Tibetan team competing with 15 other squads in the CONIFA World Cup
The beautiful game gets a chance to shine once again this year with a global football tournament unfolding in early summer. Not the World Cup in Russia, organised by the official, but increasingly controversial, football governing body FIFA, but the idealistic 2018 CONIFA Football Cup … and the Tibetan football team are playing!
Unfolding at sporting venues across London from next week (31 May) to early June, this feel-good footballing frenzy brings together 16 teams representing around 330 million people worldwide. The event is hosted by CONIFA (the Confederation of Independent Football Associations), an umbrella association for nations, minorities, stateless peoples and regions not affiliated to FIFA. CONIFA prides itself on being a politically neutral, charitable organisation aiming for “everyone in the world to be able to enjoy and play football – no matter their race, religion, gender or politics.”
The teams range from United Koreans in Japan, representing North and South Korean communities; to Northern Cyprus; to the hosts Barawa, representing the Somali community in the UK. A team representing Cascadia, a region on the western Canadian and US coasts with a unique culture and environment, will compete against Ellan Vannin, who represent the Isle of Man. Tuvalu, a recognised country in the Pacific Ocean, one of the smallest in the world, will also compete.
The Tibetan team have their work cut out for them – there are 38 countries listed in CONIFA and the Tibetan team is ranked 38th, making them wild-card outsiders. But, as we found out when we spoke to Passang Dorjee, Chairman of the Tibetan National Sports Association, the competition will give Tibetans the chance to represent their country on the world stage and maybe surprise one or two people: “My team’s aspiration is to play in the CONIFA World Cup just like the people of other independent countries,” he told us. “We want to show the world that Tibetans can play like other countries can.”
On 18 May the team met with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, who blessed them before their journey to London. He told them: “Wherever you go, it is very important that you uphold the honour and dignity of Tibet and Tibetan people. Most importantly, carry our values and culture with you as you go”.
Popular legend maintains that Tibetans were first introduced to football by British workers based at the Trade Agency in Gyantse in the early 1900s where it remained popular until China’s occupation in 1950. Despite the brutality of the Chinese regime – and its impact on football teams – a few popular squads emerged, including the Potala team in Lhasa. However, it was communities of exiled Tibetans who really took the game and ran with it, with the formation of a football club in Dharamsala in the early 1960s that was bolstered by the enthusiastic adoption of the game by school-children.
“Tibetan children took to football like fish to water,” says Passang and he points out that regular tournaments and matches have enhanced the popularity of the game which remains a firm favourite among Tibetans based in India. “The Tibetan National Sports Association is in the process of strengthening our mentoring and selection process – both at the school and club levels,” says Passang, who hopes this will help boost their international standing.
On 30 June 2001, Tibet played its first international match in Copenhagen and suffered a 4-1 defeat to Greenland. Denmark refused to cancel the match, despite threats from China that it would cut off trade, and 5,000 spectators witnessed history when Lobsang Norbu (a secondary school PE teacher) netted Tibet’s first ever international goal. Since then there have been plenty of ups and downs, perhaps captured best during one surreal week in June 2013, when the Tibetan team recorded its heaviest ever defeat, a 22-0 loss to Provence, and then, five days later, its biggest ever victory … a 12-2 win over the Sahrawi national football team.
Wherever you go, it is very important that you uphold the honour and dignity of Tibet and Tibetan people. Most importantly, carry our values and culture with you as you go.
Tibetan football has continued to develop. Critical to the transformation has been the Tibetan National Sports Association which now lists over thirty registered football clubs in its membership. The body has also been quick to utilise technology to further build its base and, in 2016, it live-streamed the Gyalyum Chenmo Memorial Gold Cup from Canada to fans worldwide. Tibetans have also followed the lead of several other countries around the world in realising the much-neglected potential of female football; a national women’s Tibetan team now represents the occupied nation around India and further afield.
There have also been challenges. The 16 players in the Tibetan team’s squad live and play in countries as far apart as India, Switzerland and the USA. Tibetan communities around the world have also sent money to help the team reach the UK. In May we finally received confirmation that the team had been granted its visas and would be able to compete in the tournament, something the Tibetan National Sports Association described as a “giant step into history of world football” and "beyond our wildest imagination".
On 22 May, the team safely arrived in London, and their eyes are firmly set on taking the CONIFA World Cup back to Dharamsala with them. In order to do so, they will have to overcome the current holders: Abkhazia, who beat Panjab 5-6 on penalties in 2016. The reigning champions play Tibet on Thursday (31 May) – the opening day of the competition. The Tibetan team will then go head-to-head with Northern Cyprus and Kárpátalja, a late addition to the tournament who represent a Hungarian minority community in western Ukraine. The final will take place on 9 June.
Passang is keen to watch as the good-natured football challenge kicks off in London: “Our team means a lot to our community – Tibetans have no human rights in Tibet and we are refugees in exile so we are keen to show our rich culture and religion to the world. Meeting other people from state-less places across the world gives us energy and provides us with motivation. See you at CONIFA 2018!”