The suspense is over. The draw for the second round of World Cup 2018 is out, and we know our chances of progressing to the next stage.
We are already the underdogs, even if we were ranked above Hong Kong in the recently updated FIFA ranking. The biggest hurdle obviously is China and Qatar. China has featured in the 2002 World Cup, although they lost all three games without scoring a single goal.
Expectations are high among the Chinese national team, which is evident from recent performances. Although the most populous nation bowed out from the 2015 edition of the AFC, they beat some big guns in the region, like Uzbekistan and North Korea. They also beat Paraguay, a World Cup regular, in a friendly in October 2014.
Qatar has proved to be China’s nemesis at the later stages of the World Cup qualifiers. They have beaten China thrice, drew three and lost only once. The 2022 World Cup host has won the Gulf Cup of Nation twice, most recently in 2014. Their best record, however, is reaching the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup in 2011.
Maldives and Hong Kong are no pushovers, and will provide formidable opponents to the national team, which is high on confidence after successive wins over Sri Lanka. After the draw, football pundits are already writing off our chances of getting into the next round, describing it as a difficult group.
This is the first time the national team has reached the second round, and there is no easy group at this stage. Confidence is high among the players and they have already developed a right attitude, by calling the group a “group of life.” In other words, they see a ray of hope to surprise the world again. That is the right approach – not giving up, even before the fixture is drawn. The only disappointment is that we are not grouped with Japan or South Korea, who have popular players playing in bigger European leagues, and followed by Bhutanese players and fans alike.
Whatever the chances, the second round provides a platform for the national team to gain a lot of experience, playing at the international stage. There will be eight games in total in this round. We will be playing in China, Hong Kong, Qatar, and the Maldives and four times at home. It will be good exposure for the national team to play in some of the state of the art stadiums, cheered and booed by tens of thousands.
Football is popular in the country, this will be a springboard for aspiring youth to look differently at the sport and probably force decision makers to give little more importance to sports. Beside the matches, the biggest concern among the players today is who will fund the trips to these countries.
For the fans, although there are no Kagawas and Hondas or Cahills to come and play at Changlimithang, it will be a treat to see better teams come and play at Changlimithang. Bhutan’s honeymoon period with the World Cup is still alive and kicking.