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Feature story: A league of their own- A football tournament for middle-aged Tibetan fathers

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Players from the Potala XI Odhisa lift the cup of the maiden APFA tournament while honouring their teammate who passed away mid-tournament (Phayul Photo)

In the bustling settlement of Dhundupling, a tibean exile settlement in Northern India known for its love for football, an offbeat initiative took place last month, in a bid to, the organisers said to invigorate the spirits and bodies of elderly Tibetan fathers. The All Pala (Father) Football Association (APFA) Gold Cup, a pioneering tournament for Tibetan males aged 40 and above, aims to promote physical fitness and inspire a healthier lifestyle. Now the initiative may seem outlandish, both the organisers and the target group of the project seem to have achieved its goals.

14 teams consisting over 200 players from across India and Nepal took part in this 14-day tournament. While the game and physical prowess of the tournament may not match that of a younger contingent, the fervour and overall passion for the game of football was commendable for a first of a kind tournament. The underlying message of awareness for health and fitness is even more commendable.

The Inception

The founder of APFA Tsering Yeshi shared his motivation to start the initiative with Phayul, “It is evident from the number of teams and players participating in the tournament that there is a willingness among the middle-aged people to play the sport. The one thing that was lacking was leadership. In our community, playing sports by middle-aged people exists in some settlements, but there was no systematic approach. The tournament is an effort to create a system.”

Yeshi’s observations highlighted a gap in the community’s engagement: while youth and women found avenues to stay active in sports and GorShey, middle-aged men lacked similar opportunities. “When I first discussed the idea with friends and others, many appreciated the intention but doubted its feasibility. Our community is known for its bravery, yet there’s hesitation when starting something new due to cost and scale concerns. But the most important thing is the outcome. Improving the health and fitness of 40+ males benefits not only them but their families and, ultimately, the whole community.”

Driven by this vision, Yeshi rallied support from old friends and teammates, forming an association dedicated to this cause. Karma T. Ngodup, a member of the All-Pala Football Association (APFA) stated that “since 2016, exhibition matches featuring players aged 40 and above have been held before the GCMGC final matches in Toronto, New York, and San Francisco. Last year, during the GCM final in Dharamshala, 40+ teams played a match. The positive response and suggestions from the players highlighted the need for a dedicated tournament for individuals aged 40 and above.

Karma T. Ngudup, who is one of the founding member of the Tibetan National Football Team, as well as the Tibetan National Sports Association International Chapter Coordinator, highlighted the significance of APFA in an interview with Phayul. Ngudup stated, “Focusing on the health of the largest demographic of the Tibetan community, which includes teachers, ex-army, staff of institutions, and the head of a home, in short, the most important people of our community who bear the responsibilities is very important. Staying fit not just for the tournament but for the whole year.”

He further stated that participating teams practice football for a minimum of two months, resulting in players losing 8 to 10 kg during their journey in the tournament. A healthy body needs exercise which will mitigate the illness in the future. Ngudup further remarked, “No other countries like the USA gather more than 300 40+ players to play in a tournament.”

Dr Ugen Gyatso, Medical Officer at Delek Hospital, underscored the health implications of the initiative. “Once a person reaches around 40 years, illnesses start to catch up. The most common issues are high and low blood pressure, diabetes, and TB. In our community, many middle-aged men drink alcohol and smoke, leading to liver cancer, heart attacks, and lung cancer. Staying active and focusing on a diet can prevent these conditions. Excessive stress also contributes to mental and physical health issues.”

Players in action (Phayul Photo)

Age is Just a Number

For many participants, the tournament was a chance to rekindle the passion of their youth. Tenzin Lekshay, the goalkeeper for the Dharamshala team, reflected, “This tournament has invoked the feeling I once had as a young man playing football. Initially, I just wanted to participate and relive the past, but seeing everyone my age playing made me realize the importance of focusing on my health and fitness again.”

Spectators and families of the players had mixed reactions, with some worrying about potential injuries. Despite this, many families, including Lekshay’s, were supportive. “My family encouraged me to participate. I played in the GCM tournament in 1999 after that I didn’t have much opportunity to play in a major tournament. After playing in the APFA tournament, my wife and I decided I would participate in the next year’s APFA tournament in Sikkim.”

Another player Karma Ngudup, aged 63, the oldest player in the tournament told Phayul, “When I was around 40, I was in California and had to retire from football as younger players came in, and there were no other opportunities for me personally to play football. But I still asked physical experts, and they said it’s important to play sports. If you love a sport, then it’s better. I have been playing from the age of 40 to 65, twice a week, and I regularly go on a run. So, when I played in the APFA tournament, I think the energy I had was because of this. Sports are very important. If a person plays sports regularly, then it’s hard for them to get sick. I urge the players to engage in sports activities, not just for this tournament.”

Buchung, the captain of Potala XI Orissa, the winner of the first APFA tournament, shared his excitement upon hearing about the initiative. “When I first got the call, I thought it was a very good initiative. As someone who used to play in the GCM tournament and now only plays local tournaments, I immediately signed up and formed a team.”

Tragedy

The tournament’s success was marred by a tragic incident. On the 9th day of the tournament, Tenzin Dakden, a 42-year-old goalkeeper for Potala FC Odisha, passed away following a match. 

This incident ironically pointed to need for awareness in health especially in the said age group and above and age and fitness related discourse that is sorely needed in the exile Tibetan community.

Buchung the captain of Potala XI Odhisa recounted the ordeal, “During halftime, Dakden complained of chest pain. I immediately substituted him and called for medical assistance. After the match, his condition worsened, and he was taken to the hospital, where he died of a heart attack. We were all in shock. Some players wanted to withdraw from the tournament, but Dakden’s sister encouraged us to continue. We gathered our courage and dedicated the tournament to him. Winning the tournament brought no joy, as we had lost a dear friend. We dedicated this win to Tenzin Dakden la.”

Potala XI Odhisa are the Champions of the first APFA Cup (Phayul Photo)

A New Legacy

The All Pala Football Tournament has not only provided a platform for middle-aged Tibetan men to engage in sports but also highlighted the importance of health and fitness within the community. Despite the tragedy, the tournament’s impact is profound, encouraging a shift towards a more active and healthier lifestyle among elder Tibetans.

Karma T. Ngudup told Phayul that the undercurrent of cynicism surrounding the tournament is unfounded and is harmful in terms of associating negative or discouraging labels to the overall objective of the initiative. He said, “APFA is here to set the record straight – APFA 40+ is not an ‘uncle cup’ or an ‘exhibition game.’ These terms do not justify our many months of dedication and hardship, nor the level of seriousness we demonstrated on the first day at the opening ceremony. Everything you saw that day was a precursor to our message: this is not a culmination of leftovers from other football tournaments but a new beginning, a dynamic, vigorous, and creative platform on par with any high-level tournament. And we were never wrong.

“Nonetheless, we recognize the need for continuous improvement, taking all necessary precautions to ensure this event remains the premier opportunity for 40+ football lovers to relive and cherish their old memories while maintaining their health. ‘APFA standard’ is more than an abbreviation; it’s a culture we aim to instil in our organization to uphold the quality of this tournament. We will also never hesitate to apologize whenever we fall short of our commitment to excellence and are always ready to learn from our mistakes – the only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”

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