Bhutan’s International Football Journey: The Ebb and Flow of Results in 2023
In the realm of international football, Bhutan’s national teams have had their share of ups and downs in 2023. From the U16-SAFF Championship held in the country to our first International Women’s Friendly Tournament for the senior women’s national team, the year has been a rollercoaster ride for Bhutanese football enthusiasts.
SAFF Championship, 2023, Bangalore
The Dragon Boys’ first outing of 2023 was marked by their return to the SAFF Championship, which was held at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bangalore, India, from June 21 to July 4, 2023. Apart from the SAFF countries, Kuwait and Lebanon were invited as guest teams to increase the number of teams and make the event more competitive.
Bhutan started the SAFF expedition facing the Maldives in the opening match. Despite some exceptional displays from our Dragon boys, we failed to live up to expectations, suffering a heartbreak result in the opening of our journey, losing to the Maldives with a score of 2-0. Our second match of the championship was more surprising, as we faced a much stronger team ranked 80 places above us. Lebanon, one of the guests of the SAFF championship, opened their account within a few minutes of the opening whistle while we helplessly defended their attacks. We were 4 goals behind at halftime but managed to pull one back in the second half, showcasing our strong mentality despite the big goal margin.
In the final match of the championship, we faced Bangladesh and suffered a 3-1 setback. Despite the tough competition and unfavourable outcomes, our Dragon boys exhibited resilience and determination throughout the tournament, even though they failed to qualify for the semifinals. While victory eluded them, the experience gained on the international stage will undoubtedly serve as a stepping stone for future matches.
U16-SAFF Championship, 2023 (Changlimithang National Stadium)
The journey began with the U16-SAFF Championship, held on Bhutanese soil at the iconic Changlimithang National Stadium. It was the first international match held in the country after the pandemic, and hopes were high. Fans were eager to witness our young talents shine. Unfortunately, Bhutan couldn’t make it to the semifinals after losing to Pakistan and the Maldives with scorelines of 2-1 and 3-2, leaving spectators with mixed feelings. In the match against the Maldives, the future of Bhutan Football and the captain, Sonam Dorji, scored a fabulous long shot and doubled his tally in the additional minutes of the first half.
However, the game was overturned when he received a second yellow card of the match, leaving Bhutan a goal short of progressing to the semifinals. While the outcome was not ideal, it marked an opportunity for the young Bhutanese footballers to learn and grow, setting the stage for their future endeavours.
U19-SAFF Championship, 2023 (Nepal)
Moving on to the U19-SAFF Championship held in Nepal, Bhutan’s young team displayed remarkable determination and talent that made waves in international matches. Under the guidance of Japanese Head Coach Hedaharu Takahashi, these young talents have shown immense potential and promise. Their impressive performances have not only caught the attention of scouts but have also ignited hope for the future of Bhutanese football.
In the opening match of Bhutan against Bangladesh, the runners-up of the Championship in the years 2017, 2019, and 2022, the young team showed their determination and bravery by staging a comeback against Bangladesh, securing the first historical win in the tournament over them in years.
In the second match against the reigning champions and the champions of the tournament, the young boys showed enough resilience, composure, and determination to score the first goal of the match. However, team India scored a goal in each half to secure 3 points and a comeback against us. Despite this, the young Bhutan team advanced to the semifinals of the championship. In the semifinals, the team faced first-time participants, Pakistan. The match was intense, with the boys controlling the game and creating numerous chances, but unfortunately, the game ended in a draw and came down to penalties. Despite giving their all, Bhutan was narrowly knocked out in the tiebreaker. This heart-wrenching defeat was a testament to the resilience and fighting spirit of the young Bhutanese youth.
However, there was a silver lining amidst the disappointment. Bhutan’s team was awarded the fair play award of the tournament, reflecting the values of sportsmanship they upheld throughout the competition. Additionally, Jigme Namgyel, a rising star of Bhutanese football, was recognized as the highest goal scorer, sharing this honor with Gwgwmsar Goyary from Team India and Samir Tamang from Nepal. These accolades highlighted Bhutan’s commitment to the beautiful game.
International Women’s Friendly Tournament (Senior Women’s Team) – Saudi Arabia
Shifting the focus to the senior women’s team, Bhutan’s senior women’s national team participated in the second edition of the International Women’s Friendly Tournament, held in Saudi Arabia. This marked our first international friendly tournament in which our women’s team had ever participated.
Bhutan’s Road to the Final
During the group stage of the tournament, Bhutan played its first match against Lebanon. Although we had a rough start to the game, we had a bit of bad luck, losing to them with a scoreline of 3-2. Both goals for the Dragon Girls were scored by our rising star, Ms. Deki Lhazom, in the final minutes of the game. The second match of the group stage was played against one of the higher-ranked teams, “Laos,” in which the Dragon girls did well enough to keep the scoreline level, ensuring their progression to the semifinals on goal difference.
In the semifinals, the Dragon girls faced the host team and the winners of group B, “Saudi Arabia.” In a thrilling encounter and a closely contested match between the two teams, “Yeshi Bidha” scored the only goal of the match in extra time, sending the Bhutan team into their first-ever finals of the Women’s Team.
In the finals, we faced Lebanon once again, whom we had lost to by a narrow scoreline earlier. It was time for redemption, and it was a closely contested match, with both teams giving their best on the field. Unfortunately, Lebanon scored with just three minutes remaining in the first half of extra time, specifically at the 102-minute mark. The forward Layla Iskandar made a decisive header, successfully scoring the only goal in the final. Bhutan was on the losing side with a final score of 0-1, narrowly missing out on the championship.
Despite the outcome, the highlights of the tournament were:
- Bhutan Women’s National Team has reached the finals of any competition to date.
- Bhutan’s Deki Lhazom emerging as a shining star in the tournament.
- Coach Karma Choden making history as the first Bhutanese head coach to reach the finals of any international competition.
- A draw against the 87th FIFA-ranked Laos.
What Awaits Next
The Dragon Boys are once again preparing to step into international football for the FIFA World Cup/AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers, Preliminary Round One against Hong Kong on October 12, 2023, at Hong Kong Stadium. In the reverse fixture, the Dragon Boys will host Hong Kong on October 17, 2023, at Changlimithang National Stadium. Hong Kong is no stranger to the international football arena, and the Dragon Boys understand the challenge ahead. However, they are embracing it with the spirit and tenacity that has come to define Bhutanese football. They are determined to give their all and aim for a favourable result. As the match is just a few days away in Hong Kong, the Dragon Boys are fine-tuning their strategies, sharpening their skills, and strengthening their bond as a team.
For football enthusiasts in the country, 2023 has seen the ebb and flow of results for Bhutan’s national football teams on the international stage. While there were disappointments, such as the U16 team failing to qualify for the semifinals and the U19 team’s narrow defeat, there were also moments of pride, including the Fair Play award and Jigme Namgyel’s goal-scoring prowess. The women’s senior team, despite losing in the finals, found solace in the recognition of Deki Lhazom as the Most Valuable Player. These experiences serve as valuable lessons and motivation for Bhutan’s football future, reminding us that the journey of a team is often as important as the destination. The teams have shown tremendous promise, making their mark on the global stage and bringing pride to their nation. Above all, Bhutan’s football journey has been marked by remarkable moments and a growing passion for the sport in the country, and it’s not the end.