Bhutan v Montserrat: The Other Final to award FIFA’s wooden spoon

On 30 June 2002 in Japan, Brazil met Germany for the biggest game in world football: the final of the FIFA World Cup. Both nations had a vast history in the sport. The Seleção, four-time world champions, against Europe’s most successful football nation. It was the match everyone was talking about. Well, almost everyone.

Just a few hours prior, some 4,600 kilometres away from Japan, another unique football event took place. While the month-long World Cup celebrated the best of football, in Thimphu, Bhutan, there was history being made in a one-off event, showcasing the opposite end of the football spectrum. This was the ‘Other Final’ – the clash between Asian minnows Bhutan and Caribbean islanders Montserrat, who sat rock bottom of the FIFA rankings at 202 and 203 respectively.

It was poignant to have both matches on the same day, hours apart from each other. For each of the players that played, there was a sense of honour. In Yokohama, the Brazilians and Germans were competing at the sport’s pinnacle, seeking another medal to add to the collection. In Thimphu, it was about pride. For the Bhutanese and Montserratians, it was a celebration of a special match, remembering all the sacrifices the players made to get to this point.

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The idea was born when two Dutchmen became “interested in losing” – their country had failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, leaving them with an uneventful summer as the rest of the world eagerly awaited the tournament in the Far East. Johan Kramer and Matthijs de Jongh, working at creative agency KesselsKramer in Amsterdam, came up with the idea, having shared interest in football’s more obscure stories – what better way to celebrate that than a match between FIFA’s lowest-ranked teams?

Kramer and De Jongh were immediately obsessed with the idea, which came about in December 2001, and sent faxes out to the two national FAs. Montserrat got back on the same day, while Bhutan waited three weeks. Both said yes. Officiating the match was Premier League referee Steve Bennett, a man who had refereed the FA Cup final and in the Champions League. But this would be completely different.

“It wasn’t really a case of me wanting to take charge of it,” Bennett recalls. “UEFA called me to see if I’d referee the game between the two newest teams in the FIFA rankings. Obviously, when you join as the two newest teams, you go straight to the bottom.

“The whole idea of playing on the same day as the 2002 World Cup final in South Korea and Japan was to have complete opposites of the same game going on in different parts of the world. The organisers went to FIFA, asking if they could create something quite unique.

“Many things came from that: there was no serious advertising, the ball was plain white, and it showed the complete contrast between two teams at the lowest end of the rankings and two teams at the very top, who were playing at the World Cup final.”

Bhutan had slightly more experience than Montserrat. They had previously played four competitive matches, all in qualifying for Asian Cup – a 3-0 defeat to Nepal before a record-setting 20-0 loss to Kuwait. These were followed by 8-0 and 11-2 defeats to Turkmenistan and Yemen. The match against Montserrat was a chance to set the record straight and in addition to giving them a chance to play against a team closer to the level, they also got to show the world how passionate the nation was about the sport.

“The match was played in Bhutan’s national stadium, which is actually an archery stadium that was converted,” says Bennett. “This was the first-ever international match in Bhutan, so there were many things that I organised because many people didn’t have an idea of what they should necessarily have to do for a first international. I basically sat down with several people when I got there to organise the events leading up the game. The entry of players, the marching band, the mascots. All these things had to be organised in addition to actually refereeing the match. We wanted to make it a really big spectacle.”

Bhutan would also have the advantage of the conditions, as the high altitude of the stadium and long travel time would cause fatigue amongst the Montserrat squad.

But that was hardly the biggest challenge the sides faced. With just three weeks to go before kick-off, both Bhutan and Montserrat lost their head coaches. Bhutan’s South Korean manager, Kang Byung-chan, unfortunately died at the age of 51, with Dutchman Arie Schans answering the call from the filmmakers to take temporary charge.

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For Montserrat, the situation was different. Their English head coach Paul Morris departed due to conflicts with his bosses over team selection with the Montserrat FA reportedly dictating which players should make the trip to Bhutan. Morris was replaced with William Lewis, who many believed was appointed by the local government.

While Bhutan prepared for the match with four-long training sessions, Montserrat had their own marathon to run before the match. After playing a friendly against the British Navy team, the islanders began their trip to Asia – a journey that took them from Montserrat to Antigua, Antigua to St. Martin, St. Martin to Curacao, Curacao to Amsterdam, where they had a lengthy break, Amsterdam to Bangkok, Bangkok to Calcutta and finally, Calcutta to Thimphu. If the 21,000-kilometre schlep wasn’t bad enough. nine players suffered a food poisoning, which was going to affect their preparations for the match.

Referee Bennett had his own prep to do, as he tried to learn as much as possible about the two nations.

“I did my homework and tried to find out what the country of Bhutan was like, their history and national team along with their coach,” explains Bennett. “I tried to learn as much as I could about both teams but there wasn’t too much about them given these were the two new countries into the FIFA family.

“It was a case of finding out more when I got there. I’d read the stories about Montserrat and the volcanoes over the years and learned about their ex-English coach who left before the match. So I was aware of some of the details but couldn’t really tell much until I got out on the field and refereed them.”

The media also brought into the hype. While the World Cup coverage dominated front and back pages, the Other Final earned infamy on the BBC, CNN and La Gazetta dello Sport, among others. For the players, this was a celebration of the effort and sacrifice they put in – relishing the opportunity to share the stage with the most important game in football.

In Montserrat’s 17-man squad, there was an 18-year-old student, a sports shop assistant, a financial adviser and a betting shop deputy manager, as well as four players recruited from Hertfordshire a year earlier. It was to be a celebration, so days before the match, the two teams met, had dinner, sang songs and were asked for their predictions.

“We expected to have a good game,” Bhutan’s Dinesh Chhetri tells The Set Pieces. “We were fully prepared mentally and physically to play the match and were under the guidance of coach Arie Schans, whose experience gave us an extra boost. We were also confident of winning the match because we had trained so well and had the home advantage.

“I’d say we were very well prepared. We had a training camp in Thimphu for a little over a month. We were training hard every day. Apart from that, the government had made all the necessary arrangements and provided their support to the team and staff. We were excited. It was such a great opportunity to play at a high level and play an official international match.”

On the day of the match, the excitement around the country was palpable. More than 20,000 fans entered the Changlimithang Stadium for kick-off, with the documentary capturing the contrast between the Other Final and the World Cup final. At the Changlimithang Stadium, there wasn’t quite the modern technology, seating capacity or extravagant facilities like there were at Yokohama’s International Stadium. But there was one important similarity – both had green grass and two goalposts. And that’s all that mattered.

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The match kicked off after an hour-long dance program showcasing the Buddhist traditions of Bhutan, with the excitement added to by the hosts taking the lead on four minutes. Wangyal Dorji, the Bhutan captain and star forward who recovered from an eye infection ahead of the match, heading home from a corner. Befitting with the two nations’ status, it wasn’t the best goal – aided by a fumble from the Montserrat goalkeeper.

That’s how it would stay until 20 minutes into the second-half when Bhutan got a free-kick on the edge of the box, with Dorji stepping up to curl a wonderful strike down to the goalkeeper’s right to double the arrears. Montserrat looked tired. The high altitude and long travels were seemingly catching up to them. Soon, Bhutan would add another, with Chhetri getting on the scoresheet thanks to a calm finish.

“As a forward you always dream to score in crucial moments to help the team,” the striker remembers of his big moment. “I remember I was trying my best to scoring a goal at every opportunity. It was a great moment for me when I scored for my country – and it felt like a dream came true. I feel joy even today when I think of that moment.”

Bhutan wouldn’t stop there, Dorji completing his hat-trick to round off a 4-0 win. One winning team, one losing team, but an overarching feeling of pride. But was it a fair result?

“Bhutan were, by far, the stronger team and far more professional,” Bennett confirms. “Montserrat struggled a little bit, they had a few injuries but the sportsmanship and some of the challenges were, at times, not what you would’ve expected. In all, the game came to a safe conclusion, but Montserrat did find it more difficult than Bhutan.”

After the game, the two teams congratulated each other, with the Bhutan players singing a version of “Hot, Hot, Hot”, the famous song by Montserratian artist Arrow, which had become a worldwide hit. Although Bhutan were clear winners, the trophy was split between the two teams as a sign of unity and sportsmanship. Later, both teams got together once again and watched the World Cup final in Thimphu, where Ronaldo’s double secured Brazil’s fifth world title in Japan. It was a day to cherish.

“The most striking thing that will live with me forever was what happened at the end of the game,” Bennett adds. “When the game finished, all the players and VIPs came on the field of play and did this traditional dance. I don’t think I’ll ever see that again. It was very unique to the occasion. It was another side of football. The stadium itself was very different compared to stadiums in Europe. There was a temple on one side and the VIPs sat close to it, and there was another side which was where many of the fans sat. It was a remarkable occasion for many reasons.”

Bhutan v Montserrat: The Other Final to award FIFA’s wooden spoon
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