The Under-23 football team recently made history for Bhutan by winning the first-ever silver medal in the South Asian Games (SAG) in Nepal.
The team, with its professional and disciplined performance, along with a lot of heart, also won the hearts of the Nepalese fans, with the unprecedented scene of thousands of Nepalese cheering for Bhutan.
However, the ground reality is that the official wages and benefits of a national player, right now, are less than that of a government gardener.
While civil servants and corporate employees have got their pay hike, our national players get only Nu 10,000 per month, and that too, not from the government, but the Bhutan Football Federation (BFF).
Even in the U-23 team, the ones who get paid are the members of the main national team, while other players who are not members of the national squad are not paid.
The only way that the U-23 and the national team players make any income is when playing for the football clubs, which pay between Nu 15,000 to Nu 5,000 a month. However, most of the 7 or so main football clubs in Bhutan that employ these players are in a deep financial crisis and running at a loss.
Bhutan’s star football export and the star of the Bhutan-Nepal final, Chencho Gyeltshen, who shot the lone goal, himself, feels the pain of his fellow teammates.
“The U-23 team has students in it too, and I am aware that a couple of them even sat out of the class 12 exams to be able to prepare and play the SAG games,” said Chencho.
He said that although there is much better facilities and infrastructure now compared to earlier times, however, his teammates and other footballers are struggling financially.
He admitted that younger players approach him for advice, and they have a very high level of interest in the game and want to dedicate their lives to it. But they are under pressure from their parents to complete their education and get jobs, as football is not seen as a sport where a stable income can be earned.
Chencho said that the national squad has 23 players currently, but there are always players who keep dropping out to pursue higher studies and other careers.
He pointed out that most of the national squad players are fully dedicated to football, with it being their sole source of income. Only around three to four players have other jobs, like in Druk Air, Tashi Group and BoB.
He said that while some national players and U-23 stay with their parents in Thimphu, there are four to five players from outside Thimphu that rent an apartment together, and have a tough time meeting their expenses. Chencho said that the main obstacle for the development of football in Bhutan is the lack of a steady income.
Chencho is the only financially successful footballer in Bhutan who hit the big league from 2015 onwards playing with top clubs in Thailand, Bangladesh and India.
He said, “As far as skills are concerned, there is no big difference, as our Bhutanese players have the same skill sets and ability, but the only difference is in terms of payment, to the extent that even if the foreign players get injured seriously, they can retire comfortably.”
So while a top national player in Bhutan can get Nu 10,000 from the national team and Nu 15,000 per month from a club with a total of Nu 25,000, Chencho pointed out that even the lowest ranked football players in India at the club level earn a minimum of Nu 50,000 to Nu 100,000 a month.
He said that the top-level national players in India easily get Nu 30 million (mn) a season (7 to 8 months) from clubs, and this does not include advertisement deals with companies.
Chencho said another difference is that in India and other countries, the players keep playing club football and get time to come together as a national team. In the case of Bhutan, the national team does not get much practice time before tournaments, and the fitness and skill of players only depend on the couple of domestic tournaments played in Bhutan.
Giving an example of the U-23 Nepal team, Chencho said that he heard the better players in the U-23 Nepal team are earning around USD 5,000 (Nu 350,000) per month, as Nepal has a vibrant club scene with many sponsors coming forward to support the game.
Chencho said that in the case of Bhutan, clubs and tournaments do not see much corporate and private sponsors, and as a result, almost all the football clubs are making a loss. He said that the club owners end up spending money from their own pocket and are only doing it as a passion.
In fact, the two Bhutanese clubs that Chencho started his career with, before going abroad, Yeedzin and Thimphu FC are currently not operational due to sustainability issues. Yeedzin, where Chencho played his first two years of club football, dissolved in 2014, while Thimphu FC, from where Chencho went to Thailand, has taken a break from last year.
Chencho said that Bhutan’s good performance in the SAG games could end up being one-off occurrences if enough is not done to improve the viability of domestic football clubs.
He said sustainable clubs can pay players well, and also ensure good training with adequate facilities, and this will also allow national players to stay in good touch and also get time to practice together before international tournaments.
Chencho pointed out that, currently, there are only two football grounds available in Changlimithang and Changjiji, but ideally clubs should be having their own grounds.
He said that players should also be given good medical treatment and support, which was not there earlier but it has improved now.
He said another improvement is that the student players in the U-23 and other junior teams, while not getting paid a salary, get scholarships paid for by BFF. He said that facilities have also improved.
Almost all the national and U-23 players, including Chencho, are products of the BFF academy which takes in young players, keeps them in the academy, pays their education expenses and gives them football training. In fact, the BFF academy has a huge role in Bhutanese football reaching to the current level.
However, the issue is that students have to leave the academy after the age of 18, and this is where the clubs come into play.
Despite all the problems, Chencho’s advice to the young and aspiring Bhutanese players is to work hard at the game, and to be dedicated and disciplined. Only then can a player fully explore his/her potential and do well at the international stage.
He said that in the beginning when he played abroad, he was underestimated as he was from Bhutan, but he was determined to prove his worth, and so he put in a lot of hard work.
Chencho said that he just finished a club contract in India, and he had offers from several other Indian clubs, but he is taking a short break right now before heading back. Chencho has also started CG7, a football academy to train young students interested in football at a fee of Nu 1,250 per month. He has 250 students, and he said that the money goes into hiring and paying coaches who are former national players who were injured, and hiring grounds , among others.
An avid football enthusiast and owner of Thimphu City, Hishey Tshering, best exemplifies the state of club football and its owners. Hishey said that with salary and other expenses, his club spends around Nu 4 mn a year of which Nu 1.6 mn comes from his own pocket. Like other football club owners, he is been doing it purely out of the passion and love of the game, otherwise it is a complete financial loss.
He said that he is lucky to have the support of his wife and his whole family, including his children, who are all into football in a big way.
Hishey said far from getting support, people, knowing his passion for football, come to him for support. He said that the quality of football in any country around the world depends on the quality of clubs or league football. He said that all the national players in Bhutan, and others in U-23, play for clubs from where they get regular practice while playing in tournaments.
He said that the football countries that do well internationally usually have a strong league. He said that the Italians once had a very strong club football and they dominated world football, but this is no longer the case. He said currently Spain has a good league football and so it is doing well.
Hishey also pointed out that in other countries, the football federation does not pay the players as it is the clubs who pay them, but given the poor state of the clubs, the BFF is paying the national players.
He said that, ironically, football is one of the better-funded sports, and people think that BFF has a lot of money. But he said that most of that money is project tied from FIFA and AFC. He said that BFF does give support grant of Nu 200,000 to 300,000 a year, and partial DSA in certain cases, but the major bulk of the expenditure is met by the clubs. This also includes renting apartments to accommodate the out of town players and shopping money.
He said that the only club that is doing well, for now, is Paro FC, as they have a well-to-do group of family members who have invested, and the club even has its own ground in Paro which they also lease out. Though a new club, the Paro FC won the BoB Premiere League.
Hishey pointed out that the major issue with the sustainability of clubs is the lack of adequate sponsors from the corporate and private sector. It is so bad that instead of supporting clubs, the financial institutions have their own tournaments that restrict club footballers from playing in it. He said that he organized a tournament recently and the teams wanted restrictions in the number of national players who could play in the tournament.
Hishey said the media houses also need to render their support, as some media houses do not mention the full name of the tournament, which usually includes the main sponsors, like the BoB Premiere League.
He said that companies want media coverage and returns, and when media houses censor their names from stories then it does not help. Hishey said that while the government may not be able to give financial support, it should give policy support.
He pointed out that until recently, clubs could not get in foreign players due to restrictive labour rules, but this was changed due to the cooperation of the government agencies.
Hishey also pointed out on FIFA’s requirement to have 10 teams for a league is also not helping as there are only enough good players for six to seven good clubs, and the rest end up getting a bad thrashing.
The competitive clubs are currently Paro FC, Transport United, Thimphu City, Ugyen Academy, Druk United, High Quality Football and the BFF Academy Team.
Hishey said that Bhutanese footballers have a lot of potential but for the lack of support. He said that recently the Under-15 team of Bhutan beat Saudi Arabia in the semi-finals, but years down the line, the same Saudi players will be in the national team and doing well for themselves financially. He said the under-19 team has also been beating big teams.
Hishey said that in the past, there only only a few Bhutanese students in Darjeeling and Kalimpong schools, but they dominated all the sports including swimming. He said Bhutanese players have the innate ability to do well in sports, given the right opportunities.
General Secretary of Transport United, Yeshi Samdrup, said that the club executive members had to shelve out Nu 2.6 mn from their own pockets. He said that this has been happening for the last three years of the 17 years of the club’s existence, and if this kind of loss continues then the club may have to contemplate on closing down.
Unlike in the past, players have to either be paid a salary of up to Nu 15,000 (for the better players), and other would get around Nu 70,000 per season (six to seven months).
He said that one solution is to allow a higher tax exemption for private and corporate companies so that their contribution to the clubs and football is tax deductible as an expense. He said that if the clubs get grant of around Nu 1 mn per year then the owners,while still facing a loss, would somehow manage.
The BFF President, Ugen Tshechup Dorji, agreed that the quality of club football would determine the quality of the national team.
He said that, currently, there is a tax-deductible ceiling that is includes all Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities, and so, if a company has given money to a Lhakhang, it does not get any more deduction when it wants to support football.
He said that in other countries, national players are given jobs by various government agencies, and jobs where they don’t have to do the job but can continue playing for the country, but they have something to fall back on once they stop playing.
He said that private companies, like his, would like to hire national players but again that is not tax deductible. “The government will still get the 70 percent which is the loss of the company but it should spare the 30 percent at least,” he said.
He said that BFF would like to give more money, but its funds are mostly project tied. Even then it supports clubs by giving coach training and supporting tournaments.
He said that there should be inter-school football tournaments independent of the dzongkhags games, where all sports are played together and then BFF can make it an inter-school tournament at the South Asia level.
The President said that the government could also help by atleast making the uniforms of national team players tax free. He said that last year, BFF paid Nu 12 mn in taxes for importing uniforms of the various men’s and women’s teams playing for Bhutan. He said that money could have gone to the clubs or other football activities.
The President said that while BFF has Nu 120 mn in its account, it will be used to open a Football Academy, where by education will be provided within the academy so that the children there will not have to attend schools separately.
He said Bhutan is the only country in South Asia which has a Women’s Football Academy in Gelephu.
When asked on why corporations and private companies are not investing in football, he said that it is simply because there is not not enough returns. He said that Bhutanese football needs to become more professional, and it needs more stars and established names, that companies can support and also benefit from.