In many ways it, of course, bore no relation to the real World Cup final of 2002 taking place in on the same day, but in others it had all the pageantry, atmosphere, and sense of occasion that befits a global football event. On that particular day the cities of Yokohama in Japan and Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan high up in the Himalayas, were linked by a footballing contest. While the pinnacle of the world’s game was being decided in Japan, the two countries ranked at the bottom of FIFA’s meritocracy played out the Other Final to decide who was the worst national team in the world.
An enterprising Dutch film crew, who turned their nation’s disappointment at failing to qualify for the 2002 World Cup into an idea to look at those national teams rather more accustomed to losing than their own. This idea took them to the FIFA website and its world rankings, at the bottom of which sat Montserrat and Bhutan.
Of the two teams, it was the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat who sat at the bottom of the rankings ahead of the match. Little more than a tear-shaped dot on the map in the Leeward Islands chain of the Caribbean Sea, Montserrat is a British Overseas Territory of only a few thousand people. One of football’s smallest national associations, Montserrat had only been a member of FIFA for three years at the time, having joined in 1999. Since then they had played a mere handful of official matches, and lost them all.
During the period of their FIFA recognition, football has hardly been the number one priority for the people of Montserrat. There had been hurricanes and earthquakes, but worst of all the regular eruptions of the Soufrière Hills volcano had a devastating and long lasting impact on both the island and its people. After lying dormant for hundreds of years, Soufrière Hills became active in 1995 and continued to erupt thereafter with devastating regularity over the subsequent few years. The volcano spewed its poisonous and devastating pyroclastic flows of terrifyingly hot gases, ash and rocks in all directions, swiftly pouring down and suffocating the nearby towns, the capital Plymouth included. Plymouth had been initially evacuated in 1995, but was fully abandoned a couple of years later; a ghost town by then destroyed and submerged under several metres of ash, like a modern-day Pompeii.
Nigh on half of Montserrat was devastated, leaving much of the island formerly known as an “Emerald Isle” now resembling a barren lunar landscape. The island’s population was devastated too. An unlucky few were killed by the poisonous hot gases, but many thousands left the island during the evacuation and chose not to return. In all, nearly two-thirds of the island’s population of about 11,500 left Montserrat, many to neighbouring Antigua and around 4,000 to the UK, with only 5,000 or so remaining.
Amongst the devastation, the national stadium, Sturge Park, was destroyed like everything else in Plymouth, and by 2002 it lay under several metres of ash, cut off from the rest of the island. Naturally, it would be in no condition for football for an awful many years to come, situated as it was in 2002, and still is today, in the exclusion zone that the southern end of Montserrat had become.
Almost nine thousand miles to the east, and significantly higher above sea level, Bhutan were of course hoping to avoid descending to that last place in the ranking. At the time, they were one of the youngest members of world football’s governing body, having joined a year later than Montserrat in 2000. Like Montserrat, they’d lost all of their official matches since joining FIFA, but in an era when ranking points were awarded for losses too, the fact that Bhutan were beaten by a higher class of opponent had kept them narrowly off the bottom.
They weren’t spared a few brutal beatings however, and in their first venture into the qualifying rounds of the Asian Cup in 2000 they suffered a then world record defeat to Kuwait, a match described by Bhutanese striker Dinesh Chhetri as ‘quite a bitter experience.’ He wasn’t wrong there. Twenty goals found their way into the Bhutan net as the Kuwaitis showed no mercy. Even the Kuwaiti goalkeeper, no doubt thoroughly bored through inactivity, took and scored a late penalty to record goal number nineteen.
Football hasn’t been played for very long in Bhutan, a nation that had remained splendidly isolated from the world until the mid-1970s. Bhutan is one of the most unspoiled Himalayan areas, a country of ancient monasteries, fluttering prayer flags and breath-taking mountainous natural beauty. Of greater importance to Bhutan is the pursuit of a rather unique philosophy aimed at achieving gross national happiness, to which the country and its government has been committed for some time. As explained by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lyongo Thinley: ‘It is based on the realisation of the truth that every human being searches for happiness in life. That is the ultimate goal. And if it is the ultimate goal of every Bhutanese, every human being, then it becomes the responsibility of the government.’ Sadly, their football team hadn’t been a great source of enhancing the Bhutanese people’s happiness given their woeful results over the years. Until the current World Cup campaign began in the spring of 2015, Bhutan also had the distinction of being the only FIFA member not to have so much as attempted to qualify for a World Cup. But they did take their place in 2002’s Other Final, determined to play their part in the quirky, yet somewhat historic, occasion.
The pitch high up in the Himalayas was nothing more than patchy grass interspersed with murky brown puddles, but for such a momentous occasion the surrounding stadium had been dressed up a treat. For an hour before kick-off in the Changlimithang Stadium in Thimphu, undeniably one of the more scenic national stadiums in world football, an array of ornately attired dancers, all gold, blue and red and everything in between, performed their traditional dragon dances to the hypnotic metronome beat resonating from the blue clad drummers.
Reams of coloured flags and banners lined the touchlines creating a rather picturesque setting, behind which the crowds sat in neat rows on the grassy banks, or for the lucky few, on the grubby concrete benches of the main stand. Tall housing blocks loomed behind them providing a fine view for some. Opposite the main stand, the ornate Royal Pavilion sits serenely observing proceedings, providing entertainment and comfort for the elite. Even in these humble surroundings, and at this level of international football, the hospitality was still present. The pavilion is backed by sharply rising grassy peaks, from which several housing blocks sprout through the greenery affording their residents a terrific view of the action unfolding below.
The crowds of locals on the grass banks provided a colourful scene. All dressed in traditional dress, the gho – a knee length robe somewhat resembling a kimono, tied at the waist with a belt – many had brought bright umbrellas to shield them from the sun. The opened umbrellas created a rainbow effect, which was further enhanced by the coloured banners draped from the buildings behind. It was the event in town and all of Bhutanese society was there to witness it: from the President and other VIPs in their tents, to the glamorous women sitting high in the stands, to the local workers and their young and frequently face-painted children. Some spectators sat even higher, scattered far and wide in amongst the trees and bushes in the hills a little further back. Everyone wanted to be a part of the occasion and to see this historic match. It was an event the likes of which Bhutanese football had never seen.
Montserrat kicked off and had the best of the very early moments with strikers Bob Morris and Vladimir Farrell both forcing neat, diving saves from the Bhutan keeper. But that initial flurry was not to last long as Bhutan began to take over. Only four minutes were on the clock when they took the lead as a fluffed clearance from a Bhutanese corner looped towards the head of Wangyel Dorji, who needed no further invitation to nod his team ahead, though his glanced header barely made it across the line. It was a goal befitting the clash of the two worst teams in the world: a poor clearance, a weak header at goal and an aimless flap at the air as the ball travelled slowly past him by the Montserrat goalkeeper, Cecil Lake.
Montserrat tried to keep up their early tempo as the tackles began to fly in, but their efforts came to nought in the second half as Dorji banged in a second with a well-taken free kick, and that was swiftly followed by a third from Dinesh Chhetri. As each strike nestled behind him in the net, Cecil Lake’s despondency plunged to further depths: at one point he tore his gloves off and threw them to the ground in frustration, then after another Bhutanese goal he sat slumped against his goal post for a long, desolate minute. As the game wore on and reached its latter stages, Montserrat’s play had become increasingly ragged. The combined effects of altitude, extensive travel, and their missing coach finally took their toll, resulting in an increasingly dispirited display.
Dorji completed his hat trick late on to finish the game 4-0 and to confirm Montserrat as the undisputed worst national team in the world. The final whistle brought noisy Bhutanese celebrations in the crowd and on the pitch, as the jubilant players hoisted their coach aloft before embarking on a celebratory lap of honour, hand in hand with each other.
Meanwhile, Cecil Lake trudged glumly, head down, to join his teammates in commiseration. But soon both teams were arm in arm, embracing, congratulating, consoling and consolidating friendships and making a public display of the value that sport, and football in particular, can bring.
There was even a trophy, less glittering, less golden, less valuable, and certainly less revered than the one lifted by Brazilian captain Cafu in Yokohama a few hours later, but just reward nonetheless. Dorji wouldn’t lift it alone however, preferring to share the moment with Charles Thompson, his beaten counterpart, as the formalities segued into a full-on party for players and public alike, culminating in both teams watching the real World Cup final from Japan together later that evening.