The beautiful game is set to impress once more this summer when the collective attention of sporting audiences worldwide focuses on footballâ€™s premier global tournament. This is not the FIFA World Cup â€“ organised by an association increasingly mired in controversy â€“ but the far more idealistic CONIFA World Cup.
This festival of footy, aka the Rebel World Cup, brings together stateless people representing a diaspora numbering around 330 million and offers fans a guilt-free alternative to its cash-rich, Russia-hosted FIFA big brother.
Alongside teams from a variety of unusual groupings â€“ including Northern Cyprus, Punjab in northern India and the Isle of Manâ€™s Ellan Vannin â€“ this year sees Tibetâ€™s national eleven competing for the coveted trophy.
The Tibetan team have their work cut out for them â€“ there are 38 countries listed in CONIFA and the Tibetan team is ranked 38th wild-card outsiders. Their 16-strong squad made up of refugees living in countries as far afield as India, Canada, Switzerland and the UK, are set to go head-to-head with Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus and KÃ¡rpÃ¡talja, a late addition to the tournament who represent a Hungarian minority community in western Ukraine.
“This is going to be a high-octane, high-spirited sporting event which may also serve to highlight the plight of the Tibetan people who have lived under a brutal Chinese military occupation for 70 years,” said John Jones from the Free Tibet Campaign.
Passang Dorjee, Chairman of the Tibetan National Sports Association (TNSA), is hopeful the competition will give Tibetans the chance to represent their country on the world stage and maybe surprise one or two people along the way: “My teamâ€™s aspiration is to play in the CONIFA World Cup just like the people of other independent countries. We want to show the world that Tibetans can play like other countries can.”
Among other teams heading to a variety of football grounds across the capital from 31May to 9 June is Cascadia whose team aim to highlight the plight of an ecological region in western Canada / USA with a unique culture and environment as well as Tuvalu, a recognised Pacific Ocean nation, one of the smallest in the world, which faces existential danger as a result of rising sea levels.
CONIFA â€“ an umbrella association representing many people who live as minorities or as nation-less peoples in states unaffiliated with FIFA â€“ prides itself as a politically neutral, charitable organisation which aims for “everyone in the world to be able to enjoy and play football â€“ no matter their race, religion, gender or politics.”
It was only in early May that the Tibetan team finally received confirmation from UK immigration officials that they had been granted visas and would be able to compete in the tournament which the TNSA described as a “giant step into history of world football â€¦ beyond our wildest imagination.”
There have also been other challenges for the Tibetan hopefuls. The 16 players in the team live and play in countries worldwide and Tibetan communities around the globe have sent money to help the team reach the UK.
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 Chinaâ€™s occupation in 1950. Despite the brutality of the Chinese regime â€“ and its impact on football teams â€“ 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 the 1960s in Dharamsala (the town in northern India which
has been home to many exiled Tibetan refugees since the late 1950s) 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 TNSA is in the process of strengthening our mentoring and selection process â€“ both at the school and club levels,” says Passang, who hopes this will help boost their international standing.
The Tibetan team has some form. In 2001, Tibet played its first international match in Copenhagen and suffered a 4-1 defeat to Greenland (Denmark had refused to cancel the match, despite threats from China that it would cut off trade and 5,000 spectators witnessed history when Tibetan player Lobsang Norbu netted Tibetâ€™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 â€¦ a 12-2 win over the Sahrawi national football team.
Tibetan football has continued to develop. Critical to the transformation has been the TNSA which now lists over thirty registered football clubs in its membership. Tibetans have also followed the lead of several other countries around the world in realising the much-neglected potential of female football: A national womenâ€™s Tibetan team now represents the occupied nation around India and further afield.
With tours overseas for the Tibetan team including matches in Italy, Denmark, Switzerland and Germany, their eyes are now 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 31 May â€“ the opening day of the competition. The Tibetan team will then go head-to-head with Northern Cyprus and KÃ¡rpÃ¡talja on June 2 and 3. The CONIFA World Cup final is set to take place at Enfield FCâ€™s grounds (the Queen Elizabeth II stadium in north London) 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 â€“ 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.”
Running from 31 May to 9 June at venues across the capital â€“ including the home turf of Haringey Borough FC, Fisher FC, Carshalton Athletic FC and Bromley FC, for example â€“ the 16-team fixture is made up of squads from countries that do not officially exist as well as those facing ecological extinction.
Further interviews, photo opportunities and press tickets are available through contact details provided.
Tickets for the matches are on sale and cost just Â£10 per ticket with Â£1 funding team-boosting efforts across the globe.
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