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Bhutanese football struggles to grow
A team of development officers from Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) in Thimphu, reiterated what Bhutan Football Federation had long ago hit upon - to develop football, it has to be diversified beyond Thimphu.

Trying to conclude on the status of BFF, the visiting delegation immediately realized that the sport was Thimphu-centred. BFF humbly accepted it.

When BFF became a member of the international football governing body, FIFA and the regional body, Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 2000, it was made mandatory to have a structured activity for the sport that covered the whole country.

Besides participating in international and regional events, there had to be major in-country competitions, like league matches for men, women and youth, and there had to be established clubs participating. This was so among all AFC's 45 member national associations and BFF obediently began to implement it.

In 2001, BFF began registering clubs under three categories A, B, and C divisions. As an encouragement, it also gave a grant of Nu.60,000 for each club, majority of whom were from the districts of Thimphu, Chukha, Paro, and Samtse.

"We began like other countries but it did not have the same result," said BFF's technical head Mindu Dorji.

To lay the foundation we gave them grants hoping that in the course of time they would sustain themselves. But they did not, and the regional clubs disintegrated in no time, he said and BFF had to shelve its plan similarly in other districts.

"In other countries the clubs are richer than the national association. Business communities sponsor the clubs providing items from boots to training facilities. But here clubs fizzle out due to lack of funds and no one is interested to help them out."

The federation gave another try. In 2002, it divided the 20 districts into four regions, appointed a dzongkhag official in each region as the coordinator of the sport and allocated a budget of Nu. 100,000 a region. However, BFF could not involve themselves owing to lack of manpower and resources. The coordinator was responsible for regional competitions, and for development of facilities.

But a year later the federation had to forgo this initiative as well. Federation officials say that the programme did not grow as expected. No competitions were held, no facilities were developed, and there was no accountability for the budget. The federation was still attempting to clear outstanding bills with some of the regions.

Therefore, keeping in mind the obligations laid by the governing bodies, FIFA and AFC, the federation had no option but to develop closely monitored clubs from Thimphu.

Today there are a total of eight 'A' division clubs, nine 'B' division, and 16 'C' division Thimphu-based clubs registered under the federation. Few of them have women's teams.

These clubs participated at national level championships held by the federation and according to fans the competitions were becoming more attractive each year.

It has become very competitive, as one fan puts it.

Clubs like Yedzin FC, Transport United, Drukstar and Drukpol FC have already established their position among the fans. In the on-going championship the fans are also noticing the improvement of other clubs like RBA FC. The crowds have also increased in the Changlimithang national football stadium in Thimphu.

The clubs point at two reasons for this dramatic revival of the sport; the cash prize for the topper of the championship had been doubled to Nu. 60,000 from this year and the winning club also gets to participate in the AFC President Cup abroad with leading clubs from other 'emerging' national associations. Last year's champion Transport United participated in the inaugural tournament of the Cup in Nepal in May this year.

"We see a huge scope in this (AFC President Cup) for our club to develop as a professional football club. The incentive would also help us financially," said Bikash Pradhan of Yedzin FC.

For Transport United it was an exposure and experience worth noting.

But there is one question to be answered. How are Thimphu-based clubs surviving?

The clubs all agree that the survival is difficult and are pivoting on an individual or a group of enthusiast's interest.

According to Yedzin FC, the club was formed by a single individual driven solely by the love for the sport.

In 2002, it was registered under 'B' division with the team comprising mostly of students from Thimphu schools. With outstanding performances at national level championships it was promoted to the 'A' division status the following year. Today it has all three registered divisions and had bought a total of nine national players.

"It is all a single personal investment that runs the club," Bikash Pradhan said. The federation's annual grant of Nu. 45,000 (a reduction from this year on) barely covered the club's expenses mainly for training and equipment.

It is difficult to develop professionally as we cannot support our own coaches, medics and administration set-up as required, said another club.

"We have requested support from potential sponsors but nobody has come forward to help," he said.

According to a Transport United official, owing to financial constraint, having a professional set-up was difficult. "It survives and runs from the interest of the volunteers," he said.

In a media seminar at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia last September, where Bhutan was also represented, the president of the AFC Mr. Mohamed bin Hamman said that football was a product lying on the ground that needed to be picked up, polished, and sold.

This concept was being better understood in Bhutan but it needed greater support from the society, according to BFF.

But the all time low market for the sport did not dissuade the federation from its vision.

According to the Federation it was soon going to launch its diversification programme whereby potential districts would be selected, a federation-paid focal person would be appointed, and competitions and other activities would be carried out in a structured form; at the district level, at the regional level, and then at the national level.

Contributed by Bishal Rai , Kuensel 2005
Bhutan National Football League, World Cup
Thimphu Changlimithang stadium
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