News and Views on Tibet

Opinion- Parallel goals: TNSA and Tenzin Samdup

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Tibetan National team's No. 1, Tenzin Samdup during the CONIFA World cup 2018 tournament in the UK (Getty Images)
Tibetan National team's No. 1, Tenzin Samdup during the CONIFA World cup 2018 tournament in the UK (Getty Images)

By Karma T. Ngodup

Tenzin Samdup is a highly talented goalkeeper. He is a man with a dream, and kept it alive even when it went against the wishes of his family. The film A Dream to Keep, which follows his development and storied career,is not just his story, but the story of so many young Tibetans who challenge the odds, no matter if they be social, familial, political, or financial.

I am neither a film critic nor a soccer player at his level. But I share the passion Tenzin has for the sport, and the numerous challenges he had to face. Franklin Foer, in his remarkable book, How Soccer Explains the World, wrote, “Soccer isn’t the same as Buddhism. But it is often more deeply felt than religion.” This is surely the case for Tenzin, who melded the passion of which Foer seemed to have written along the pronouncement of H.H. the Dalai Lama, to the effect that “Tibetans can do everything” let alone soccer.

Tenzin’s story is inspiring. I have had the pleasure of watching many talented Tibetan players over the years, but Tenzin is special. He combines the physical and mental parts of the game. As an athlete, he is a complete package of physical attributes – strong, swift, and with almost preternatural ability to determine where the ball will be next. Mentally, he is focused, determined, and clear about his goals. If there is anything bittersweet about his story and the film, it is how it made me think about what we, as members of the Tibetan National Sports Association (TNSA), can do for others with the same potential. Today’s TNSA still is not in a position to guide such a young motivated player.

The reality is that like Tenzin, TNSA is chasing its own dream of becoming a national entity with vibrant resources to create regular opportunities for our young stars. Right now, we often watch our young talents recede into the mediocre without having a fair chance to make their dream reality. If the Tibetan community for obvious reasons cannot utilize the budding young stars and their talents, we must at least help them to thrive where there is a demand for their skills locally, or maybe in Europe where hundreds flocked into every year from Africa and South America to realize their dreams. They have literally changed the color of the English Premier League, the Bundesliga, and even the world cup. Soccer knows no nationality on the pitch the vast majority of the time, which is why so many teams feature so many players from other nations. Who knows? Someone like Tenzin may one day be keeping the goal for Manchester United!

There are additional challenges now that girls have taken to the soccer, and are eagerly claiming a well-deserved place in the sun. We have to double up everything, the soccer facilities, training opportunities, and the like. Zeroing in on extraordinary talents like Tenzin and ensuring that their talents come to total fruition and do not wither away in disappointment and waste, takes even more focus in this new reality.

As for Tenzin, his is a story filled with sadness and struggle, both within his family and in collision with the outside world. The documentary looks at him deeply and sensitively, and reflects both tragedy and triumph. The viewer feels the emotions of his being rendered stateless, and rejoices when he joins the talented, emerging players of Real Kashmir FC. It is reminiscent of the story of the first Tibetan lawyer, Tsering Topgyal, who battled rejection from the Bar Association of India. He sued the Bar and won, thus becoming the first lawyer to practice the law at the Supreme court of India. Like Topgyal, Tenzin too had prevailed through sheer tenacity. His traditional Tibetan parents could offer only limited support, and saw the game as a mere hobby or pastime, instead of a life calling. This is true despite the fact that his father loved the game when he was young, and with whom I might have played a match or two. The father did not see soccer as a place for a professional opportunity. In many cases, he might even be right. I am not sure that I will be different when it comes to assessing my own children and plotting a course for their education. Undeterred, Tenzin pushed forward to keep his dream alive. He is serious and resolute in navigating through all the intricacies in achieving his dream, no matter what ambivalence remained of his status.

A very few young Tibetans have been in the same situation – smacking into a dead-end with their parents or political status, and then finding their own routes and solutions. Tenzin did with what the educator Angela Duckworth terms ‘grit.” Grit means the ability to dig deep, tolerate discomfort and disappointment, and keep fighting even if it seems at times that a good outcome is far away. This grit, and the achievements that ultimately came with it, have made Tenzin a role model. He has that rare ability to understand the language of every new Champions League player, how to get ready for game time, and especially how to be a great goalkeeper despite the advance of years that might slow reflexes just a touch. He and those Tibetans in Indian I-League in their own ways, are showing young Tibetan players a road to success, just as Kagawa and Son are doing for Japan and Korea, respectively. 

Tenzin is also not shy in the documentary about addressing the role of the Tibetan National Sports Association, which still selects a national team as if completing a project proposal rather than a part of a regular sports program. I hope that the recent change in TNSA administration will open both the door to a consistent national team and create windows of opportunity for our young players. Tenzin shares the sentiments of his Tibetan national soccer teammates, who on their return from CONIFA games who in ONE voice requested for the continued support from the public, and visionary planning and guidance from TNSA and CTA leadership. There is urgency in this request. If the appeal goes unheard, interest in the community will die, and new talent will never emerge as it should. It is time for us to make soccer more than a mere game. Our Tibetan leaders can use the sport and the values and virtues it builds to great national advantage. In order to do this, we need to understand the potential of soccer, and learn how it can promote our national interest and efforts.

The Tibetan National Team at Paljor Stadium in Sikkim during the Governor’s Cup in 2017 where they reached the quarter final (TNSA)

We have come a long way and we have already done some of the hardest parts. For several years, CTA has been giving special consideration to TNSA programming with financial support. Currently, we are on the verge of moving TNSA from TCV to CTA under the Department of Health, with new offices under construction. There are four TNSA permanent staff members, and a new executive director with expertise in sports management. TNSA international chapters are actively involved in the TNSA program with the generous financial support. These are great achievements, all in line, in the sense of seeing games and sports as an important entity of a nation that like Tenzin, we all have a “dream to keep”.

Tenzin has two goals, one to defend and the other one to achieve. Defending happens in the goalmouth, the latter, more important one is to achieve his dream goal no matter what it takes. With this documentary, it will inspire many young Tibetan soccer players, and let’s dream and hope that one day when half the world gets up early and beats the drums of victory across the globe, it will be in celebration of a Tibetan goal.

*Thank you, Tibet TV for the wonderful Tibetan sports documentary.

(Views expressed are his own)

The author is a coordinator of Tibetan National Sports Association (TNSA) in North America.

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