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Lhendup Dorji: The 'other' Bhutanese in Indian Football is a Lone Star at Kashmir

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Lhendup Dorji in action for the Bhutanese national team (Image: Facebook)
Lhendup Dorji in action for the Bhutanese national team (Image: Facebook)

A cursory Google search of the name 'Lhendup Dorji' will lead you to results of an erstwhile member of the Bhutanese aristocratic Dorji clan, who was a hunter.

But, in the wilderness of the I-League second division lies a central midfielder from Bhutan with that name - Lhendup Dorji. It says a bit about the state of the sport in the tiny Himalayan nation, when a hunter's name is more prominent than one of the country's leading footballers.

As his team Lone Star Kashmir came off the field at the Bangalore Football Stadium after being soundly beaten 3-0 by Ozone FC Bengaluru, Dorji says he expected a challenge even in the second division, and that is why he made the move to India, from his native Bhutan.

There's something to love about the two Bhutanese players plying their trade in India at the moment. Of course, Chencho Gyeltshen has become a big name in Indian football circles after his exploits for Minerva Punjab FC in their I-League victory in 2017-18, and Dorji is full of respect for his countryman too.

"We played U19 football together for our country, and he's taken his game to another level. He's played in Thailand, Bangladesh and India now, and it's totally because of his hardwork and sacrifices," Dorji says.

The 24-year-old says that players like Chencho are making a difference to the mentality and perception of football in his home nation. "Now, parents think there is a life for their kids in sports, and not just studies."

Dorji, who made his debut in a historic World Cup qualifier victory against Sri Lanka in 2015, says that tie has made a huge difference in Bhutanese football. The Dragon Boys won that tie 3-1 on aggregate, after Chencho's brace at the Changlimithang Stadium in Thimphu.

Dorji says there's still a long way to go, but is well aware that is a slow process, because of the culture in Bhutan.

The Bhutanese National Football Team
The Bhutanese National Football Team
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"It is changing slowly. But still, for many players, the pinnacle is being named in the national team, they don't work hard after that," Dorji laments.

He also says that the "security" of a job is still primary for the many Bhutanese youngsters in football. The midfielder says Bhutanese youth still take up football as a means to finding a government job, and not because they want to pursue the sport.

That's where Dorji and Chencho are different.

"We made football our lives," he says. "If I had gone for a job, I would have no time or opportunity to improve my football, I had to sacrifice that earning, which is not much anyway, for football."

"We can now compete with teams in the SAFF region, we don't concede seven or eight goals in every game anymore. We have a long way to go before even competing with the Middle-Eastern teams or other top Asian teams," Dorji said.

So, how does he feel about his current stint with Lone Star Kashmir? "I expected it to be challenging, but we need to work as a team, individuals cannot win matches on their own," he says.

The assistant head coach at Lone Star, Nitesh Singh says he was impressed by Dorji the moment he saw his videos as part of scouting for the squad for this season. "His work-rate stands out, every player needs to have that desire," Singh said.

Dorji is trying to make the most of this stint and hopes that his team is able to pull back after the first defeat to Ozone in the final round. "We need to play and be more competitive because if we win this, we gain promotion," he says.

He says life in Kashmir has not been very different from that in his native Bhutan. "The weather is similar, and even the roads and the routes are similar. When we went to Gulmarg recently, everybody thought I would be surprised, but it felt like home for me," Dorji says.

Dorji is now looking forward to Lone Star's remaining five games in the final round of the second division I-League, which also has TRAU FC and Chhinga Veng FC, along with Ozone and Lone Star.

"For Bhutan, the upcoming World Cup qualifier against Guam will be a difficult game - very difficult. But I'm looking forward, hopefully we can do well."
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