Druk Eleven, Attempt #1

First, a fun fact. The World Cup, in the absolute strictest sense of the term, has never quite been as advertised. Officially, every nation in FIFA is supposed to participate. In practice, every single time, someone or other has bowed out for one reason or another, typically revolving around financial inabilities, and others will enter but subsequently withdraw before actually taking the field. In Brazil 2014, for instance, Bhutan, Brunei, Guam and Mauritania did not enter, and the Bahamas and Mauritius entered but did not play.

The first half of that equation is, this time, taken care of, as for the first time, each and every one of the 209 members of FIFA has applied and been approved to enter the Cup. There was one close call with Myanmar, who was for a time banned from entering 2018 after fan violence forced an abandonment against Oman, who was winning the two-legged tie 4-0 as it was. But they’ve been permitted to play, provided that all their ‘home’ games take place on neutral ground. Everybody is, at least for now, in.

Which means two nations are slated to make their World Cup debut. The first is South Sudan, which declared independence in 2011 and joined FIFA after qualifying had already started. That hasn’t stopped them from enthusiastically playing whatever games their meager resources permit them to, sports being a comparatively easy way to announce a nation’s presence on the world stage. It hasn’t been many, though, and they’ve yet to win a match. They, of course, hope to change that, so in their first chance to enter, they’ve entered.

Then there’s the matter of Bhutan. This is not Bhutan’s first opportunity to qualify. Their national federation was founded in 1983, and have been affiliated with FIFA since 2000. They were thus too late to begin qualifying for Korea/Japan 2002, but as it happened, they would be involved in a sense… as part of ‘The Other Final’, a match organized by Dutch documentarist Johan Kramer to pair the two lowest-ranked nations in FIFA at the time, which turned out to be Bhutan and Montserrat. The Druk Eleven had not had a strong early run of things; in fact, they had yet to win or draw a match at the time, with a 20-0 loss to Kuwait and an 11-2 loss to Yemen being part of their previous four results. But at least they had a stadium in which to host the game, unlike their opponents, whose only international stadium, along with much of the rest of their Caribbean homeland, was destroyed by the 1995 eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano. In this game, at least, Bhutan had little trouble dispatching their altitude-impaired adversaries 4-0 and, thus, recording their first-ever win.

The first World Cup opportunity they had, therefore, was for Germany 2006. But the sports budget in Bhutan is miniscule. This is, after all, the country that coined the concept of Gross National Happiness. To them, that means tracking how well citizens are taken care of in nine categories, listed as follows: 1) psychological wellbeing, 2) health, 3) education, 4) time use, 5) cultural diversity and resilience, 6) good governance, 7) community vitality, 8) ecological diversity and resilience, 9) living standards. Tracking those nine things means spending money in things such as education, healthcare and the environment, the latter of which- and the funding of the others- is partially brought about from tourist visas that require visitors to spend at least $200 US per day in the offseason and $250 per day in the busy season.

This all doesn’t leave a lot of room for sports. The national sport is archery.

Their first survey, taken in 2010, of course had not happened yet, but the mentality behind conducting it was certainly in place. Bhutan was still in over its head with anyone above the level of Montserrat. Sitting out 2006 qualifying seemed only natural: why waste money that could go towards more important things to slap together a team that will just get its butt handed to them at the first hurdle anyway?

This is a question that other low-ranking nations sometimes ask themselves, figuring that if nothing else, money set aside for soccer could better go to other areas of development than sending up a no-hope World Cup squad. Among those nations in 2006 was the Turks and Caicos Islands, who had spent 2002 qualifying getting pasted 14-0 on aggregate by St. Kitts and Nevis. But they soon had FIFA, who is strongly interested in pumping up the nation count as high as possible, breathing down their necks to put a team together, with threats to pull their development money they were getting via the GOAL program should they fail to do so. Damned if they did and damned if they didn’t, Turks and Caicos sent a team. It duly had its butt handed to it 7-0 on aggregate by Haiti at the first hurdle.

Bhutan, of course, could not have cared less.

For South Africa 2010, Bhutan, buoyed by mildly encouraging results elsewhere- a scoreless tie with Brunei in 2006 and everything! And losing by not as many goals as they used to lose by!- the Druk Eleven decided to take the plunge and put a team up. Their application was late, but FIFA accepted it anyway. In qualifying that year, the AFC teams ranked 6-24 were placed in Pot A, and teams 25-43 were placed in Pot B, with teams ranked 1-5 handed a bye and excused from the proceedings. In the opening round, teams from Pot A were drawn against teams from Pot B in a two-legged tie Bhutan was ranked 41st, ahead of Myanmar and Timor-Leste.

In the opener, to be played in October 2007, Bhutan, for what was supposed to be their maiden World Cup voyage, were drawn against 8th-ranked Kuwait, who had actually made it into the Cup in 1982 and who had handed Bhutan the 20-0 massacre just seven years prior. Welcome to the big leagues.

The ritual slaughter, though, never took place. Bhutan pulled out after determining that their national stadium, Changlimithang Stadium in the capital of Thimpu, would not be ready in time for the match. Kuwait was waved through to the next round.

Around this time, though, Bhutan, again, had more important things on their mind: namely, the introduction of democracy. Having been functioning under a monarchy, and happily so, the people of Bhutan were rather unclear on how, exactly, democracy works, and many wondered whether they even needed or wanted democracy at all. So as a test drive, in the spring of 2007 a mock election between made-up parties labeled red, blue, green and yellow was organized, with randomly-selected high school students selected to argue the arbitrarily-assigned one-issue platforms in a second-round runoff. (The party assigned the platform of ‘traditional values’ won.) When the actual election came around in 2008, two very similar candidates representing two very similar parties ended up seeing an electoral split of 67%-33%, leaving many in the country to wonder whether they even did it right.

Once again, sports was left in the lurch, and the Druk Eleven soon found themselves back in the red-lantern zone of the rankings. By the time Brazil 2014 qualifying rolled around, Bhutan was once again not in the mood to field a team.

Bhutan has not climbed out of the cellar in the intervening years, but they have made some attempt to bolster the product. In 2012, the top-flight domestic league, previously based entirely out of Thimpu and with all matches taking place at Changlimithang Stadium, was retooled to attempt to include teams from outside the capital, and games began to be televised. This may, however, have backfired, as what people in the crowd there were are now staying home and watching the games on TV. The attendance figures for any given game are lucky to crack triple digits. And fans have never heard of any of the players they’ve been watching either way, a rationale bolstered by the performance of their teams in continental competition. No Bhutanese club has recorded a continental win since 2007, when Transport United managed a 3-2 win over Pakistan Army in the now-defunct AFC President’s Cup. In seven attempts since, Bhutanese clubs have played 20 games against clubs from some of Asia’s weakest soccer nations. In those 20 games, they’ve been outscored 132-7.

But successful or not, a retool is a retool. And with a second election under their belt in 2013, one that appears to have gone a little more smoothly, the Druk Eleven look ready to take the field again. This time, their scheduled opponent will be a little more manageable: the opening round pits a pot of teams ranked 35-40 against teams ranked 41-46. Bhutan, of course, is #46, and dead last in the world overall. Kuwait, now ranked #16, is nowhere near the round. The draw will take place on February 10, and when it happens, Bhutan will be handed a tie against either India, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Cambodia, Chinese Taipei or Timor-Leste.

Presuming, that is, that they play that hand.

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