Tibet, Greenland, and Football’s Power of Recognition

Football has always been entangled with notions of national identity. It’s not a simple relationship, nor a consistent one, but its unitary power is a big part of what makes the international game so special. Whilst most of us associate international matches with poorly sung anthems, flags protruding from car roofs and hotly contested debates about XI inclusions, for others even being considered an international football team is a gratifying and validating experience. 

It’s no wonder, then, that Tibet’s first football match was the subject of much controversy. The 14th Dalai Lama fled from China to India in 1959, and since then a number of Tibetans have gone into exile; an estimated 108,000 Tibetans live in exile in Nepal, Bhutan, and India, with the international diaspora totalling around 150,000 – the fluidity of the diaspora has helped the Tibetans in exile keep their culture and traditions alive. 

Tibet’s first game as a football team occurred in 1999, rather bizarrely against a team of players fielded by Italian not-for-profit rock band Dynamo Rock. The band had something of a soft spot for Tibet and contacted Tibetan officials to see if a football match was a possibility. Kasur Jetsun Pema (the Dalai Lama’s sister) helped organize and select players in the Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe in India. This team travelled to Bologna, Italy and played an exhibition match against a team made up of singers and band members. The Tibetans emerged 5-3 victors, but more importantly this match laid the foundations for a Tibetan national team who by 2001 would have played their first international match. 

On a ‘bicycle tour’ of Tibet some time in 1997, a Dane called Michael Nybrandt had the idea – in a dream – of creating a Tibetan national team. Over the next couple of years whilst studying in Copenhagen, he thought about working towards this, but it only came to fruition as the result of a 3rd year university project, after which he presented results to the Tibetan exile government, who were already interested after the team’s ’99 composition. The Tibetan government in exile agreed to Nybrandt’s proposition and the Tibetan National Football Association was formed, with Kasur Jetsun Pema as president.  

Once players were chosen, Tibet needed to find an opponent. Due to FIFA’s rules, FIFA members can only play matches – official or exhibition – against other FIFA members, which ruled out plenty of options for the Tibetan team. 

Cue the timely arrival of the Greenland FA. Michael Nybrandt contacted the Greenland Football Association (GBU) and they agreed to play vs Tibet in a friendly international match. Nybrandt thought of Greenland because of their shared struggles with Tibet; “Greenland and Tibet are two small nations fighting for their survival”, he stated. Greenland also had its fair share of sovereignty issues at the time; its dependence on Denmark was an important topic in Greenlandic politics. The GBU saw the match as an opportunity to demonstrate, and draw attention to, its potential as an independent nation. Besides, there’s something poetic about a team from the Himalayas facing off against a band of Arctic islanders.  

The opportunity was especially alluring as for years prior to the match the GBU had attempted to gain membership of UEFA and FIFA; it was barred from gaining membership due to its lack of a grass pitch on the territory (the Greenlandic climate’s permafrost would prevent such a pitch, but they do have an artificial pitch in the capital, Nuuk). 

That the match faced opposition from a number of places is perhaps no surprise. Wang Canfen, charge d’affaires at the Chinese Embassy in Copenhagen, stated the following

It  is  a  splittist  act  that Dalai   Lama   Group   should   brazenly send a football team in the name of so-called Tibetan  national  team to  Denmark to participate in a football match and  indulged  in  unbridled  propaganda for this event. This has fully demonstrated their ulterior political motive to seek Tibetan independence with the disguise  of  sports,  split  the  motherland,  and thus  cause  troubles  for  Sino-Danish  relations as  well  as  Sino-Greenlandic  relations. The  Chinese  government hopes Danish  and  Greenlandic  sides  to  keep full alert on this event. I appreciate that your  Home  Rule  Government  attaches highest  importance  to  good  and  fruitful cooperation  with  China,  and  I  would like to express my sincere hope that Mr Premier will take the overall situation of Sino-Danish and Sino-Greenlandic relationship  into  account,  exert  your  influence, and remind the Greenlandic Sporting Association  not  to  be  used  by  the Dalai  Lama  Group,  and  furthermore take  concrete  measures  to  guarantee that  no  signs  concerning  Tibet  state or Tibet  independence  would  appear during the football match. 

Indeed, this wasn’t the only time that Chinese politicians threatened the match’s occurrence. They also took aim at Greenland, claiming that if the match went ahead then they may stop importing shrimp from Greenland from Greenland (shrimp makes up a significant portion of Greenland’s exports). Royal Line AS, a fishing company and sponsor of the GBU, stated that if the match caused their sponsorship to be untenable financially, they’d have to reconsider their support. A meeting between Chinese diplomats and Danish officials also occurred, during which it was requested that the Danish Foreign Ministry intervene to prevent the event – they declined, neither supporting nor stopping the match, citing that it was considered a private event and thus intervention was prevented by Danish law. “It was a bit scary to see the extent of China’s influence in Europe,” Nybrandt told France 24, “I was just out of school when I started this project – then all of a sudden I was being summoned to a meeting at the Chinese embassy.” 

The Tibet Football Team at the CONIFA World Cup in London

The match also functioned as a protest against the monopoly FIFA and UEFA had on scheduling matches. The Greenland Sports Federation stated that ‘Obviously, there’s a kind of politics in it…but there is also sports policy’ because of the unreasonable state of affairs whereby FIFA decides who can play against who. Their participation was twofold; they sympathised with another colonized group of people, firstly, but also with their being denied entry into FIFA tournaments. 

Regardless, a squad of Tibetans in exile was flown to Denmark from various places around the world. The Tibetans had a squad who trained together for a month prior to the match under the auspices of ex-coach Jens Espensen, but several of the players’ travel documents were declined, leaving the team short of players. So phones were rung, contacts exhausted, and players were pulled in from across the Tibetan diaspora; eventually a hodge-podge squad was assembled. Their opponents also suffered from personnel issues, as an airline strike in Greenland meant most of their players couldn’t travel; Greenland coach Sepp Piontek was forced to call upon Greenlandic players from within Denmark with just 48 hours to go. 

Despite this myriad of political and logistical challenges in the months leading up to the game, the Tibetan national team arrived in Copenhagen airport, promptly greeted by Michael Nybrandt. They were to stay in a local school near the stadium, paid for by Hummel, who also sponsored Tibet (their CEO is a Buddhist). Greenland’s shrimp exports, in the end, were unaffected. 

The match itself was a fairly low-quality affair, as is perhaps to be expected, but of course that wasn’t the point. Greenland ran out 4-1 winners in front of about 5000 fans on a balmy Copenhagen evening. As flags and anthems were banned, fans waved their own fervently in the stands. Anthems were played, tears flowed, and the game was delayed by twenty minutes due to the unprecedented number of fans in attendance. The atmosphere was one of celebration. Tibet were winners for achieving recognition on the global stage, Greenland for facilitating it. 

If only briefly, this game brought the exiled Tibetan’s plight to the fore of global conversation. The BBC article covering the game was headlined ‘Beaten Tibet score political point’, but that perhaps understates its significance; this was not football for point-scoring, or getting one over each other. This was football in solidarity and celebration. Football is tangible – balls are kicked, goals are scored, turnstiles are pushed, songs are sung – and this is perhaps why it’s so effective at activating those intangible notions of national pride and international co-operation. 

The 2003 documentary The Forbidden Dream covers Tibet’s training camp and trip to Greenland from a first-hand perspective, and can be found on YouTube – it features some great shots of the match itself. 

CONIFA was founded in 2013 and currently boasts 60 members, including Tibet, that are not affiliated with FIFA. It supports representatives of international football teams from unrecognized nations, regions, minority peoples and sports isolated territories. Football continues to be political, but it’s not all bad.

Ewan Morgan

Welsh football writer, particularly interested in the politicisation of sport and/or Aaron Ramsey's right foot