THIMPHU, Bhutan: The remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan was gearing up Monday for its underdog football team’s mammoth battle against China as it looks to extend its World Cup fairytale.
Bhutan, rock-bottom in the world rankings at the start of the World Cup campaign, have defied the odds to reach Asia’s second qualifying round.
But the team, whose amateur players include teachers and students while their captain is an airline pilot, face an uphill battle to defeat China on Tuesday in the sleepy capital Thimphu.
Some 8,000 tickets have been sold for the match at the national 10,000-capacity Changlimithang stadium, with locals hoping of pulling off a shock win.
Vendors were doing a brisk trade in orange “Land of the Thunder Dragon” football shirts, according to the Bhutan team fan club’s Facebook page.
“The chances of winning are very, very slim but we are still hoping,” said Bhutan Football Federation general secretary Ugyen Wangchuck.
“The whole country is behind the team from the prime minister down. There is hard core support for our boys,” he told AFP in Thimphu.
“And even if they don’t win, their success so far has already done so much to boost football here, with so many more youngsters now interested in the sport.”
Bhutan, with a population of just 750,000 and known for its Gross National Happiness Index and archery, started their campaign ranked 209 in the world.
But they have since climbed to 159 after defeating Sri Lanka to advance to Group D.
Few Chinese fans were travelling to Thimphu for the match, deterred by the expense and recent earthquakes in neighboring Nepal, Bhutan’s Kuensel newspaper said.
Jian Mangen, head of China’s official “Team Dragon” fan club, said more than 100 fans had registered to travel with an organized tour for the match.