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Bhutan, high-altitude football

changlimithang stadium bhutan

We've all heard of Bhutan sometimes and somehow but who'd locate it on a map without any margin for error? Some could easily recognize the national flag but what else? Do they play football? Do they have a national team? If so they should play in the World Cup qualifying rounds... but where do they play?

We've noticed this small national team recently, thanks to their great and unexpected result in March, against Sri Lanka, during the 2018 World Cup 1st Preliminary Round. Bhutan won 1-0 away, in Colombo, and 2-1 at home.

At home, yes. But where?

Bhutan national football team play their home games in Thimphu, the capital, with a population of almost 80,000 people and largest city of the country. Here, at 2,300m of altitude, they don't have traffic lights: in fact this is the only capital city in the world without them, as the locals firmly stood against them in the past, saying they were drab. The national stadium, Changlimithang Stadium, first of all is a historical place. It was built in 1974 on the very same site of one of the crucial battles to gain the unification of the country: back in 1885, local leader Ugyen Wangchukera established his supremacy after many local and civil wars and led Bhutan to the unification, pulling it out from Tibet's control and mantaining connections with the british government. The stadium here is very much like those that used to be in the ancient times: a big multi-purpose area just like those in the Ancient Greece and Roman Empire (see Circus Maximus in Rome or Panathenaic Stadium in Athens).

Changlimithang Stadium opened in time for the coronation of 4th Druk Gyalpo (Head of the State in Bhutan, ed), Jigme Singye Wangchuck, being home to different sports: football, squash, tennis, archery and even billiards.

Construction phase during work on the new stands.
The simplest way to understand what this stadium is today, is by looking at it via Google Maps, with "terrain view" (click here to see it): a long and narrow plot, just beside the Clock Tower square, where the football pitch is only one the site features. To its left a modern stand go alongside the pitch until another smaller field. These stands were built in 2008, during the big refurbishment work for the centenary of the reunification of the country: this terrace consists of 21 rows that could host around 30,000 fans - a big improvement from the old stand, with only 6 rows for 10,000 people. The stand is two-tiered, although there's no balcony, and the new structure houses new dressing rooms and bathing facilities.

The new stand today.

The isolated Royal Pavilion, before the refurbishment.
The other main feature of the ground is the Royal Pavilion. Situated in front of the new stand, it's also been expanded in 2008 with two new wings built, subordinated to the original building. The architectural design has been maintained, following the Dzong style of the main structure. This is a peculiar style of this area, spread out at the end of 19th century. It's a distinctive style of the south Himalayan area (Tibet and Bhutan especially) and it originates from a specific constructive model, a type of fortress with towering exterior walls, whose main example is the fortress in Trongsa, Bhutan.

The two new wings fully comply with the pavilion design, with the double flared roofs and the balcony, although being built at a lower level to highlight the importance of the central original building. Even the typical Dzong style details are evoked, especially with the same matchboard shape and color themes and with the wood elements of the balcony, completely replied from those of the Pavilion, to create a continuum between the old and the new structures.

Construction phases on the Royal Pavilion.

After the refurbishment work the Bhutan Olympic Committee were provided a new official location here and in 2011 floodlights were added to the football pitch. An artificial turf was also installed and this specific aspect contributed to bring a unique status to the Changlimithang Stadium: in fact, it became available for public hire. The football pitch is opened to the population to be booked for matches between friends or collagues, following a specific timetable - afternoons and evenings during the week, all day in the weekends. This has proved to be a popular option for the locals and also a valuable source of income for the Bhutan Football Federation. The money gained from booking charges is financing new artificial turf installations on other football pitches elsewhere in the country making it possible to consider the opening of new public grounds in three new districts of Bhutan.

The view from the Royal Pavilion.

Bhutan v Sri Lanka, 17th March 2015.


to know more:
  • "The Other Final", Johan Kramer (2003), a documentary film about a football match between Bhutan and Montserrat (the then-lowest ranked national teams in the FIFA World Ranking), played at the Changlimithang Stadium on the very same day of the 2002 World Cup final between Germany and Brazil, link1 & link2
ph references: Joe Cocozza,, Shubada Nikharge.

* the original version of this article was published on, here

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