World’s worst soccer team finally scores shot at World Cup

By Chris Puzia / Sports Editor

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Exciting things are happening in Bhutan.

Its national soccer team won a game.

This may not typically be world news, as countless international and club soccer teams play and win games every day, but Bhutan’s national soccer team — ranked No. 209, out of 209, in the world — beat Sri Lanka on March 12, 1-0.

This was just the first of a two-legged round for World Cup qualifying, so Bhutan had to travel to Sri Lanka for a second game on March 18.

But Bhutan, with its population of about 730,000, won again — this time 2-1.

The team advanced to the second round of World Cup qualifying by beating Sri Lanka twice, and there is no way that FIFA will rank it the world’s worst next time it updates the world standings.

Still, why should we care?

Because Bhutan is the ultimate underdog, a team helpless for so long that nobody could possibly root against it. Now that it has shown signs of life, everybody should give Bhutan the attention it deserves.

First, let me put into perspective how desperately unremarkable Bhutan has been.

It used to be ranked only 208th-best in the world. But last July, FIFA granted South Sudan admission into national eligibility, and the newcomers automatically jumped Bhutan for the 208th spot, pushing the Bhutanese down one more rung. South Sudan only gained independence as a country in 2011, but FIFA already considers it a better squad than Bhutan.

The national team only has one player who competes internationally with a club team: Chencho Gyeltshen, who plays for a club squad in Thailand. Bhutan’s captain Kharma Shedrup Tshering devotes more of his time to his career as a pilot than to his career as a soccer player.

Bhutan did not create a national team until 1982. In four qualifying games for the 2000 Asian Cup, it was outscored 42-2.

But no more. Now it has won two straight meaningful international games, and will enter qualifying play with Asian powers Japan and South Korea for contention to play in the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Still, don’t count out that squad from Bhutan.

“Maybe we would like to play Japan now,” Bhutan head coach Chokey Nima said after the win.

Even Sri Lanka’s likely embarrassed coach, Nikola Kavazovic, said he will root for the Bhutanese.

“Look at the crowd. They deserve this. This country deserves it more,” he said after his team’s second loss. “We met a team that was raised from nowhere…I can say, deep in my heart, I will cheer for Bhutan in the group stage.”

Kavazovic said that right after his team already fell out of contention for a World Cup that is still three years away.

Wednesday’s game, plus its future qualifying matches, could not mean more to anybody than it does to Bhutan’s players and fans.

The country’s government declared a half-day holiday for all state employees and students, and it will likely do the same when the team next takes the pitch.

I doubt that many Americans will follow Bhutan’s tenuous journey to World Cup qualifying. But we should all at least know that somewhere, across the world, the remarkable and unbelievable is happening.

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