Hours before Bhutan's Transport United were due to play Bengaluru FC in their AFC Cup match, they received a boost from an unlikely quarter: A trademark quality goal by Chencho Gyeltshen, captain of the national team. The goal itself had nothing to do with Transport United - it was for Minerva Punjab against East Bengal in the I-League - but was another inspirational moment in Chencho's debut season in India.
"All players are inspired [by Chencho]. Not only players, but the younger generation as well," Transport's winger Kencho Tobgay told ESPN. "If he can do it, Minerva can do it too. Because of him, we have gained so much confidence."
"Football in Bhutan is still at an amateur level and making a living out of football is not really an option at the moment in Bhutan," says Phuntsho Wangdi, media marketing director of the Bhutan Football Federation. "Chencho playing in I-League and getting paid has sparked enthusiasm and platform for younger generations to take up football as career and play outside the country. He is giving hope and a dream to aspiring footballers."
Kencho, who says he studied engineering at the College of Science and Technology in Rinchending alongside Chencho's brother, calls him Bhutan football's "break-the-ice" person in terms of his impact.
"Before, we knew that I-League was there but it was not as popular then. Then the ISL (Indian Super League) came and ISL became very popular in Bhutan. Everyone watches ISL, but now because of Chencho everyone has started watching I-League," he says. "Just because of Chencho, Minerva Punjab has got more than a million fans extra. Everyone is inspired by him, and we are all looking to follow in his footsteps."
On Wednesday, 33 minutes into Minerva Punjab's match against East Bengal in Barasat, surprise table-toppers Minerva were playing the perfect game for an away team -- sitting deep in their half and hitting on counter-attacks. They had already scored through defender Sukhdev Singh, when the ball fell to Chencho. He collected the ball, rode a tackle and then wasted no time in opening his body up, passing the ball past East Bengal goalkeeper Ubaid CK with the instep of his left foot into the net.
The hosts were stunned -- fingers pointed among the defenders -- and Chencho dropped to the touchline, chased by his team-mates, before unleashing the favourite 'right here, right now' celebration of his idol Cristiano Ronaldo. You know it; the one that is a cross between a mock throw-in and smashing open a piñata.
It is not just the six goals Chencho has got this season that have put Minerva five points clear of second-placed NEROCA following Tuesday's 2-2 draw -- the man they call 'Bhutanese Ronaldo' had also scored a hat-trick in a pre-season friendly to lead his club to a 3-2 win away to Bengaluru FC in Bellary. When Minerva began the season with a bang, the team management turned to that friendly as the point when the team started believing that this league could be theirs for the taking.
Bhutan were ranked last among all of FIFA nations not long before a famous 1-0 win away over Sri Lanka in the first stage of qualification for the 2018 World Cup, but since have improved to 188, with Chencho playing all those games in between. Their national team captain has already shown the way to compete in a top league in the region for his friends at Transport United, and they would do well to look no further for inspiration on an evening when a scored draw would do just fine.