Tibet's disparate underdogs unite on and off the pitch

Passang Dorjee left Tibet at the age of seven and never went back. But living in exile in northern India has not stopped him becoming general secretary of the Tibetan Sports Association: in fact, it is probably the only way he could.

Passang Dorjee in a tracksuit and wearing sunglasses, stands in front of a football pitch, with players warming up and a stand in the background
Passang Dorjee left Tibet aged seven and lives in India organizing sports for the Tibetan diaspora.

“I am secretary, manager, press man, many things,” Dorjeee told WikiTribune, on a pitch in South London, watching Tibet’s “national” football team warm up for a match.

It is his first visit to London and the first time his team has participated in the CONIFA World Football Cup, a tournament for states, regions and minority groups who are not recognized by FIFA, the world governing body whose own prestige tournament is about to get under way in Russia.

CONIFA (the Confederation of Independent Football Associations) invited Dorjee and his team as a wildcard entry for the tournament, held in London for the first time from May 31 to June 9.

The debutants did not have a great time on the field — losing their three group matches, conceding 11 goals and scoring one — but off it Dorjee says they have greatly enjoyed the rare chance to represent the place they identify with as a home country.

The Chinese government maintains that Tibet has been part of what is historically recognised as China since the Yuan Dynasty began in 1271. An independent Tibetan government claimed to rule the region from 1912, before becoming a government in exile in 1951.

No multilateral organizations recognize the government in exile’s right to rule or the region of Tibet’s right to sovereignty, though many governments have condemned China for depriving the Tibetan people of their political rights and suppressing dissent. 

The Dalai Lama met the team and saw them off before the tournament, and Dorjee says that in Tibet itself people are aware of it. Dorjee hopes they get to watch, but fervent or open displays of support would likely put them at risk from the Chinese government; “there might be problems,” he said.

A Tibet player controls the ball, while opposition players close in, another Tibet player makes a run in the background
Only a few players in the team have lived in Tibet, with many born in Northern India. Photographs: Jack Barton

This group of players aren’t involved in politics or calls for Tibetan independence, but equally it’s impossible to be Tibetan and not have a stake in the argument. Many support protests or promote slogans, said Dorjee, but ultimately they agree with the Dalai Lama’s advocacy of the “Middle Way” approach; promoting the recognition of China’s territorial control of Tibet, but recognizing and protecting the culture, identity and religion of Tibetans.

“If we fight for freedom we need lots of things,” said Dorjee. “We know we need to reach out to the Chinese to fight for freedom. So the best way is with the Dalai Lama, with the guidance he has given us … and he said we should go for the Middle Way approach.”

With a diaspora population estimated at anywhere from 120,000 to above 160,000 Tibet is one of the larger participants in the tournament, though unlike many of the teams there are no professionals or former professionals in the squad.

After talking to WikiTribune, Dorjee sits back to watch his team’s game against a team of Turkish Londoners. He showed little emotion as his team conceded three times before half time, but a small group of Tibetan fans screamed every time their playeers approached the opposition half.

Officially, Tibet got their first win that day, as their scheduled opponents, Ellen Vannin or the Isle of Man, withdrew due to a dispute over a previous match.

Appropriately, Dorjee is a sports fan who identifies with and always supports the underdog. His football team used to be FC Barcelona, but they became “too successful”, he said, so he switched to Arsenal.

A floor to ceiling England flag with a Tibetan flag in the top left quarter
The Tibet team have enjoyed support from neutrals in the UK, and traveling supporters.

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