WOODSIDE, NY, US, 19 May 2018
It was in the summer of 1986 when I was just about twelve years old that I watched my first World Cup. It was at a neighbor’s house uphill, who owned one of the few color TVs back then, one of those beautiful sets that had a sliding wooden door to keep it encased. An opulence only a handful of people owned in the village I grew up in. This was Bhutia Busti, mushroomed up on a face of a hill that plateaued on Chowrasta, a retreat-able gathering place, where six roads meet and where the stressed, sun-scorched denizens of the Indian plains come to soak in the pleasant Darjeeling cool sun with its fresh pine breeze.
It was also a time in 1986, less than thirty years since Tibet lost its independence, when many Tibetan refugees hoped to retrace their footsteps back to their homeland.
All the World Cup fixture matches were played on the Western Hemisphere, so due to the time difference matches were telecast around the middle of the night on Indian national television broadcast (way before satellite dishes came). We would stay awake all night with bloodshot zombie eyes to witness the game live, and at the same time, pray like the desert would for the rain, to keep the electricity from blacking out. Load-shedding was a common problem and character trait of the Third-World utility problem we endured.
Darjeeling town, like most football-crazed cities that you would normally relate to, the the fanaticism and obsession that you get to see from the slums of Calcutta to the beaches of Rio, would be in full celebration mode a month before the kick-off, and every corner of the street would be draped in fluttering Argentinian, Brazilian, or German flags, the local favorites. In every locality small football clubs would raise donations to pay for the banners and festivities. Lotteries would roll for the highest scorer of the tournament and winner of the World Cup and so forth. Everyone was captivated for a month on this football fest.
On one occasion, I saw a huge cardboard cut-out mannequin of Maradona on a syndicate, with candles and burning incense, white scarves and flower garlands, to wish him and the Argentina team well on the finals, and they would eventually end up winning the World Cup.
I would walk up the hill accompanied by my younger brother and my childhood friend into the wee hours of midnight to the whistle of crickets, screaming of foxes, and barking of the stray dogs into the flickering streetlamp with its bulb abraded and yellowed by the elements, protesting tirelessly to be replaced by the corrupt municipality, ambling on unpaved road and narrow alleys flashing the long Indian torchlights to knock on a welcoming neighbors door with the color TV packed to the walls. Many brought their own stools to sit on and pillow to lean on too. It’s a time before the smart phones and the room would be lively with exchanges of jokes, social interactions, and laughter.
There were times when we missed our favorite matches we were dying to watch despite entrusting our parents in vain to wake us up. We would all fall asleep, only to wake up to the cry of the rooster, at a time when alarm clocks built into our phones were things of the future one could faintly imagine.
There were other times, when we would be awake just until the match started and only found ourselves snoring to glory, due to the toll on our bodies of a previous day football game, mania unleashed on the fields because of the World Cup fever. We would roleplay avatars of our own favorite players and I was already living and breathing Diego Armando Maradona. I handmade my own Argentina jersey and wrote with a black marker as big as I could the number 10 on the back.
Since I have been living in the States now for almost two decades, the word football could have a different connotation and meaning. Just like bats are flat for cricket and rounded for baseball, footballs here are for giant big players, made even bigger by those shoulder pads and who wear steel helmets and run with the ball in hand as many yards as they could before they get crushed by a three-hundred-pound defense linebacker.
But since I am here catering to my people, I would love to use the word football for what it actually means, since I loathed to call this beautiful game soccer. And talking about championships, the real world champions unlike the self declared world champions of NBA, NHL, and the MLB, are the ones who are the winners of the FIFA World Cup, held every four years, where over hundred nations compete through brutal competitive continental qualification games, and many nations fail to qualify during those qualification rounds that are played two years in the making. They are the real world champions and not some winner of some world champions where only states that make up a nation play.
Football is imprinted into our DNA just like Buddhism is. Even our monks find some respite from their hard spiritual quest and the tiresome memorization of ancient scripts to the mundane special joy of this game. They can’t wait to pull up their robes and tie them around their waists to kick that ball into the corner of their imaginary nets or run outside the monastery to catch a glimpse of the score of the games shown on TV. Even corporate behemoths like Pepsi have tapped into this secret obsession embedded in the monks and has been able to monetize them through their advertisements.
For historical context, football was brought to Tibet in the early part of the twentieth century by the British Raj. Long story short, Tibetans on the sidelines watching the British and the East Indian Company Indian soldiers by the garrison quickly fell in love with the game. A known first Tibetan football club known as Lhasa United was formed around 1936 and along arose many regional teams too. Lhasa United also played against the British mission. It’s also said the Kham football team also played against Chinese provincial teams and that they had a small stadium that was later destroyed, along with hundreds of monasteries, when Mao came into power.
The obsession for football also spiraled into the diaspora world, with the Gyalyum Chen Mo (GCM) tournament, a prestigious one that is played every year between many Tibetans teams from all over. There is also an official Team Tibet that has played many international games, although barred from FIFA-sponsored ones.
I would believe that if Tibet was an independent country, we would definitely have a strong team that would easily compete with the Asian giants like Japan and South Korea. Our feudal days like that of the rest of the world, albeit a hundred years later, would have evolved with the fast-changing world around and eventually pave the way for public engagement and democracy, had the hungry Red Dragon not swallowed us, while the rest of world were busy freeing the chains of colonial yoke and minting new
flags and composing new national anthems.
With their tough physique and legs for football, the fire in the belly and the passion for the game, the Tibetan football world would emerge victorious on many fronts. Even though with a tiny disenfranchised population, Tibetans inside and outside and some who trace their ancestry to Tibet have excelled in many sporting fields, from mountain climbing to football, from marathon to kick boxing. Many if not a few made a name for themselves — sadly playing under a different country’s flag. I don’t blame them, but the tryst with destiny they were caught in.
Every time during the World Cup, when the players come out of the dugout with tiny hands escorting them and that familiar FIFA symphony playing in the background, and when the national anthems are played, I am sore at heart and left imagining how much of an adrenaline rush would that be if Tibet would actually play the World Cup and our national anthem would be orchestrated with the dignified grace and our triumphant players would walk gracefully. And, when that camera starts moving from one player’s face to the next with their hands to their chest, the emotions running so high in a way that only a passionate citizen of a stolen country could imagine.
Our boys from Team Tibet will soon be in London to play the Conifa tournament, a mini World Cup of a sort and I want to take this opportunity to wish them all the luck and I want them to roar like the snow lion, bark like the Tibetan mastiff, play defense like the Yak and run like the Tibetan antelope. I also want to for the fun of the game predict that this World Cup 2018 will be won by France. But since first kiss is the deepest, my support for Argentina and Messi will always remain.
About the author
Ugyen Gyalpo lives in Woodside, New York, and works as an insurance agent for United Health Group, New York.