The Stone Phallus of Fortune
Following Bhutan as they embark on their World Cup qualification campaign
March, 2015. Colombo, Sri Lanka.
It is early morning, not even 7am, but Karma Shedrup Tshering is awake and sharp and hasn't stopped smiling. Which is strange because, for the past half hour, he has been talking about the smell of vomit and how it has followed him around recently. “A few of the boys,” he explains rather proudly, “were sick on the first day of training.” Tshering is the 24-year-old captain of the Bhutan national team. We are sitting in an average hotel on Colombo's beautiful sea front talking about his country's next football match and the tough, vomit-inducing training regimen that his team has been put through in preparation. A tropical but undeveloped panorama on the edge of the Sri Lankan city stretches out behind him. “We've been to Bangkok for ten days, for the players to adapt to this weather,” he says of the extreme physical reaction it has provoked from his players. Outside is a steady 32 degrees with intense humidity. It has been like this for a week. “We have a young team and we are underdogs,” he says. “We have nothing to lose. We will fight with everything we got.” All the other players are asleep, trying to shake off the physical effects of not just training like professionals for the first time but of jet lag too.
They are, officially, Fifa's lowest ranked team: 209th out of 209. Bhutan is an isolated kingdom on the eastern fringes of the Himalayas, landlocked between India and Tibet. TV was banned there until the late 1990s. In fact, many of the players in the squad are venturing outside of their country for the first time, adding to the feeling of displacement and nausea. But there are nerves. Despite being members of Fifa since 2000, a membership granted just months after a then-world record 20-0 defeat to Kuwait, they are about to play their first ever World Cup qualification match, for Russia 2018, against Sri Lanka. Their South East Asian opponents are more known for their national cricket team rather than any success in football. In fact, cricket's World Cup happens to coincide with the start of World Cup qualification. This is a cricket country in a football world. Still, Sri Lanka are overwhelming favourites to progress.
Tshering is one member of Bhutan's team used to shifting time and foreign fields. He spent several years as a teenager growing up in Australia. He still speaks with a slight Aussie twang. As well as anchoring Bhutan's midfield, he is a pilot for Bhutan's national airline, Druk Air. Which explains why he is still awake even after a gruelling few weeks of fitness training and matches that left many of his teammates vomiting by the side of the pitch. There are no professional players in Bhutan. “It is tough adapting your two lives,” he says. “I fly every day and have to train. It is a lot of pressure. You can’t really make a living out of football.” Even a World Cup qualifier doesn't warrant a day off. After the Sri Lanka game, Tshering has to fly back to Bhutan and then go straight to work, flying passenger jets to Bangkok and Singapore, training in between flights and returning the morning of the big match. All Tshering did was fly, train and play. “I wish I had time for a girlfriend!” he says half jokingly, half wistfully. Only one player in the squad, the 19-year-old striker Chencho Gyeltshen, has had any experience in professional football, and that is a handful of games for Buriram United in the Thai league.
Victory against Sri Lanka wouldn't just be historic. It would allow his players to reach the first group stage of Asian World Cup qualification and a chance, finally, to concentrate on just playing football. It would change their lives. Being on the very edges of the international game meant Bhutan played very few fixtures. Perhaps one match a year, if they were lucky. Reaching the group stage meant eight matches home and away, against the likes of Japan or Korea or maybe even Australia. For the losers, it was back to the international wilderness. “It's going to go down in history,” Tshering says of the match ahead. “There's a lot of pressure, especially on me. We have a really young team.”
Only one man in the Bhutanese set up had seen anything like this before. The team is coached by Chokey Nima, the quiet but oddly charismatic 45-year-old technical director of the Bhutan Football Federation who played in Bhutan's ill-fated 20-0 thrashing by Kuwait. “That was the moment we can never forget,” he says, softly, after joining Tshering on the couch. “We conceded five penalties,” he adds – actually it was four – “and two red cards. Spending 90 minutes on the pitch was tough. We were not aware of tactics.”
That wasn't surprising either. For the second half of the 20th century, the mountain kingdom of 700,000 people lived in virtual seclusion. Nima, like his fellow players and coaches, grew up with no television, which meant no live football. The only football they could watch, and be influenced by, were smuggled VHS cassettes of famous European Cup and World Cup matches. By the end of the 1990s Bhutan's fourth king declared that TV would be legalised. The first programme on national television was the 1998 World Cup final. “I'm very lucky. When I was brought up TV was already there,” says Tshering. “The first match I remember was France 1998 so my favourite player was Zinedine Zidane. Television was a great influence for me. Television really helped me to play the way I do now.” It came too late for Nima and his players on that fateful night in Kuwait City in 2000. But afterwards live football was piped in to every home, bar and café in the capital Thimphu. “We now have a chance to see the modern aspects of the game,” Nima says. “The team is much, much, much better now because of the exposure to TV.”
This World Cup qualification campaign would test how far they had come. Even as late as December 2014 the Bhutan federation felt that the 2018 World Cup qualifiers had come too early. They had decided not to enter and instead spend their resources on improving facilities for youth players. But Fifa offered them $300,000 to cover the considerable cost of moving a squad of 30 players and officials across Asia. The team had been together now for an intense one month of preparation, including the training camp in Thailand. Nima had seen such a steep improvement that he believed Bhutan had more than enough potential to reach the second round. He seems annoyed by the mere mention of Bhutan's lowly Fifa ranking. “I think it will be the biggest day for Bhutan, not just the players,” he says of the reaction back home if, as he believes, Bhutan beat Sri Lanka. “The nation will be proud. We are Two Zero Nine. But that doesn't mean we are the worst country playing football.”
Rather than think of the World Cup finals as a standalone competition, think of it instead as the final few metres of the greatest race on earth. The Road to Russia stretched over six continents, featured 210 teams, playing 872 matches. Almost 19 million supporters turned up to watch the games and saw 2,454 goals scored. It began in Asia, on 12 March 2015, just 242 days after Germany had beaten Argentina 1-0 in the 2014 World Cup final at the Maracanã stadium in Rio. And as ever the journey didn't begin in London or Berlin or New York. It began in places like this, in Kathmandu or Ulaanbaatar or Colombo, supposed backwaters where football survives in the face of myriad problems.
I had some experience of these games on the edges of world football. In 2014 I wrote Thirty-One Nil, an attempt to cover the qualification campaign from the eyes of the minnows and underdogs that would, more than likely, come nowhere near qualifying for the World Cup. I wanted to know what drove these teams and these players in the face of insurmountable odds and almost constant heavy defeats. It was a vast undertaking that almost broke me and very nearly ended at the start. As in 2018, the road to Brazil was supposed to begin in Asia with a two-legged play-off round. I had chosen Afghanistan versus Palestine, which was to be played in Tajikistan because of the security situation in Kabul. The second leg was to be played in the West Bank, Palestine's first ever World Cup match on home soil. The story practically wrote itself. But, after months of preparations, Concacaf decided to bring forward their matches. The first match would not be in Tajikistan, but thousands of miles west, between Montserrat and Belize in Trinidad and Tobago. Belize won that game 5-2, although both of Montserrat's goals were scored by the England-born striker Jaylee Hodgson, who played non-league football in Nottingham. Still, after initially thinking my plans had been ruined, I went to Tajikistan anyway and carried on following the qualifiers until Uruguay defeated Jordan in a final World Cup playoff in Amman two and a half years later.
This time there would be no last-minute switches but there were several games to be played on the same day. Technically, because of the time zone differences, the first game of 2018 World Cup qualification would begin in Dili, the capital of Timor Leste off the coast of northern Australia. East Timor were to play Mongolia, a vast journey home and away and possibly the most obscure international fixture possible. But, given Bhutan's Fifa ranking, I plumped for Colombo, a vast city with a metropolitan area of 5.6 million people, choked by a perennial mix of traffic, smog and noise. But the day after I arrived the Sri Lankan capital was eerily and uncharacteristically silent and still.
My rickshaw pottered through the city's empty streets towards the Sugathadasa Stadium as the sun began to set on another blisteringly hot day. The streets of Colombo had emptied for a different World Cup; a Cricket World Cup match between Sri Lanka, who had won the competition in 1996, and Australia. Down almost every side street groups of teenagers played impromptu cricket in the middle of the roads, using upturned wooden boxes or plastic crates as wickets. There wasn't a football in sight.
Sitting inside the deserted stadium, Nikola Kavazović had quickly got used to football taking a back seat role to Sri Lanka's national game. Kavazović is the Serbian coach of the Sri Lanka national team. He had been waiting patiently in the lobby for an interview with one of the few local newspapers that had expressed any interest in the football match. The journalist had yet to turn up. “This is the most important match ever for Sri Lanka,” he says with a shake of the head. “I didn't expect people, fans, or anyone else to support this national team. I was prepared that we would not have any support. Unfortunately I was right.”
Kavazović was one of a dozen Serbs I had met coaching in some of the most inhospitable footballing environments. He was, like the others, an intense man who you felt was only one dropped fork away from erupting and walking out. But Kavazović also had a deadpan sense of humour, which he gleefully administered to tease those around him. Like the other Serbs I had met in Rwanda or Botswana or closer to home around the Balkans he had a similar story: an ambitious young coach stymied by what he saw as nepotism and corruption back home. So he had gone forth and found some success in club football in Tajikistan and later with its national team before being appointed coach of Sri Lanka in 2014. Of course, he had come in with a far stricter way of doing business than the Sri Lankans had been used to in the past. “Flexible communism. Everyone is equal,” Kavazović explains, “but I'm the first among equals.” Earlier, the team manager had wondered how he was going to break the news to the coach without getting his head ripped off that the only way of getting to Bhutan for the return match in Thimphu was via four flights over 24 hours. The tickets had yet to be booked and the match was less than a week away. “Sometimes they are afraid of my reactions because I'm a Slav,” he says with a smile. “My temperament is sometimes very bad.”
He was given one goal by the country's federation: take the team past the first round of qualification and into the group stages. Like Bhutan, Sri Lanka was desperate for games and the group stage was a potential bonanza. So much so that Kavazović suspected that rival associations were trying to manipulate their Fifa ranking in an effort to make the cut for the group stage without having to roll the dice in the first round. He was still raging about a recent match in Bangladesh which the hosts had won 1-0. Kavazović had been so incensed by the officiating that he turned up to the press conference and gave a short, terse speech before storming out without taking any questions. “It's my message to all boys and girls in the world that they should stop playing football because in football there are many corrupted evil, bad people,” he said. “If they continue to play football, they will suffer in [their] prime, like my kids.”
The result meant that Bangladesh automatically qualified for the second-round group stage, while Sri Lanka were pushed down Fifa's rankings and into the first round. Still, many in Sri Lanka thought being drawn against Bhutan was as good as being handed a bye, even if Kavazović was more cautious. “Two matches against Bhutan and we can change the history of Sri Lankan football,” Kavazović says cheerily, although he had no illusions about qualifying for Russia. Reaching the group stage, not finishing last and improving Sri Lanka's chances of qualifying in future tournaments were more realistic goals. “I told them once: ‘Boys, this is do or die,'” he says. “If we win you are going to play against Dejagah, Honda, Cahill, a legend of Australian football. Otherwise you will only play the South Asian Cup. And I think you are sick of South Asian Cup.” Kavazović knew almost nothing about the Bhutan team aside from a few matches on YouTube. “Chencho is an excellent striker,” he says of Chencho Gyeltshen. “He's the only guy I know,” Kavazović freely admits. Chencho seemed to be the only Bhutanese player that anyone knew.
His players had begun to gather on the pitch for training, but they didn't appear cowed or fearful. They seem relaxed and confident as they train. Afterwards the team captain Sanjeewa Edirisuriya presents a cake and lights a candle. It is striker Shanmugarajah Sanjeev's birthday. As Sanjeev approaches to blow it out, he is squirted in the face with whipped cream, as others take handfuls of cake and smear the chocolate all over his face. Kavazović stands nearby, like a public school headmaster begrudgingly allowing a momentary act of indiscretion to aid morale. The players made wild predictions about the size of their victory. “6-0!” one player shouted. “All countries dream of the World Cup,” Sanjeev the striker says confidently through a wide smile, cake still smeared on his face. “We are planning a 4-0 score.”
It was true that no one outside the Bhutan camp believed in Chokey Nima's upbeat assessment of his team's chances. But as his players gather in the hotel lobby on the morning of the match Nima has a final message to impart. The Sri Lankan newspapers had proven to be interesting reading. An AFP article had coined the phrase “Basement Boys” to describe Bhutan, while a former Sri Lanka captain, Ashok Nawgalage, seemed to suggest that Sri Lanka were above playing teams like Bhutan. “There is no point in punching someone who is 36 positions below us,” he was quoted as saying. “Playing Bhutan is not very useful, even in terms of acquiring experience.” Nima held up newspapers and print outs as motivation.
The Bhutan team carry their own slabs of bottled water to the coach. We sit in nervous silence as the bus rocks through the traffic, which parts thanks to a police motorcycle escort. There is, at least, an absence of vomit. One person who appears to be taking this all in his stride is the captain Karma Shedrup Tshering. He has turned the collar of his shirt up, gelled his hair and is wearing his sun glasses whilst listening to Bhutanese pop music. “I am feeling a bit nervous,” he says, although he doesn't look it. “I told the players that we have nothing to lose.”
The inside of the Sugathadasa Stadium gives little indication that a football World Cup is about to begin. A low, one level covered terrace stretches around three sides. There is no back wall and no crowd, meaning that lush green vegetation pokes through, giving the impression that the stadium is slowly being consumed by encroaching jungle. An incongruous bright blue running track circles the semi-parched pitch. The scoreboard, however, is the stadium's most impressive quirk: a wooden hut painted black that had obviously been used for keeping score in cricket matches. In the middle of the scoreboard an analogue clock kept the correct time. Inside wooden slats with numbers and letters are piled up but the board out front has already been prepared for today's main event. Sri Lanka 00 – 00 Bhutan. Perhaps they are preparing for a cricket score after all.
The heat is blistering and the dark arts have begun. Bhutan's team manager Hishey Tshering is livid that the ceiling fan in Bhutan's dressing room is not working. He suspects foul play. “Maybe there won't be a heater in their dressing room when they get to Bhutan,” he says with a wink. Bhutan's Changlimithang Stadium in the capital Thimphu sits at an altitude of nearly 2,500m. In March there could be snow or blistering sunshine. The two teams line up as the national anthems are played. Only a few hundred people are here for the game, including several dozen Bhutanese medical students who chant their country's name as the referee blows his whistle. Within minutes it is clear that Bhutan are far better than their ranking suggests. They seem fitter and better organised than their opponents. And up front the one player Nikola Kavazović had heard of, Chencho, is terrorising Sri Lanka's defence with his incredible pace. In the first half his header hits the post. Captain Tshering somehow misses his chance to score the rebound. The only chanting is coming from the away fans: “Bhutan! Bhutan! Bhutan!” Chokey Nima turns from the action and points to the chanting fans, as if it is the first time he'd seem such a thing. Almost as soon as the chance passes Sri Lanka's striker Shanmugarajah Sanjeev – who'd predicted a 4-0 victory – hits Bhutan's crossbar with a header as the action segues from end to end. Next, Bhutan almost loop in a free kick of their own. “That was a brilliant free kick by Tshering Dorji,” says the Sri Lankan TV commentator in to his microphone. “It almost reminded me of Ronaldinho in 2002 when he chipped over David Seaman of England!” Almost.
Terrible challenges fly in. It is not the most technically astute of games but, still, a 0-0 draw, even the avoidance of a heavy defeat, would be a great result for Bhutan. And then history happens. There are only a few minutes left on the clock when Chencho flies down the right wing. He just manages to evade the last defender and cuts the ball back from the byline, taking the on-rushing Sri Lankan goalkeeper out of the game in the process. The midfielder Tshering Dorji gallops forward and blasts the ball into an empty net. Bhutan win their first ever World Cup qualifier. It's their first win of any kind in over seven years. When the referee blows the whistle, every Bhutanese player and coach storms the pitch as Sri Lankan players sullenly walk back to the dressing room. The result, how the ‘Basement Boys’ won their first-ever World Cup game, quickly makes headlines around the world. “I can't explain the feeling right now, but it feels good,” says Tshering says when I speak to him on the pitch, his teammates hugging and screaming around us. “For us this not the ranking, it's the outcome. We came here to prove we can play football. And we won!”
Nikola Kavazović, meanwhile, has a face like thunder. “It's embarrassing,” he says as he strides past me and towards the room where the press conference is due to take place. But he stops, turns around, composes himself and comes back. “They took this game seriously, 100% seriously. Huge pressure had a bad influence on my guys,” he says when I ask whether the players had underestimated Bhutan. “I don't know what to say. It is not a nice feeling. If we don't succeed to win in Thimphu I could tell you I am shamed and embarrassed of myself. But now I won’t do that. We have 90 minutes to fix the mess we made today in Colombo.”
There is no police escort waiting to take the coach back to the hotel. This time we sit for hours in the sweltering traffic. To celebrate the federation treats the players to a Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner. The total bill comes to US$400. “I ordered a bucket for each player,” Bhutan's team manager Hishey Tshering later recalls with regret. “There was too much chicken, really.” For the players who had never left the country it was their first taste of Western-style fast food.
The next day the players gather at Colombo airport for the long flight to Bhutan via Bangkok. One of the squad new to foreign travel tries to check in two family-sized buckets of chicken with his luggage, alongside the seemingly obligatory flat screen TVs each member of the delegation has bought. Thankfully, Bhutan's captain would not be flying the plane home. After the victory, the airline gave him an extra week off – which was just as well. Bhutan only has one airport for international flights, in Paro, about 50km outside the capital Thimphu. It also happens to be the most dangerous runway to land on in the world. Pilots have to navigate a snaking valley between 18,000 foot high mountain ranges. The mountains block all radar and other landing technology, meaning that planes are landed manually, by sight and only during daylight hours. Only a handful of pilots are qualified to make such a difficult landing. As we slalomed into the runway, skirting high ridges and valley floors alike, I was glad Bhutan's captain had been given the time off to concentrate on the game.
Outside Thimphu's single terminal, a welcoming party waits for the team in traditional dress, holding banners and singing traditional songs. “We Love Team Bhutan” reads one. “Proud of You, Heroes of Druk,” reads another. Druk means ‘Dragon’ in Bhutanese, which is also the nickname of the team. “I heard people were discriminating against our team, which was unfortunate on their part, but we are proud of what our team achieved,” says one young woman standing at the front of the crowd.
Discriminated? What do you mean, I ask.
“Discriminated in that they thought our team and our players were very small. Maybe because of their size,” she replies, laughing a little at the end. “They proved them wrong so I'm proud of them.”
We board the team bus and the players sing as it careers down a narrow mountain road towards the capital, sheer cliffs on one side, a sheer drop into a deep ravine on the other.
The Changlimithang Stadium is unlike any other in world football. There is a long, curved, concrete terrace on one side and on the other a large wooden pagoda-like building covered in ornate carvings. It was on this dais where Bhutan's fourth and (current) fifth king were crowned. It is surrounded on all sides by jagged mountain peaks, capped in snow. On one nearby hill a huge golden Buddha looks down. Bhutan is a deeply Buddhist country.
The stadium is a few minutes’ walk from the centre of the capital Thimphu but that isn't all that surprising. Thimphu is a small, one-road place, reminiscent of an 18th-century prospectors' town. Everything is a few minutes’ walk from the stadium. Because of a legally enforced dress code, almost everyone is wearing the national dress: a kira (a colourful ankle length skirt) for women and a gho for the men, a long wraparound robe with oversized cuffs and long socks. Near the stadium, men wearing ghos are performing Bhutan's national sport: archery. A large crowd has gathered on a grassy hill to watch the men try to hit a tiny wooden painted target over a distance of 150m. Children hide behind concrete walls along the route of the arrows to get as close as they can before they rush past and thwack into the wood.
At the Changlimithang Stadium, Chokey Nima is taking his Bhutan team through their final training session, the day before the return match. Nima has not had long to prepare his team for the second game as Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation, inexplicably, scheduled the games to take place just five days apart. Sri Lanka had only just arrived a few hours ago. But the victory in Colombo had transformed the narrative around the Bhutan national team: from perennial hopeless losers to genuine contenders. The country was gripped by World Cup fever. Bhutan's one national television channel beams constant coverage of the team. A half day was announced for all public servants to watch the game. Under the main stand at the stadium, hundreds of people have turned up to buy replica jerseys. They had just arrived from the manufacturers and were stacked up in a windowless room as three workers sold them for a few dollars as soon as each box was opened. Within an hour the entire stock was gone. Later I would see one of these shirts – one half covered in the sketch of a dragon – for sale on a well-known collectors' website for over £100. “It is true, people are waiting for our next performance but we are sure we will keep up with the expectations of the Bhutanese,” said Nima pitch-side after training. He seems distracted, but not by the pressure. Over his shoulder is Norio Tsukitate, Bhutan's next national team coach. He has been flown in from Japan.
One of the most unusual aspects of Bhutan's first victory was that it had been masterminded by a Bhutanese coach. Africa and Asia can sometimes appear to be a revolving door of failure involving foreign, and especially European, coaches. The Bhutanese federation had hired local, at least for the first round, a gambit down more to low expectations than by design. Tsukitate was due to start after the Sri Lanka game as, presumably, the Bhutan federation had thought that qualification for the next round was all but impossible. But now, the Bhutan press, the players and the supporters wanted Nima to stay, which made the dynamic of Tsukitate following Nima around to learn the ropes before replacing him all the more difficult. “I have been a player for 12 years, a coach 13 years,” he says, Tsukitate listening intensely behind him. “This is the first time we are in the World Cup qualification. We can win.”
Nikola Kavazović, meanwhile, had spent the previous two days finding quiet places to sleep in airport terminals. “The journey was very difficult because we changed four flights and we slept in the airport, on the desks,” he said. He had allowed his players three hours sleep before dragging them to the stadium for a double training session. “We recovered very fast,” he says. “Everyone is in a good mood but we cannot promise anything. We are in a bad situation.” One factor that seemed to be important was altitude. The air in Thimphu was thin. Just walking to the stadium left me gasping for breath. “I didn't notice any problems,” says Kavazović. “One thing which is very good is the artificial grass. My players are excellent technicians. That was one of the main problems with Colombo: the stadium is in very bad condition.”
I had worried about how the result might affect him and his players. In 2011, I'd watched American Samoa – a team which famously lost 31-0 to Australia – win their first ever game, against Tonga. As joyous as the scenes were for American Samoa's players, who had carried the weight and shame of that defeat on their backs ever since, Tonga's players seemed to assume the burden. “Look, American Samoa carried that 31-0 defeat for 10 years,” said Chris Williams, Tonga's young Australian coach afterwards. “We’ll have to shoulder that from now on.” But Kavazović had ignored the press and made sure his players were shielded from it too. “I didn't read the newspapers. I don't know what people think about the first match,” he says, believably. “I took the mobile phones form my players so they can't read comments or critics or things like that.” There was still some disbelief about what had happened in Colombo (“We can’t be underdogs; we are the better team. We just didn't show that in the first match,” insists Kavazović). But this time, at least, they would not take their opponents lightly. “They are not the same Bhutan that they were,” he says. “They are no longer 209th”.
Bhutan's preparations meanwhile appeared to be a series of religious excursions punctuated by the odd training session. The team would be ferried off into the mountains to visit far away Buddhist monasteries to pray, turn prayer wheels, meet with monks and light butter lamps. On the evening before the game we all board a coach for a one-hour trip high into the hills to visit one such monastery; a vast, almost gothic rock edifice which looks as if it had been carved into the mountain side a millennium ago. Afterwards the team line up to drink water from a holy fountain: a large, carved rock penis. It is meant to bring good luck. The water flows from the mountain and through the tip. One of the peculiarities of Bhutan is the sheer number of penises carved into rocks and temples, painted on to walls and gables. It is not, as many believe, some form of fertility symbol. It is, in fact to honour Drukpa Kunley, a 15th century Bhutanese monk. Kunley was one of the nyönpa – literally ‘mad ones’ ¬¬– a sect of unorthodox monks. He drank heavily and believed that sex was a way of finding enlightenment. We all drank the water gushing from the ancient rock penis.
Within minutes something didn't feel right. By the time I was back in the hotel, I had to crawl to the toilet, where I stayed, barely able to move or hold in any liquid. In this state, it would be impossible to leave my bed, let alone make the return match. Kavazović, whose Sri Lanka team were staying in the same hotel, calls for his team doctor, who cheerily enters a room that looks more like the scene from a horror movie. “Maybe there was a dead yak in the water further upstream,” the doctor says unhelpfully, making me retch, before handing me a fistful of colourful pills without explanation.
For the next 18 hours, I was gripped by a fever dream of wooden and rock phalluses wielded by a crazed holy man. By the morning, I was cured.
Just two hours before kick-off, the Bhutan team decides to take one last trip to a monastery. This time, thankfully, there is no penis fountain to drink from. This time we are here to consult the dice. Inside the monastery a monk in orange robes blesses each player before they sip holy water from a brass jug. It is then the dice are produced. Dice divination – the throwing of dice to make important decisions – is common in Bhutan. As the team's captain, Karma Shedrup Tshering has been assigned to make the throw. “I threw three threes, nine,” he explains outside.
Was that good, I ask.
Even numbers are bad luck, a team official explains. Odd numbers are good. “I think it was a good throw,” says Tshering. “I think.”
After the final visit we board the coach and head to the national stadium. Outside it is chaos. Thousands of Bhutanese people, taking advantage of the unexpected half day off work and the free entrance, have arrived for the game. It is full an hour before kick-off, with as many as 30,000 people filling every space inside and outside the stadium. They sing hauntingly beautiful songs that rise and fall before the referee blows his whistle. Within five minutes, the stadium erupts. Chencho, who could now claim to be the country's most famous player after the BBC dubbed him “the Bhutanese Ronaldo”, chases a hopeful long ball and somehow flicks it past Sri Lanka's onrushing goalkeeper. 1-0. Bhutan are on course for victory. But Sri Lanka finally manage to score a goal late in the first half and, despite being behind for virtually three halves of football, away goals mean that another would see them qualify instead of Bhutan.
The game swings back and forth in the second half with Chencho bursting through time and time again. He scores but the goal is disallowed. Sri Lanka hit the post with minutes left. A goal either way will clinch progression. But, finally, the altitude tells. A tiring Sri Lanka's luck in holding a high defensive line runs out. Chencho breaks free and fires home in the 90th minute. He jumps over the advertising hoarding behind the goal but slips and injures himself in the process.
Almost every Bhutan player is in tears when the final whistle is blown. From being derided as the worst team in the world, as the Basement Boys, they had suddenly won two matches in a row. They had only won three in their entire history before 2015. “You can see here the crowd support, we taught Sri Lanka what the home support should be,” shouts captain Tshering over the incredible noise as the players again celebrate around him. “And we let them hear the roar of the dragon.”
For Sri Lanka, the World Cup was over. It was back to the international wilderness although Kavazović would not be joining them. He was sacked a few weeks later. But on the pitch in Thimphu he is gracious in defeat. “It is hard. We didn't expect this. We desperately wanted to reach the group stage and we drew a team raised from nowhere,” he says emotionally. “And I will, deep in my heart, cheer for them in the group stage. Look at this crowd,” he says, sweeping his hand around at the 30,000 people in traditional Bhutanese dress going crazy. “They deserve it.”
The group stage was drawn and Bhutan found themselves in the same group as China, Qatar, Hong Kong and the Maldives. Chokey Nima stepped aside as planned and Japanese coach Norio Tsukitate took over. The dragons had been handed a good draw. They avoided the big hitters like Japan, South Korea, Iran and Australia. There was hope going into the first game against Hong Kong, a team, like Bhutan, that was once considered one of the worst in the world but had made steady progress in recent years. That hope was soon gone. Hong Kong won 7-0. In the first game at the Changlimithang Stadium, against China, Bhutan managed to keep the scores level until the second minute of first half injury time. It ended 6-0. The next game against Qatar, in Doha, ended 15-0.
Rebellion against Tsukitate was brewing and came to a head against the Maldives, the one team Bhutan believed they had a real chance of beating. They were 3-0 down at half time. The dressing room revolted. Tsukitate had, according to sources in the federation, alienated many of the players by being overly harsh on their shortcomings, while also playing them out of position. When the team manager Hishey Tshering brought this up with Tsukitate matters came to a head. He accused Tshering of wanting to run the team. And then, Tsukitate simply walked out of the stadium. (The Bhutanese federation would later say that he wasn't fired then. He simply refused to take charge of the team in the second half.)
Hishey Tshering instead sat on the bench for the second half. Soon Bhutan were 4-0 down before the unlikeliest of come backs. Tshering Dorji, who scored Bhutan's famous winning goal in the first game against Sri Lanka, scored what looked like a consolation. Newly emboldened, Bhutan attacked and scored two more. The game ended 4-3. “I wish we had had another two minutes,” said Hishey Tshering. In the next game a few days later Bhutan almost held out for a creditable 0-0 draw against Hong Kong but conceded in the 89th minute. Aside from a 12-0 mauling by China, the rest of the games were fairly evenly matched. Still, by the end, Bhutan had played eight, lost eight. They scored five goals but conceded 52.
A qualification campaign for the 2019 Asian Cup passed in much the same fashion: a surprise two-leg victory (this time against Bangladesh) to reach the group stage before being hammered in the group stage. Nothing has come close to the sheer euphoria of beating Sri Lanka over two games. But, back in Thimphu shortly after the Sri Lanka win in March 2015, this was all to come. There would be no celebrations at KFC this time, as KFC doesn't exist in Bhutan. Nor any alcoholic drinks. Tuesday is a designated a dry day by the government. Instead, the players and their families meet in a local hotel to eat and cry a little. “It feels amazing, but I haven't thought about what happens next,” says captain Tshering. “And maybe I'll find a girlfriend now!” He jumps back into the party, with Chokey Nima, Hishey Tshering and his teammates, to celebrate that rarest of things. Not just the rare victory of the underdog, but also that fleeting moment when they walk amongst their peers as equals, and the future has yet to be written.