The evolution of football in Bhutan

Once upon a time the game was a craze, now it has become a career

COVER STORY: It was a Monday afternoon, February 14, at the Al-Sadaqua Walsalam stadium in Kuwait in 2000.  Chokey Nima, technical director with Bhutan Football Federation (BFF), still remembers the day vividly.  That was the day when Bhutan conceded 20 goals against Kuwait, the most embarrassing defeat for the Bhutanese team.

It was just too hot and humid for the Bhutanese team. “We were down to nine men and conceded 20 goals, including five penalties,” he said; the right defender, who was put in place of striker that day.

The team played several exposure matches in Nepal before the big game in Kuwait.  The first goal came in the 18th minute.  Within the next 70 minutes, Bhutanese team would concede 19 more.  That was Bhutan’s maiden foray into the continental football scene.

Retro: Druk Air defence tries to block a Kanglung striker.

Kuwait striker Bashir Abdullah scored eight goals.  The worst came when even Kuwait’s goalkeeper scored one.  It was a nightmare for the Bhutanese team on the field.

“We lacked motivation, technical and tactical awareness,” said Chokey Nima. “Playing against a professional team with two men down and the score line combined made all the difference.”

The Kuwait game was the game that changed football in Bhutan. “Yes, we regretted the game but, in reality, the defeat was the foundation of the football that we see today,” says Chokey Nima.

Ugyen Wangchhuk, general secretary of BFF, who once played for the national squad, said that football was more than a game before. “It was the only means of entertainment for Bhutanese people,” he said. “It was the most popular sport in the country.”

Football was considered a game of strength.  People, who could kick the hardest and the furthest, used to be selected for the national squad,” said Ugyen Wangchhuk.

Goutam Mukherjee, who played for Druk-11, said that armed forces personnel were selected for the team because of their physical strength.  Also, eight out of 11 players were not Bhutanese.

Goutam Mukherjee, who earned the name “the black horse”, played for the national squad from 1979 to 1982, the golden era of Bhutanese football.  People from all walks of life came to witness the game at Changlimithang.

Football used to be different, says Goutam Mukherjee.  The ground used to be filled with people hours before a match. “Football had improved by much, but we’ve lost the craze.”

Goutam Mukherjee and his mates defeated Mahindra Police Club of Nepal to claim the first Nepal Gold Cup for the team in 1980.  A massive celebration followed the win.

Football in Bhutan has made some leaps, of course.  It had recently climbed 46 places up from the lowest FIFA had it ranked.

Chokey Nima said that there was still enormous scope for growth. “Eight to nine years down the line, we’ll have a new generation of football players that will challenge the elite teams of the world.”

Football is set to become the face of the nation, with many young talents and improving facilities.

Bhutanese football clubs get more foreign players at the top division leagues, and international companies are taking keen interest in Bhutanese tournaments.  BFF is working on ways to export Bhutanese players to play for international clubs.

Ugyen Dorji, an ex-national player, said that football has helped bring people in the country together. “I see drug addicts and little monks come early in the morning to play the game, the way they communicate among themselves through the game is just amazing. There is hope. Our dreams are not small.”

Chencho Gyeltshen said that football for him is more than just a game. “People can make a living out of football now, and that is a reality facing us today.”

BFF’s grassroots football programme in 18 dzongkhags is expected to bring in more football talent.  The programme has been training over 6,000 children aged between 6 and 12.

“Future is good; football will be big in Bhutan,” said Chencho Gyeltshen.

By Younten Tshedup

1 reply
  1. Merak Sakteng Youngba
    Merak Sakteng Youngba says:

    The evolution to revolution: just a probe to the sports in Bhutan

    As Lord Alfred Tennyson once said, “The old order changeth yielding place to new”. Sports in Bhutan should be taking its shape. Yet the Bhutanese sports, even with support from the international federations still remain at the bottom of the table (Media reports of AFU-16, 2010 qualifying). In 2002, Bhutanese soccer team played an international match, the other final of the world cup against Montserrat. Interestingly, that was a match to place the loser at the very bottom of international soccer. Bhutanese won the 1st international match and that too with the help of a Dutch coach Arie Schans (Kessels, 2002) who based the game plan on scientific approach. There are some Bhutanese who wanted to play for Arsenal someday but this would be a dream and an illusion for 100 years if the athletes do not account the study on the scientific design. In 2015, the Bhutanese athletes qualified for FIFA world cup had an edge with because of the design not known but the following round proved to be a challenge with opponent having a better design, besides the technical and the physiological make up. In general, it is assumed that Bhutanese athletes would have advantage with the altitude and it usually is a ride on the hoax, and the physical performances of athletes in other countries have the performance outdoing on the lap of the Himalaya.

    In Bhutan, Sports have gained increasing popularity especially amongst the youth comprising 23% of the population. However, in view of the merits derived from sports and physical activities, it is increasingly recognized that involvement of all sections of the population through “Sports for All” program (BOC, 2011). Hence, a holistic approach needs to be adopted in the development of sports that caters to the young and the old, the able-bodied and the physically challenged, and people from all walks of life making a pool of social capitals (Henry & Ko, 2014). Promotional activities pertaining to sports needs are given further impetus and the society at large made aware of the benefits of sports and facilitated to actively participate in sports, with special encouragement for women to participate.

    Bhutanese persuade sports as an art and for sports only. It is seen that sports of any discipline are no more an art in Olympics. Kamlesh (2009) stated that sports are sciences of electromyography, muscular flexor digitorum, extensor digitorum and anthropometric somatotype and nutrition. In Bhutan, Sports as a science is not yet explored by the Bhutanese Sports Federations and yet we envision for the best in the Olympic and International competitions.
    Although Bhutan did not have a well-structured sports activity program, some kind of sports and physical activity existed in the ancient days. Local sports such as archery, khuru (dart game), dance and wrestling are common. Often the people of one locality competed against another locality where males played these sports. Women did not play but they had their own roles. They danced and cheered for their team (Bhutan Media Service, 2010). Now, sports such as soccer, basketball, volleyball, Taekwondo (Korean martial arts) and track and field events are becoming popular in the schools (Sherab, 2000). Presently, Bhutan is focusing on specific sports skills to be learned, providing an opportunity for the sports career and such developments do not make ends meet.
    Bhutanese sports competition are becoming a part of the culture, and students and elders enjoy competitive games. The significance of winning is important in the Bhutanese society and sports athletes are beginning to compete in the international scenarios with lot of challenges. Yet, Bhutanese sports leaders, administrators, managers and coaches are uninformed on the trend of competition based on sports science. Thus, the grievances lead to the discrimination of the sports leaders, policy makers, coaches and the athletes in Kuensel (Choden, 2009). Such a study on sports science will determine to complement for elite and professional sports in Bhutan which will make the Bhutanese athlete contest.

    Bhutanese athletes, coaches and sport leaders belief on the competition as new emergence with sports science. The competitive and elite sport has increased the activity levels of children by adopting a ‘hard line’ approach and increasingly forcing pupils into ‘hard’ exercises such as arduous cross-country running or fitness testing at the expense of acquiring knowledge and understanding about exercise science, and developing physical, behavioral skills and positive attitude. The situations in these are deficit of sports science which would short circuit to the long term vision of Bhutan sports.

    The sports studies on science: psychology, physiology, bio-mechanic and anthropometric have not been explored and made access to the Bhutanese sports federations. As of the current practices in Bhutan, competitive sport is based on three widely held assumptions: first, students must be educated to function in a competitive world because they live in a competitive society; second, excellence results from competition; third, competition develops character and promotes sportsmanship, helps in moral development, increases motivation, builds confidence, and makes students ready to face the real world (BTF, 2009). But it is argued, “in reality competition does not confirm these assumptions” (Coakley, 1998, p. 180). Most of the daily activities require cooperation and not competition. In fact, competition impedes learning and brings negative behavior such as violence and cheating. When students fail in competition, their confidence and self-esteem are diminished (Stafford, 2011).

    The Bhutanese sports project: “Sport Coalitions in Action program in Bhutan, 2009-2011”, is a study that was carried to process for sports policy in Bhutan (Steemers, 2010). However, Steemers (2010) stated of this program as the social welfare sports of the Bhutanese juveniles. The study focus on sports is slightly unsettled as it is a sports program on sport activities for vulnerable youth to increase self-esteem and regain a healthier life style among the target group who were young juvenile on substance abuse. The “Sports Coalitions in Action program” having other executing partners, Utrecht school of governance and other stakeholders obligated a different focus. The Utrecht School of Governance (USG) monitors and evaluates the program related to monitoring and evaluation method for the sport coalitions in for educational sports in Bhutan rather than a professional sport and performance.

    The importance and priority of the sports have been intensive since 1988. It was strategic choice made by the Bhutan Government that time on sports education, health and fitness. The referral letter from the Royal office of the Fourth Druk Gyelpo dated 15th April, 1988 to the president (Lyonpo Dawa Tshering) of the Bhutan Olympic committee acclaimed in playing the vital role in promoting the sports in Bhutan in terms of human resources, equipment and facilities (Bhutan Taekwondo Federation, 9.11.2000-Annex I, archived). Just as it happens anywhere in the developing countries, Bhutanese sports federation had the same challenges.

    Bhutan Olympic committee (2011, pp. Road map, 1) states: “The importance of sports has never been reflected in any national policy or strategy, and its inherent linkages to the social and political economy ignored.” The BOC studied the urgency and the importance of the sports policy (Bhutan Sports Baseline Survey, 2010) and the other exogenous and endogenous issues like funds. The funding from the government has been minimal and the fund for the 10th five year plan was 0.18% of the total five –year budget which amounts to US $4.03 million per annum (Finance, 2013, p. 4.4.15: 45) , one of the lowest in the world (Bhutan Olympic committe, 2011, p. 1.2.2: 2).

    The growth of sports in Bhutan, the then honourable Prime Minister (JYT) in his “State of the Nation report” (RGOB,2012-13, 3rd pillar of GNH, p. 97), stated that:

    Under the leadership of HRH Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck, His Majesty’s Representative in the Bhutan Olympic Committee (BOC), the sports sector has seen tremendous growth. His Royal Highness’s keen leadership has strengthened not only goodwill and diplomacy in sports but has also strengthened the institutional capacity.

    The Reviews of the Bhutanese sports status in the international prospect is an awful affair. The National Federations have not probed depth in understanding the underlying problems that remain concealed and yet struggle challenging the policy makers, sport administrators, organizers and athletes. For instance there are observations made of the National Sports Federation. The Bhutan National News Paper, Kuensel (Acharya, 2002) remarked as the Federations: “weak and ailing”. The statement has been unfortunate and is biased and rhetoric in understanding the ground realities of sports science.
    Chhetri as general secretary for Bhutan Olympic cited in (Kuensel, 2002), “our planning has always been good, but we didn’t always have the means to put those plans into action”. Now it is theorized that the grounding on the sports science and research in sports have not instituted in Bhutan sports as yet. Till date, many of the athletes recruited are based on the national, regional performance and the individual’s interest. Bhutan’s recent participation in the recent Asian Qualifying football in 2000 in Kuwait; 2010 in Myanmar and the frantic result, losing all the matches, has set a new demand in sport science.
    A Korean coach in Bhutan Basketball Federation (Kim, 2013) stated that “Bhutan’s main problem is height. Few in this nation of 742,000 are taller than 6 feet. There is a saying in basketball that height cannot be taught”. The individual initiate the capacity for the good sports as stated in (26th FIBA, Bhutan’s Asian Zone Qualifying, New Delhi, 2011). And that was the status of the sports when missing the actual component of sports. Bhutanese athletes often finished as participants for the game.

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