Tibetan soccer searches for a level playing field

Publish Time: 2020-12-21 Author: PALDEN NYIMA and DAQIONG in Lhasa From: China Daily

Players, coaches and administrators hope to overcome challenges of high altitude and lack of funds

On a rainy summer day in 1938, the first soccer match involving Tibetan players was contested by a team from Nepal and a group of young aristocrats in Lhasa.

The historic sporting event was described by renowned writer Sochung, in his article An Overview of Tibetan Soccer.

The match took place during a downpour, and the Tibetan nobility were followed around the ground by servants carrying umbrellas to prevent them getting soaked, wrote Sochung, who like many Tibetans only uses one name.

Two young servants were substituted half way through the match due to exhaustion.

Soccer was first brought to Gyalze county during the British invasion of Tibet in 1904, Sochung wrote.

In the early days, there was scant understanding of the rules and often they were made up by the players.

For instance, some of the young aristocrats developed a hybrid form of the game where they tried to kick the ball as high as possible. Though unconventional, it drew large crowds who craned their necks skyward following the ball's path, Sochung wrote.

Gyime, a retired soccer coach from Tibet University, said it wasn't until the 1950s that the sport started becoming popular. Players who had studied abroad returned home with genuine soccer skills and a proper understanding of the rules.

The Potala team was established and competed against clubs made up of monks and soldiers, and soccer's image as a game for the upper class began to fade as it gained wider acceptance across the Tibet autonomous region.

The democratic reforms of 1959, which freed Tibet from its feudal past, transformed every aspect of Tibetan society, and soccer evolved into a sport for the general public.

In the 1960s, Tibetan teams played in organized leagues outside the region for the first time.

"Soccer gradually became normalized in the 1970s in Tibet, with a regional team set up and regular games conducted in the region since then," Gyime said.

He said ethnic Han players joined Tibetan teams and soccer had its "glory days" in the 1970s and 1980s when it was enthusiastically embraced by fans and players.

"Without television or social media, people were very enthusiastic about the game. Now the passion for soccer is facing competition in Tibet from multiple choices of entertainment," Gyime said.

Off the ball

Two of the biggest hurdles Tibetan soccer has to overcome are other teams' unwillingness to play at high altitude and lack of financial support. Established in 2017 with the financial backing of the Lhasa Chengtou Urban City Construction Company, the Lhasa Chengtou FC was briefly the region's only professional football club.

At the end of 2018, the club was admitted to the Chinese Football Association League 2, a third-tier competition, and made its debut the following season.

However, according to a statement released by the club in May, Lhasa Chengtou has been dissolved, mainly due to a dispute between the CFA and the club over where its home matches will be played.

Lhasa Chengtou had been trying to locate its home games in Lhasa or Nyingchi, where the average altitudes are between 3,000 meters and 3,600 meters.

Tenzin Wangdu, Lhasa Chengtou's captain, said the CFA's main concern was that players from other provinces and regions may face health risks at an altitude of 3,650 meters, where the oxygen level is 60 percent less than sea level.

"We think Nyingchi, a city in the eastern part of the region where the average altitude is around 3,000 meters, could have been our home field. The football club in Lijiang, Yunnan province, is located at 3,000 meters and they have been allowed to play in national games," he said.

Tenzin Wangdu said the players' enthusiasm for the game remains, and they now compete against Tibetan teams. However, financial investment is needed if the region is to ever have a viable professional team.

"Altitude and facilities are not the only factors," he said.

"There is a skill gap between the region's players and the players from other provinces. Also, it's not convenient for us to exchange skills with players from other provinces, because Tibet is so remote and the cost of travel so high."

Tenzin Wangdu said it's not the first time a Tibetan side has struggled to fit into an outside competition. Between 1987 and 2020, Tibetan teams were ejected four times for various reasons, but the main factor was lack of financial support, he said. "Tibet is the only provincial-level region in China without a professional soccer team," Tenzin Wangdu said.

"For the integrity of Chinese soccer, a professional club from the region is indispensable."

In their blood

With their strong physiques and protein-rich diets, Tibetans are a natural fit for any robust sport, and soccer is played everywhere from grassland areas to city streets.

In Lhasa, children can be seen kicking a football around the ancient lanes of Barkhor Street Bazaar, while in Nagchu city, where the average altitude is 4,500 meters, youngsters immerse themselves in the game despite not having a proper soccer field, goal posts or uniforms.

Tibetan monks, novices and Living Buddhas also love the game.

In Buddhist training colleges across Tibet, the soccer match is the main focus of annual sports days, and young Tibetan Living Buddhas anxiously look forward to the event.

Yontan Gyatso, a monk from Khorchak Monastery, Ngari prefecture, which is more than 1,000 kilometers from Lhasa, is a soccer fan.

"I like watching World Cup games, and my favorite player is Cristiano Ronaldo. I'm overwhelmed by his ball-juggling skills," said Yontan Gyatso, adding the monastery has a team which regularly plays against a police team.

Ngari is 4,500 meters above sea level, and the games and practice sessions take place despite the thin air.

Field of dreams

Basang Tsering established the Tibet Xiangdong Sports Technology Company in Lhasa in 2017 to organize sports events. He said soccer is a main focus.

There are about eight official soccer teams in the region, and more than 20 amateur clubs in Lhasa. Regular games are played throughout the year and every four years soccer is featured at a regional sports competition, he said. "About 16 of the teams have good skill levels, and more than 50 soccer games have been organized in recent years in Lhasa," Basang Tsering said.

He said while he does not know the exact percentage, soccer has the biggest participation rate and attendance of any sport in the region.

However, Tibet soccer faces major challenges establishing a commercial base and needs strong financial support to train more professional players, Basang Tsering said.

Tsewang Phuntsok, a former player from Lhasa Chengtou, now works as a middle school teacher in Amdo county, Nagchu. Even though his parents are happy he has a stable job, he wants to play as a professional again.

"Life is short, I think it's important to do what you love. Being a teacher is not for me right now, so maybe I will quit this job to continue my dream," he said, adding he had recently received invitations to play professionally in Qingdao and Fujian provinces.

Despite the challenging future for soccer in Tibet, Tenzin Wangdu said he and his teammates are still optimistic about the future. "I will try my best to do what I can do, and leave the rest to my faith in the Buddha."

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