[The New York Times]
DHARAMSALA, Himachal Pradesh — In a cramped office at the Tibetan National Sports Association in the north Indian town of Dharamsala, amid the disorderly rows of files and sepia photographs, a brand new jersey hangs from a nail on a bookshelf. Stitched on the back are the words “Tibetan National Team.”
For Tibetan exiles, the jersey is not merely a testament to their deep devotion to soccer. It is also proof of their enduring optimism — because the aspiring players are well aware that it’s extremely difficult to field a national team when you have no nation.
“We Tibetans love football,” said Kelsang Dhondup, the executive secretary of the Tibetan National Sports Association, which has established over a hundred clubs for different age groups since 2012. “And we’re struggling to make a mark.”
Registered under the Indian Societies Act XXI, 1860, the association four years ago embarked upon a rigorous soccer training program for boys in 20 Tibetan schools in India.
As an autonomous region of China, Tibet has a long history of repression by the government in Beijing, which has restricted Buddhist activities while promoting the Chinese identity by, for instance, favoring Mandarin instruction over Tibetan. In 1959, thousands of Tibetans from U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo converged in Lhasa to protest the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The uprising forced the 14th Dalai Lama and more than 80,000 Tibetans to flee their country and live in exile. Dharamsala serves as the home of the Tibetan government in exile.
The Tibetan national soccer team had its first match in Bologna, Italy, in 1999. That came after Kasur Jetsun Pema, the younger sister of the Dalai Lama and former president of the Tibetan Children’s Village, accepted an invitation by the Italian band Dinamo Rock for an exhibition match against the Dinamo Rock team, in Bologna. The national team was formed to participate in the match, which it won 5-3, and it has represented a rowdy bid for statehood ever since.
Young Tibetans who have settled in India eagerly compete for spots on the national team, but once they qualify, they have few opportunities to play overseas. Because Tibet is not recognized as an independent country, FIFA, the soccer world’s governing body, does not allow the Tibetans to play against any teams it recognizes.
Many of the rare international matches come from the Tibetan National Sports Association’s affiliation with the Nouvelle Fédération Board, a congregation of football teams from nations of an ambiguous political existence – dependencies, unrecognized states, minorities, stateless people, regions and micronations not recognized by FIFA. Established on Dec. 12, 2003, the Nouvelle Fédération Board initiated the VIVA World Cup in 2006 in Occitania. Since then, it has held matches in Sápmi in 2008, Padania in 2009, Gozo in 2010 and more recently in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2012. (Occitania, Sápmi, Padania and Gozo are all regions in European countries.)
But Tibetan players found themselves stuck at home during the 2012 VIVA World Cup. “We couldn’t get sponsorship for our air tickets,” said Mr. Dhondup.
Given the lack of professional training available to the players, it’s not too surprising that the Tibetan national team has had a spotty international record. In the 2006 FIFI Wild Cup in Hamburg, Germany, the team played against St. Paulo (0-7), Gibraltar (0-5) and SSV Hacheney (1-1). At The ELF Cup 2006, held in North Cyprus, the team played against Tajikistan (0-3), Crimea (0-1) and North Cyprus (0-10). It was, however, awarded the ELF Cup’s “Fair Play Team Trophy.”
Despite being strapped for cash and barred from the big leagues, Tibetan soccer players still scramble to mucky training grounds at the crack of dawn all over India to play a game that rewards them with nothing but the tremulous applause of locals from their settlements.
In April, the Tibetan national team competed in a flamboyant showdown with teams from India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. The 25th Shaheed Durga Mall Dal Bahadur Memorial Gold Cup Football Tournament, held in Dharamsala, provided the team a chance at an elusive glory not restricted to club-level tournaments.
The Dalai Lama’s Birthday Cup is also a popular local tournament that draws both Tibetan and Indian clubs. This year’s final, which took place on July 6 in Dehradun, capital of Uttarakhand state, was a feisty contest between the Dhondupling Football Club from Clement Town in Dehradun, and the Indian team CT Young, also from Dehradun. And while the Indian team beat its Tibetan counterpart, 2-1, the setback only fired up the Dhondupling Football Club’s training sessions for the Gyalyum Chenmo Memorial Gold Cup, perhaps the most enthusiastically contested Tibetan soccer tournament.
In the last week of July, Tibetan exiles gathered at the Rabyaling Tibetan settlement in Karnataka for the tournament. Initiated in 1981 as a tribute to the late mother of the 14th Dalai Lama, the Gyalyum Chenmo Memorial Gold Cup has been an ideal scouting ground to spot talent for the national team. The Tibetan National Sports Association has been organizing the annual tournament since 2003.
“This is the biggest tournament for Tibetan youngsters,” said Mr. Dhondup.
This year, club-level participation was a vigorous display of Tibetan prowess, albeit fraught with annoyances. A slushy pileup of 29 matches was played by 22 Tibetan teams, who have endured a difficult summer to participate in the contest.
For the soccer clubs participating in the tournament, vigorous training sessions are sometimes marred by obstacles – a lack of sponsors, muddy grounds inappropriate for matches, and the absence of a professional coach – but the teams work around these issues in their quest for the Gyalyum Chenmo Memorial Gold Cup trophy.
Gelek Janta, the 22-year-old team manager of the Kerala Football Club, revealed that the team, in the absence of a sponsor, had to buy its own supply of jerseys, shoes and socks.
“We collected 1,500 rupees ($25) from each player,” said Mr. Janta, who is also a midfielder. “The sweat and blood are worth it if some of us make it to the national team,” he said.
Nationalistic fervor fires up morale in the absence of glamorous international prospects. Gompo Dorjee, the 33-year-old coach of the Dhondupling Football Club from Dehradun, recalled playing in Copenhagen in 2001 against Greenland, which won the match, 4-1.
“We played on a grassy ground for the first time,” he said. “In Dharamsala, we had trained on a patch of muddy ground that had a pathway for villagers and their cattle running through the middle.”
The coach has spent the summer working out rigorously with the Dhondupling Football Club. But the team’s tenacity in the face of severe limitations – inadequate financing and a young team with a lack of professional training — paid off when the players held aloft the revered Gyalyum Chenmo Memorial Gold Cup trophy.
“We played the finals against Goa Tibetan F.C. and won 1-0,” said the coach, ecstatic that a few of his players will be selected for the national team.
“Most Tibetan players are still in college, with little or no training or exposure to a variety of teams,” he said. “A few of them start working early to support their families. It’s tough to convince family members to let their kids play football for a season, when they could be working for a salary. If they have a fall or break a limb, the family suffers because they can’t earn for a while.”
Coaches are usually senior team players, or those who have participated in past tournaments. Lobsang Norbu, who also played against Greenland in 2001 and scored the first and only goal for the Tibetan national team during the tournament, now works as a physical education teacher.
“It’s good to start early – kids should join the school team by the time they turn 8,” said the 39-year-old coach, who works at the Tibetan Children’s Village.
The Tibetan National Sports Association now trains the younger players, and grassroots clubs swarm with fresh recruits in 20 Tibetan schools in India. In a bid to encourage Tibetan girls to step out of the confines of stringent school curricula, the Tibetan Women’s Football training program has also been formed. In 2011, its inaugural year, the initiative reached nine Tibetan schools in India, allowing 180 teenage girls to participate in the boisterousness of inter-school tournaments.
For all the hopes vested in their youth, as bands of refugees, Tibetan soccer players can only dream of competing as an internationally recognized team. But they stubbornly refuse to give up on that dream.
“Someday,” Mr. Dorjee said, “we’ll play against Germany, or Brazil.”
Radhika Oberoi is a freelance journalist based in Delhi