News and Views on Tibet

Opinion: The Tibetan love affair with football

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Players from TCB United and Shimla FC in the final game of the GCM Gold Cup 2021 (Photo/tibet.net)

By Tenzing Dhamdul

There are a few phenomena and events that galvanises the Tibetan community and Tibetans, bringing out personal opinions, and making them go beyond being a sheep. The Dalai Lama is one. Tibet and China relations is another. The Tibetan election is what we have been witnessing for the past year. And lo and behold we have the Gyalyum Chenmo Memorial Gold Cup football tournament, more popularly known as GCM (will be using this acronym in reference to the GCMGC football tournament here) among the Tibetan diaspora.

The GCM is a perennial football tournament held by the Tibetan diasporic community since the year 1981 in memory of the late mother of the Dalai Lama whom unfortunately passed away in that very year. Hence, the name of the tournament Gyalyum Chenmo Memorial Gold Cup echoes this very sentiment with Gyalyum Chenmo meaning ‘The Great Mother’ in Tibetan.

The current GCM that is ongoing in the Tibetan settlement of Dhondupling, Clement Town is the 26th GCM football tournament. And since its humble beginnings from the early 1980’s we have witnessed a remarkable level of ingenuity and applications applied in making this tournament in par with world footballing standards. All of it being linked to the Tibetans immense love in the beautiful game, football or what the Americans tend to call it as Soccer (not confusing it with their version of Football with stars like Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes competing in a sport that involves more to do with the hand rather than the foot).

Rise of Tibetan football

The historical coming of the beautiful game can be traced back, when Tibet was an independent country and had diplomatic ties with the then British government. The latter introduced football to the roof of the world and since then, it has never looked back though the periods from 1950-1980 can be seen as a dark age due to the uncompromising hard handedness by the Communist party of China that governed Tibet with an Iron fist. Going through the recent book published by Blackneck Books and translated by Bhuchung D. Sonam, Wangdu’s Diary, one does not find a trace of football mentioned by the late Wangdu la who wrote in meticulous details of the events occurring when he along with other Tibetans visited Tibet as the Third-fact finding delegation. The Tibetans in exile simultaneously during this period were starting to form and create a life, so football and other sports were largely at the backdrop.

However, in exile and the diasporic community the love for the game was on the rise and it eventually culminated with the inaugural GCM tournament held in 1981 in memory of the late mother of the Dalai Lama. Since then, it has only taken major steps forward with the famous movie “Phorpa” or “The Cup” directed by Dzongser Khyentse Norbu and released in 1999, even before the dawn of the new millennium bringing the Tibetan football fraternity and its passion towards it, to our very screens.

The year of 2001 became a historic landmark in Tibetan football as for the first time, a Tibetan football’s national team was set up under the stewardship of many Tibetan supporters including Micheal Bryant, the Denmark and the Greenland authorities and many others. From the Tibetan side it was efficiently handled by Kalsang Dhundup and Karma T. Ngodup both of whom worked tirelessly in making it a reality. All of this can be viewed by the public in the famous documentary on YouTube currently titled as “The Forbidden Team”.

This major success was followed up in the establishment of the Tibetan National Sports Association, TNSA in the year 2002 and has been in the forefront of not only developing grass roots level Tibetan football tournament but also other sports including Basketball. Of more recent years they have even embedded the ethos of gender equality and even with a low funding have been able to establish a Tibetan Women’s Football Team under the kind initiative and leadership of Cassie Childers that has represented Tibet in international tournaments. I personally remember how in school, TCV Selakui even our Physical Teacher Thupten Choephel la (current coach of Tibetan men’s football national team) embodied this sentiment and took out time from his class to show us the final of the 2011 FIFA Women’s world cup match between Japan and USA. I was thoroughly enthralled and did not know how the match even got over (Homare Sawa, the Japanese Captain really caught by attention, especially here sense of tactical awareness during the match). After that I started to have a broader and more holistic understanding of sports and that women like men enjoy sports equally.

The Tibetan love affair with football

Since my assimilation into the Tibetan community, when I got enrolled into a Tibetan school, I witnessed first-hand the passion and love that Tibetans had towards football. During my years in an Indian – English medium school, I was very much in the dark about football. Cricket was my real sport passion then and I was following it day in and day out. I remember even watching the 2003 ICC cricket world cup which India lost to Australia after my classes in home.

However, once I began my journey in a Tibetan school and got further integrated, football became my real priority. It was in the year 2005 when I witnessed a GCM match for the first time in Upper TCV, Dharamshala. It was my late uncle who took me along this ride and the match was between Dhondupling and Bir. More than the match I was simply amazed by the large gathering of Tibetans, to witness this sporting spectacle. It definitely confirmed my suspicion of Tibetan’s love towards football. This was further solidified from the long but enjoyable walk from Upper TCV to Gangkyi – Men Tsee-Khang, whereby we meet Tibetan’s strangers with whom the dire conversation was all about football and of the match that took place. This made me understand the sanctity towards football placed by the us.

The GCM moments becomes folklore in our community and the excitement about each tournament that usually takes place during the summer break in school was highly anticipated. Some players, who seize the moment become instant celebrity in our community and in that very moment there is no divisive emotion or conflict among our Tibetan community but rather a united awe and agreement in thought amongst us Tibetans. Very similar to the moment when India though all its difference and issues stood united to cherish its Olympic gold medallist Neeraj Chopra this year.

This love affair with football particularly through GCM binds our community and creates a social gathering of Tibetan beyond the usual religious gatherings and current trends of political and grandiose felicitations. Furthermore, it becomes an event, uniting us. Regardless of the different team and different localities that Tibetan players represent, the football game remains constant and we Tibetans never discriminate anyone here but instead even applaud a player from the opposing team if they played better and won the match. There is no I, you, he or she in Tibetan’s love towards football but rather an us and we when it comes to expressing ourselves here.

The future of Tibetan football

Tibetan football looks bright in many prospects, especially witnessing first hand during my trip to Dhondupling, Clement Town the level of work and effort put into hosting the current 26th GCM by the Dhondupling GCM organizing committee, led by Lama Phuntsok la and conducted by the TNSA, its staff and members. Having Tibetan communities who share the vision of the Tibetan National Sports Association (TNSA) and voluntarily investing in it definitely shows the level of support the sport has in our community.

On top of this, the current TNSA that functions under the aegis of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) has such vibrant members including past Tibetans who have had a role in its development from infancy. The current executive director, Tenzin Rinchen who is young, highly passionate about sports and even participated in the GCM truly speaks volume of the direction that Tibetan football would likely head towards.

Of course, the path to glory is not easy and rosy as there have been and still remains many issues and red tape involving in the development of a world class Tibetan footballer. It is well detailed in the documentary by Tibet TV titled “A Dream to Keep”. Where it explains the hardships faced by well-known Tibetan footballer and GCM star Tenzin Samdup from Doeguling, Mundgod. It is through the tackling of these many problems highlighted in the film that includes financial support, clearing of red-tape and family support faced not only by Tenzin Samdup but also other Tibetans who aspires to be a footballer one day. Eventually we Tibetans will have our very own football idol to cherish and look upto, be it like Messi or Ronaldo or even Haaland or Mbappe of the current generation.

Conclusion

In a nutshell, the beautiful game has become an ever-integral part of our community and it brings together Tibetans of all walk of life. I was very happy to witness how GCM and football became the talking point of my own local Tibetan community once I returned from Delhi. It was a refreshing to see the gossips move away from the constant quibbles that Tibetans had with regard to the political turmoil of Dharamshala of recent times to something romantic like football.

The Tibetans affinity to football clearly showcases us the power of love that football imbues even in our very small but vibrant and engaging Tibetan diasporic community. And with the 26th GCM drawing its conclusion, I wish all the team well and thank them including TNSA, the host and all Tibetans for keeping this love affair with football alive and burning more strongly than ever.

(Views expressed are his own)

The author has studied at Hindu College, Delhi University and School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He was a recipient of the Sikyong Scholarship in the year 2015. 

3 Responses

  1. I find the whole story very good. But please we should write and say respectfully His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and not just Dalai Lama and Dzongsar Khyentse Thinley Norbu, when you mention their High and Holy names.

  2. 26th GCM held at Clement Town Dhundup ling was very well organized, taken to a next level and grateful for taking care of all the players in terms of their well-being, food and accommodation.
    I truly Enjoyed watching all Tibetan players coming together and play the sport they soo passionate about. This was also a much needed fun activity during pandemic that everyone is experiencing at the moment.
    In anticipation for many more…
    P.S Also a Acknowledgment for nicely written opinion up there, keep it up

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