Thursday 23 April 2020, 03:00

Bhutan building for new highs

  • Himalayan nation has only been a member of FIFA since 2000

  • The nation's Premier League was established in 2012

  • Bhutan has had seven champions in eight seasons

Five continents are represented in the ten countries with the highest average elevation, but do you know which domestic league is played at the highest altitude? The answer is the Bhutan Premier League, the national competition of the mountainous kingdom of 740,000 inhabitants with an average elevation of 10,760 feet.

A small landlocked country in South Asia located in the Eastern Himalayas, Bhutan has managed to maintain a unique national identity. Most matches are played at their Changlimithang Stadium, with its Bhutanese architectural features emblematic of the nation’s distinctiveness.

The venue hosted the national team on the first day of global qualifying for Qatar 2022 with Bhutan collecting a 1-0 win over Guam. However, Guam - who conquered India during the previous FIFA World Cup™ cycle - eventually ran out 5-1 aggregate victors to eliminate the Dragon Boys.

Before starting their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification campaign, the national team of the Himalayan kingdom were bottom of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. But a pair of breakthrough wins in 2015 over Sri Lanka – their first in World Cup history – energised interest in the national team.

Three years earlier the BPL was founded to replace the Bhutan Super League – a competition exclusively for clubs from its capital, Thimphu – its eight seasons have interestingly produced seven champions.

"The Bhutan league was started off as a league that was played only in Thimphu in the early 2000s," Bhutan Football Federation (BFF) general secretary Ugyen Wangchhuk told “The capital was then the only district in the country that had the football club culture."

Unsurprisingly, Thimphu outfits have proved dominant, with only two teams from elsewhere getting their hands on the trophy. The first to break the hegemony were Ugyen Academy from Punakha, the former capital. They emerged as the surprise BPL champions in 2013, edging Yeedzin by a point.

A Bhutan Premier League match between Transport United FC(Red) and BFF Academy (Blue)

Next came Paro FC, based in the historic town of Paro. Only founded in 2018, they took that year's BPL by storm and finished second. Last year, they went even better and, despite it being historically competitive, finished ten points clear of second-placed Transport United. All the more impressive was their phenomenal goal-scoring rate, which saw them score 98 goals in 18 outings – 5.4 per game on average.

Spearheaded by star Bhutan striker Chencho Gyeltshen, Paro FC went on to shine in January's AFC Cup 2020 playoff. Gyeltshen struck twice as they drew 5-5 with Sri Lanka's Defenders over two legs, progressing on away goals, only to lose out to Indian giants Bengaluru in the next round.

"Bhutan football is still in its infancy,” said Wangchhuk. "Since we became affiliated to FIFA in 2000, BFF have received help from FIFA and the AFC. We have put more funds into the game's development in our country.

"We had initially targeted building a strong national team, but now we have realised that we must first build our football bases if we are to achieve this goal. Then we started focusing on building the game at the grassroots level and building the fan-bases of the clubs.

"Our vision is to build a professional league in the future with participating teams from all 20 districts of the country. Thus, the football hopefuls will have the opportunity to showcase their talents and can build their future career toward professionalism."

Developments in Bhutan with assistance from the FIFA Forward Programme

  • Pitches with artificial turfs have been built in districts across the country

  • Construction of academy buildings in Thimphu and Gelephu

  • A technical department has been set up within the BFF

  • Women's football committee formed to oversee the development of the women's game

  • Improved revenue from infrastructure works aiding the BFF with future sustainability

This article is part of our ‘The Global Game’ series which focuses on football away from the spotlight. Next week we look at football on Easter Island.

Fans watch a Bhutan Premier League match at the Changlimithang Stadium, Bhutan