Tibet and the Chagos Islands: Football’s Freedom Fighters

If a country is not recognised as a nation by the UN or FIFA, can it have a national team? What does it do to a people to be disenfranchised in this way, and how can football help? Mat Guy investigates the stories of two seemingly very different countries, Tibet and the tiny Chagos Islands, to try to answer these questions, here at Goalden Times.

In 1710 George Berkeley posed the philosophical question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

Within football there is a similar question: If a national team has no nation in which to play, is stateless, and has precious few opportunities to take part in the game that they love, are they a national team?

Wherever there is one, the national football team of a country is the source of great pride and passion; a focus for hope, a beacon of unity and belonging for the nation’s inhabitants. The national team of any country has the ability to bring people together, even in the face of seemingly impossible division.

In Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, the country was helped to repair itself by its national team re-integrating Hutu and Tutsi in line with the truth and reconciliation hearings that followed the horrors. National football teams have the power to influence and inspire their people where politicians and religious leaders sometimes cannot.

National teams can be a source of great comfort, of feeling a part of something bigger than the self. They can celebrate identity and culture, the past, present and future of an entire people, which is quite possibly why a significant, yet almost completely hidden, number of now stateless National football teams fight to survive and keep their name alive.

These National teams without a nation dot the planet, exiled and unrecognised politically by the United Nations, and. therefore, (sportingly enough), by football’s world governing body FIFA.

However, being unrecognised, being denied the right to play the game they love, has galvanised a number of these nations, to use the passion they have for football to help expose the plight of their fellow countrymen and women and the injustices surrounding their disputed homelands.

Beneath the glossy surface of the world game, these non-FIFA national teams survive, and try to play the game they love just like any other country would; both enjoying the simple pleasures playing football can bring, and helping to keep their identity, their national heritage, alive among a political and sporting ruling class that doesn’t care if they fail and fade. And, if they did disappear, would the UN, or FIFA notice it? Would the tragedy of a lost culture be heard?

Thankfully there are people who work tirelessly, against all odds, to make sure that is never put to the test, people like Kalsang Dhondup of the Tibetan National Sports Association.

Kalsang, like his spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, the rest of the Tibetan Government, and millions of fellow Tibetans, is exiled from his homeland due to China’s invasion, occupation and assimilation of Tibet, instead having no choice but to live in Dharamsala, India.

There are settlement camps for this refugee nation all across India and Nepal, but Dharamsala, being the home of the Dalai Lama, is the beating heart of the exiled Tibetan community.

chagos island football

And from there Kalsang tries to keep the Tibetan National Football Team, the annual national club football tournament, as well as other initiatives through football and basketball, afloat, helping to keep the sport that Tibetans learnt and fell in love with from travellers and soldiers in the early twentieth century alive.

With settlement camps scattered across such a vast land as India, and with transport limited and money even more so, organising the annual football tournament and conducting national team training camps is very tough.

Kalsang once described his players as ‘crumbs gathered after wiping the table cover’, they are spread across such vast distances.

Given such geographical and financial restraints (they survive almost entirely on donations) it seems incredible there is a National Team at all. But the will to highlight the terrible suffering of his people still inside Tibet, as well as to promote and preserve the rich and unique Tibetan culture, and to give his fellow exiled countrymen and women a focus for their identity and pride is a strong motivating factor. He is committed to providing them a sporting outlet, the opportunity to pull on a national team shirt, to stand beneath their flag and sing the national anthem that is illegal in their homeland.

And Kalsang’s motivation brought them worldwide attention in 2001 when, in Denmark, Tibet played their first ever international match against Greenland, another team outside the remit of FIFA.

Organised by Dane Michael Nybrandt, the match caused a political standoff between China, who demanded the game not go ahead, and threatened to withdraw trade agreements with Denmark, and Greenland, whose fishing industry exported heavily to Beijing.

Thankfully the Danes ignored China’s demands and the match went ahead in front of a packed crowd in a small municipal stadium. That Greenland won 4-1 meant little; more important than the score was the opportunity to represent the country that Tibet’s players had lost.

That they scored a goal, that Tibet scored a goal, only helped to underline that their nation, albeit exiled and scattered across vast distances, still existed, survived in the face of cultural and religious persecution.

Since 2001 the Tibet National team have had to feed on scraps of opportunities to play. China and FIFA’s insistence that affiliated nations cannot play against unsanctioned teams means that Tibet, like other Non-FIFA/UN states operates in a football hinterland.

But instead of killing off these teams, the world’s governing bodies’ decisions to turn their backs on them only galvanised them further, and tournaments began to be organised to enable the forbidden to be heard and seen.

In 2006, the Tibetan National Team travelled to North Cyprus to participate in possibly the largest tournament for unrecognised or disputed states, the ELF Cup.

Featuring Gagauzia (a disputed region of Moldova), Zanzibar (a Tanzanian territory), Greenland (apart of Denmark), Crimea (whose status came into sharp focus in 2014) as well as the hosts and Tibet, the tournament enabled these forgotten teams to compete in an environment as close to that of the World Cup as they are likely to get.

That it was held in North Cyprus, a country which officially doesn’t exist, and is only recognised as a state by its benefactors Turkey, meant that China couldn’t protest Tibet’s inclusion; in world politics you can’t threaten sanctions on something that technically isn’t there. And so one of the strangest sights in football took place: a match between two countries that don’t exist, hosted by a country that doesn’t exist, and played out in the shadow of a United Nations controlled buffer zone of deserted and derelict buildings, streets overgrown like some apocalyptic movie.

That North Cyprus defeated Tibet heavily was no surprise; the Northern Cypriots’ close ties to Turkey enabled their best players to play either semi-professionally in their homeland, or professionally in Turkey. Tibet’s band of brothers, with no resources of any kind, could never compete against that.

But again, more importantly, it was an opportunity for them to play football, to represent their country, and as Kalsang explained, to promote Tibet; its culture, its people, and its plight, to a wider audience. And though there was no success for the team on the pitch, off it they achieved their goals and more.

With the global economic downturn of 2009 the money and opportunities to travel as a national team have dried up. Indeed the last time they were able to play as a national team came in 2008. Since then Kalsang and his loyal players have continued to meetup for national team training camps even though there is no match or tournament to train for. They practice, and they wait.

Within India the GCM Gold Cup, an annual football tournament hosted by a different Tibetan settlement camp each year continues to thrive, and with more teams forming every year there will soon be a need for a qualifying round.

In recent years a Women’s National Team, aided almost entirely by the fundraising and hard work of American Cassie Childers, has been formed and has recorded favourable results against teams from within India, and Kalsang is overseeing a schools initiative to allow children the facilities to play football from a very young age. All of this is being achieved with next to no funding, through spirit and determination alone, a determination to offer the exiled Tibetan community a sporting outlet, and an opportunity to celebrate their culture and identity.

And the determined Tibetans and their supporters aren’t the only people fighting to keep their identity alive through football. Cheers Chagos!

The Chagos Islands Football Association was created to give a voice to the people of the Chagos Islands, who were evicted from their archipelago of Indian Ocean islands by the British Government in 1970 to enable the largest island, Diego Garcia, to become a US military base.

‘Resettled’ in either the UK or the Seychelles, the Chagossians lost their home, their livelihoods, everything important to their way of life. Being a tiny collection of islands south of the Maldives they had no voice in international politics, and their eviction went almost unnoticed by the world at large.

To help raise awareness of this lost people’s plight Mariesabrina Jean formed The Chagos Islands Football Association to help bring the disembodied Chagossian community together.

Like Tibet, the football association is a lifeline of identity and belonging to this community, and like Tibet it exists through volunteers and hard work, overcoming a lack of funds with passion and a desire to keep the name of the Chagos Islands alive.

To date The Chagos Islands National Football Team, much like their Tibetan counterparts and other stateless nations, has discovered that international opposition is almost impossible to come by, with FIFA forbidding any affiliated nation from playing such teams.

However, they have managed three ‘international’ matches against Sealand; a ‘country’ seven miles off the coast of Suffolk, England that was created in the late sixties by a man wanting something different for his family, and constituting an old World War II sea fort and roughly four inhabitants.

Sealand’s national team comprises friends and family from the mainland with, on occasion, the odd smattering of retired ex-professional players.

Between the two they have won one, lost one, and had the third match resolved by penalties. All three were played out in Godalming or Crawley in front of unspectacular crowds, however for the homeless population of Chagos they meant more than any other fixture in world football, because this was a link, a link to home.

Any sporting governing body the world over always trots out the familiar phrase ‘you shouldn’t mix politics with sport’, especially after dubious decisions such as to award the 2008 Olympics to one of the World’s worst abusers of human rights, or to give the World Cup to a country that enslaves the workers tasked to build the competition’s infrastructure.

But sport, like everything else, is bound with politics, and the power of money. Should one country’s distorted view of history, combined with that state’s economic might contrive to deny a small band of football lovers from Tibet the right to play the game?

If politics has nothing to do with sport then the answer has to be no.

However, that is not really the case, and until such times as this hypocrisy is realised and addressed, the likes of Tibet and the Chagos Islands will have to remain feeding off scraps, waiting patiently for the next opportunity to fulfil a nations dream; to sing their national anthem beneath their flag, then play the game that they love.

Identity, culture, belonging, basic human freedoms as laid out in the charter for Human Rights, are at stake if stateless nations are denied sporting expression.

What price for a match between Tibet and The Chagos Islands?

For the communities of both, you just can’t put a cost on that kind of freedom.

Read more about the Tibetan National Football Team and the Elf Cup in the upcoming LUATH PRESS book, ‘Another Bloody Saturday’

For more information on Tibetan football visit :http://tibetansports.org/

Support the TNSA’s work by buying a national team shirt. Check for stockists at: ???

For more information on The Chagos Islands National Team: https://conifaofficial.wordpress.com/chagos-islands/
Photo Courtesy: Vice.com and NonFIFA Football.

Mat Guy

About Mat Guy

Mat lives in Southampton with his wife and, if he were allowed, a cat that would probably be called Stanley. He had supported Southampton and Salisbury since he was a young boy and has written about football for The Football Pink and Stand Magazine, as well as on his own blog Dreams of Victoria Park. His wife won’t let him have a cat. He has written two books: 'Another Bloody Saturday: A Journey to the Heart and Soul of Football', Published November 2015, and 'Minnows United: Tales from the Fringes of the Beautiful Game', due for release in the Summer of 2017.