Taking baby steps towards fulfilling a Himalayan dream!
The grassroots-level initiatives are slowly showing positive results and could change the face of football in Bhutan.
To a pessimist, everything about Bhutan football could seem wrong.
Their senior team’s current FIFA ranking, 185, does not inspire confidence. Their under-16 team last week lost all their matches – against Yemen (1-10), Bangladesh (0-2) and Qatar (0-11) – to finish bottom of Group E in the 2020 AFC U-16 Championship’s qualifying rounds in Doha.
While a place in the top rungs may still be generations away, Bhutan have already taken the proverbial first step in their thousand-mile journey. Their grassroots and youth development programmes, launched in 2011, are expected to deliver results in the next few years.
“Although the Bhutan Football Federation (BFF) was set up in 1983, earnest work to develop the game at the grassroots level began only in 2011, when training programmes for coaches were first held in four districts. Now, such initiatives cover 19 of the 20 districts,” said Vincent Subramaniam, who took charge as the BFF Technical Director a month ago.
The Singaporean, who conducted those first classes in 2011, said grassroots-level initiatives had started to make an impact, thanks to developments in infrastructure and the popularity of artificial pitches.
“Since Bhutan is a hilly nation, it’s difficult to develop natural turf pitches and even tougher to maintain them. With FIFA’s help, the country built several artificial turf pitches. The government then stepped in, and now, the numbers have gone up to 15. More are on the way. It has led to a dramatic increase in the number of children coming to train and their retention in the game,” Subramaniam told Inside Qatar.
Bhutan, with a population of 807,000, have only about 14,000 young players, both boys and girls, registered in their development system. To spot new talent, the BFF holds regular football festivals for children aged 6 to 12. Once they turn 14, the best among them are selected for the residential programme at the BFF Academy, based in the country’s capital Thimpu. The youngsters live, train and study at the academy.
Under a Memorandum of Understanding with the Japanese Football Association, the academy gets coaches from that country to train the various age-group teams.
The Bhutanese government had declared archery as its national sport in 1973, but football is becoming more and more popular. The growth of cable television has helped bring top European competitions, including the Premier League, to the local audience and this in turn has attracted more children to the sport.
Bhutan’s under-16 player Jigme Namgyel, who scored his team’s only goal in Doha, in the game against Yemen, is a case in point.
“When I was a child, I used to watch Gareth Bale play for Tottenham Hotspur. I wanted to be like him and told my parents about it. They encouraged me to play, and here I’m,” he told Inside Qatar.
There was a touch of sadness in his voice, though.
“I also want to become a professional footballer and play at the highest levels. But being from Bhutan, I know it’s going to be difficult,” he said.
Making Jigme’s task hard is the dearth of playing opportunities. The Bhutan Premier League (BPL), the country’s top competition, features just 10 clubs and seven of them are based in Thimpu. Playing abroad is almost an impossible task because of the national team’s low ranking and prohibitive travel expenses.
However, the BFF has come up with a plan to give the players more match time.
“The BFF Academy’s Under-19 team is registered as a club with the BPL. We formed the club a few years ago to give our young players more games. Now, they’re assured of at least 18 matches a year. Since they also play against foreign professionals, it’s a win-win for everyone,” said Subramaniam.
Next year, the BFF is set to launch another academy in Trashigang, about 500km away from Thimpu, in the hope of accelerating the game’s growth in rural areas.
With the game still in its nascent stages and very little funds available, the only incentive BFF can offer to motivate these youngsters to stay on is the occasional trips outside, like the one to Doha.
“The biggest incentive is they get to travel outside Bhutan. Many of their parents and grandparents have never stepped out of Thimpu. So for these boys, each outstation trip is an experience in itself,” said Subramaniam.