Bhutan bows out of World Cup qualifiers  on 4-2 aggregate

Thinley Namgay

The expectation, after the 4-0 drubbing in Hong Kong, was that team Bhutan would not score five goals without conceding to progress to the next round of the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers. The Dragon Boys didn’t qualify, but exited the qualifying round with their heads held high.

Bhutan beat Hong Kong 2-0 yesterday evening cheered by thousands of fans including British business magnate and commercial astronaut, Sir Richard Branson who was seen donning a team Bhutan jersey and cheering along with home fans. The billionaire businessman is in Bhutan on a 10-day visit to raise funds for the charity Big Change, focused on transforming education.

The second leg win of the qualifying round played at the Changlimithang stadium was not enough as Hong Kong progressed on a two -goal difference.

Sir Richard Branson and 39 participants from around the world, including his son Sam, are in Bhutan for 10 days as tourists to undertake a Strive Challenge. The founder of Virgin Group and the tourists are participating in a 4-day hike and 3-day cycling to raise funds for the charity Big Change, which focuses on transforming education so that every young person can thrive.

The Dragon Boys won  2-0 in the second leg at the Changlimithang Stadium in Thimphu yesterday. But the damage was done in the first leg on October 12.  Hong Kong needed a draw to qualify.

Meanwhile, the mood inside the Changlimithang stadium was encouraging with more than 5,000  spectators including foreigners cheering for team Bhutan.  The sound of the drum, clamor of the crowd, cold autumn evening and the artificial turf provided an added advantage for Bhutan.

Bhutan’s captain Chencho Gyeltshen raised hope of a miraculous win when he scored in the 28th minute.   Chencho Gyeltshen’s header from a cross from Sherub Dorji found the back of the net sending the crowd in a frenzy whose celebratory noise was heard from as far as Changbangdu. The first half ended 1-0 for Bhutan despite a lion’s share of possession without clear cut chances to double the lead.

Buoyed by the lead, Bhutan resorted to more pressing game in the second half.  The pressure paid off when in the 49th minute the Dragon Boys  doubled the lead through midfielder Lobzang Chogyal. As the Hong Kong defenders retretead following a pass from  defender Nima Wangdi, Lobzang took his chance and hit a screamer and a personal achievement to be remembered.

Knowing that a Bhutan win with less than four goals would be enough, the visitors resorted to defending which they did, including some time -wasting strategies to wind down the clock. Bhutan’s seasoned goalie Hari Gurung was up to the mark for the few chances the visitors created.

Yesterday’s win was the first triumph over Hong Kong after the Bhutan national team lost three consecutive games  against Hongkong, one of the top teams in Asia.

In the 2015 qualifiers, Bhutan lost to Hong Kong 7-0 and 1-0, respectively in away and home matches.  On October 12, Bhutan lost 4-0 in the first round of the qualifier.

Despite the pressure to win, the Dragon Boys played a fair game without receiving a single caution while three yellow cards were awarded to the visitors including their coach who was complaining to the referee from the sidelines.

Bhutan’s coach Pema said that his game plan worked. “We discussed ensuring a high pressing game from the beginning.   My boys did it exactly. Winning against a team like Hong Kong is not easy.  I am very happy.”

He said that he expects a similar performance in future international competitions.  “All the boys maintained their respective positions well. I also want to thank our spectators for the unwavering support.”

Acknowledging the performance of Bhutan, Hong Kong’s coach Jorn Anderson said, “Bhutan played better football compared to my team. Bhutan fought very well. However, I am glad that we won 4-2 on aggregate.”

While many concluded that the altitude played a role in the loss, Coach Jorn Anderson said it cannot be an excuse for the loss. “We were not good enough in this away game.”

However, he said that his team had limited experience of playing in high altitude places and on artificial turf.

Jorn is optimistic to perform well in the next group stage.