MB Subba

Bhutan’s under-23 football team will represent the country in the first major football tournament when they meet Nepal on December 10 in the final of the ongoing 13th South Asian Games (SAG).

The dragon boys made a promising start by beating Bangladesh 1-0 at the Dasharath Stadium in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu last week.

Bhutan, which went to the tournament as underdogs, demonstrated that the team is by no means a pushover. The team’s performance against Bangladesh, the Maldives and Sri Lanka showed that Bhutan were a vastly improved outfit.

Football commentators have noted that Bhutan lately has been playing reasonably well with improved standing in world football. Bhutan is expected to go full throttle against Nepal to make a history.

This is the first time Bhutan has made it to the final. 

However, the Dragon boys have to be at their best if they want to beat host Nepal who already beat them 4-0 in the qualifying round.

After the Bhutanese team reached the final by defeating Sri Lanka on December 7, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering on his official Facebook page wrote, “As an underdog, this news far surpasses our expectation. Our boys made it to the finals at the SAG. We saw a new beginning, a renewed hope.”

The prime minister congratulated the players, the coach and management and supporters. “With immense pride, I also wish you all the strength and stamina to take on the finals. My best wishes,” he wrote.

Quoting the Bhutanese head coach, Pema, the Bhutan Football Federation Facebook page states that it was not because of sheer luck that the team has reached the final.

“It was combination of the determination, self belief and hard work that made us perform well in each game,” he said.

A media outlet in Nepal reported that Bhutan would have loved to avoid the host in the final. The home team is expected to enjoy home-field advantages against the visitors.

Considering the overall performance in the tournament, many football followers are considering that this tournament as one of the best chances to win a gold medal in football for the first time.

Bhutan thrashed Sri Lanka 3-0 and beat the Maldives 2-1 in the earlier matches. Where as, Bhutan’s opponent Nepal toiled hard to beat the Maldives (2-1) and drew (1-1) with Sri Lanka.

Bhutan had played against Nepal without a 48 hours’ rest, which is a standard requirement as per the Federation of International Football (FIFA) rule. The host, on the other hand, was playing their first match with fresh legs.

Football commentators have described Chencho Gyeltshen as a constant threat to the opponent while on the field, and he is expected to be a key weapon for the Bhutanese side. The star striker from Bhutan, who is a well-known name in South Asian football, has a goal in his name in this tournament.

The task to dispatch the host, however, is easier said than done. The host team is the defending champions and has won the title three times in 1984,1993 and 2016. Nepal defeated the regional powerhouse India in the final of the 12th edition held in India’s north-eastern city of Guwahati in 2016.

But keen followers of Bhutanese football say statistics will not matter much if the team fails to perform on the field. They hope that Bhutanese team will get the ball rolling towards the gold medal.

In what gives Bhutan some advantage against the host, the Nepali side has lost four of their key players to suspension on disciplinary grounds.

Captain Chencho Gyeltshen, in a live Facebook chat with avid Dragon Boys’ fan, Namgay Zam, said that the team has already aimed for gold medal this time. “Silver is sure for us, but we are after the gold,” he said.

The prolific Bhutanese sticker, meanwhile, called on Bhutanese to support the Dragon Boys. “Seeing a single Bhutanese in the yellow and orange jacket in the stadium gives us the energy and confidence to perform better,” he said while in conversation with Namgay Zam.

“We don’t expect a stadium full of Bhutanese fans, a single person in the national colours is enough to drive us.”