China Quakes As Mighty Bhutan Awaits in World Cup Qualifier
In a delicious sporting event, the world’s previous worst ranking soccer nation – Bhutan, population 754,000, whose national sport is actually archery – are to take on the Asian underperforming giants of China in a World Cup qualifier in Thimpu next Tuesday evening. The Group C match will be the largest international sporting event ever held in Bhutan, and the first soccer international between the two nations.
That’s not to say that “The Mighty Druks” (Dragons), as Bhutanese locals call their heroes, have had an easy time getting to face the huge sporting resources of China. In order to even qualify for this World Cup Qualifying Group, Bhutan had to play a qualifying qualifier, pitted against the South-East Asia Lions of soccer (national sport: cricket) that is Sri Lanka. Such are the ignominious routes that the lower ranked member nations of FIFA must take when embarking on World Cup qualifying odysseys that will, in 2018, culminate in the finals in Moscow. Possibly.
Yet history was made in the soccer wastelands of Colombo, where Bhutan earned their first ever away win by defeating Sri Lanka 1-0. The return leg, which was declared free of charge to attend by the Bhutanese King, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, attracted an astonishing attendance of 15,000 in the National Stadium in Thimpu who duly roared on the Druks to a 2-1 victory in the second leg.
That success has rocketed Bhutan’s national soccer team to 159th place in the FIFA World Rankings, an astonishing turn around of fortune considering that, just a year ago, they were ranked joint bottom (209th) along with South Sudan. Currently slumming it below Bhutan are soccer mad Asian countries and territories such as Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, Laos, Cambodia and Mongolia. As well-travelled Asian expats will know, any bar serving beer on a Saturday night in these places will be streaming the English Premier League. China meanwhile currently rank 79th – a mere eighty places above.
Bhutan’s membership of Group C also conjures up some wonderful coincidences. Hong Kong are in the same group, which means they also have to face China in qualifying. That brings back memories of previous World Cup qualifying events way back in 1985 when a China national side, only requiring a draw to reach the World Cup finals for the first time, faced a British era Hong Kong team, and lost 1-2. Riots broke out in Beijing after the match.
Also in Group C are Qatar, currently ranked 97th in global rankings and scheduled to host the World Cup Finals in 2022. The Indian Ocean island nation of the Maldives (178th) rounds up the teams. With a total of eight Asian Groups, and only 4.5 World Cup Final places allotted for Asian sides, the winners of each Group will then play off against each other, leaving four finalists to qualify for the finals in Russia. The best performing runner up has another chance in a playoff with the best performing runner up from the Oceania region.
Bhutan’s record in this qualifying group needs improvement, having lost 7-0 away to Hong Kong in their first group qualifying match on Wednesday. China, however, need to be wary. Bhutan have again allowed home supporters to attend for free, guaranteeing a healthy and partisan crowd, and despite their generally poor results history to date, they remain unbeaten in all matches played in Thimpu.
Chris can be followed on Twitter at @CDE_Asia.
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