While qualifications for the Football World Cup in Brazil next year are in full swing, Bhutan, the world's worst national side, is determined to raise its game and, one day, be up there with the best.
High up in the Himalayas, the small kingdom of Bhutan has the dubious distinction of having the world's worst soccer team. Having recently scored zero points in the South Asian Football Federation's Cup, which was won by Afghanistan last month, Bhutan holds a steady position at number 207, the very bottom of FIFA's rankings, along with San Marino and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
But the people of Bhutan love the game and their lack of success has not stopped them from hoping and planning for a more glamorous future in football.
"Football is the global game and Bhutan is no exception there," says Ugyen Wangchuk of the Bhutan Football Federation (BFF), adding that according to a recent survey done by the Bhutan Olympic Committee, it is even more popular than archery, which is a national sport.
First national league
In order to increase football's popularity in Bhutan, the BFF last year started the country's first national league. Before that, there was only a league in the capital, Thimphu, but now teams from three other districts participate.
"Within the next four, five years, hopefully we'll get the whole country involved in this national league, so that in the future we can get a better national team," says Wangchuk.
The Bhutanese people love football against all odds. The country is part of a cricket-loving region and, moreover, it is so mountainous that there is hardly enough flat ground for playing fields.
As a result, children can be seen running after their footballs downhill all over the country. Especially since the ban on television was lifted in 1999, teams such as Manchester United and world-class players like Ronaldo have cast a spell on the Buddhist kingdom.
On Sunday mornings and Wednesday afternoons, little boys wearing Messi and Rooney shirts can be found playing football on a small field bordering the national stadium of Thimphu. Their training has recently started, as part of the BFF's grassroots program, which is managed by coach Ugyen Dorji.
He is a former player in Bhutan's national team, but grew up in a very different environment. "There was no TV when I played," he says, looking at the kids around him. "Most of the kids now love the famous players. Because of television, they are really crazy and they love soccer, because we hope that maybe one day a Bhutanese player will play on a European field."
'The other final'
After television, another boost to develop football came in 2002, when a group of Dutch men organized a match between the two lowest-ranking teams of the time, Bhutan and the Caribbean island of Montserrat. Held in Thimphu on the day of the World Cup final in Japan, the match came to be known as "the other final" and a documentary with that name is still for sale. The match, one of the few ever won by Bhutan, brought the capital to a standstill, recalls Dorji who was then part of the national team.
"The whole of Thimphu was watching the game," Dorji says. He believes that is why Bhutan could beat their opponents and make the public warm to the idea of Bhutan as a true football-playing nation. "Because of 'the other final' most people became interested in soccer and started to think that we can do much better."
FIFA has since offered a helping hand to the BFF, sponsoring equipment and, most importantly, a brand new artificial turf in the national stadium. The government-owned field was inaugurated in November last year and has been fully booked by different amateur teams ever since.
For the love of the game
Every morning between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. there is a spot for the teams of national league clubs Thimphu City and Yeedsin. Asked whether they don't own their own field as a club, Thimphu City's manager Hishey Tshering laughs, and explains: "Forget owning a field, we don't even have money to buy jerseys and things like that. Everything is done out of the passion of a few people."
The two rival clubs even train together, "because we don't have a coach," says Tshering from the sidelines, while one of his players is acting as the coach for both teams.
Being part of Bhutan's national league - which is sponsored by Coca-Cola - is not as much dependent on talent or ability as on motivation. "Selection of players is basically whoever is interested and whoever turns up."
Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that the last match Bhutan played, against the Maldives, it lost 8-2. But the lack of funds and bad results do not demotivate 24-year-old international Jigme Tenzing, who plays for Yeedzin.
He moved from his village to Thimphu to follow his dream of playing football. "Ever since my childhood I dreamt of playing for the national team, and I'm happy I am living my dream right now," he says. "We are giving our best. And then, football in Bhutan is drastically improving. Before we did not even have grass on the ground."
Wangchuk has high hopes for Bhutan - although world domination is but a distant dream. "My dream is that in the next five to 10 years we at least win the South Asia Football Federation Cup, and that we then go further up."