 caps, told the BBC that Montserrat had been winning games and that people on the island are over the moon about that. 

“It gives them some joy and something to cheer for, and it inspires the younger generation of kids. They can look forward to maybe playing for the country themselves when they’re older,” he told BBC.