Tibet’s first-ever goal was scored by a secondary-school gym teacher named Lobsang Norbu in Copenhagen, Denmark. It was Tibet’s 2001 debut match as a national football team, and just getting Norbu’s foot anywhere near the goal was already a triumph. The starting line-up had been picked only months earlier from an open-call to the refugee diaspora in India. In Dharamsala, the team struggled to train on a pitted field that doubled as a cow path. And nearly half the team had already dropped out because their refugee papers required too-exorbitant bribes to obtain a travel visa.
Tibetans have been playing football since at least 1913, when British troops brought the sport to a military base in Lhasa, but China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s saw Tibetan teams disbanded and stadiums destroyed. Before the Copenhagen match, the Chinese embassy in Denmark formally denounced the name “Tibetan National Team,” reminding anyone listening that Tibet belonged to the Chinese nation, and threatening Greenland, a Danish dependency and one of the world’s major shrimp exporters, with a crustacean boycott. But the Tibetan National Team kept its name and forged ahead to lose 4-1 to Greenland. It has since lost to British Gibraltarians (0-5), Crimean Tatars (0-1), Turkish Cypriots (0-10) and northern Italy’s Padanian secessionists (2-13).
FIFA, the Switzerland-based association that governs international football, refuses to include teams from countries that are not “internationally recognized.” But those teams can still play each other. In June 2012, for example, Iraqi Kurds used their home advantage to knock out Northern Cyprus, French Provence, Morocco’s Western Sahara and French-Spanish-Italian Occitania in a series of non-FIFA matches in the city of Erbil, winning a crystal “Nelson Mandela” trophy. At the same tournament, a midfielder from the Tamil Tigers proudly received the first yellow card in his team’s history.
That was the fifth edition of an annual World Cup lookalike for stateless nations called the VIVA Cup. This year, though, the championship faces a directly competing championship: the ConIFA Cup. Formed in 2013 by a splinter group of former VIVA Cup organizers, the rival event’s first edition will be hosted this summer by the traditionally reindeer-herding Sami people of Sweden. Insults and lawsuits have already been traded between VIVA and ConIFA officials, and footballers of the world’s unrecognized, indigenous and disputed nations find themselves in a familiar position of having to choose sides.
Determined to stay neutral, the Tibetan National Team will compete in neither tournament this year. It’s aiming higher. “Playing other countries is really interesting because they are better than us,” says midfielder Tenzin Kachoe, 34, who also sells sweaters in a Dharamsala shop. “If we one day joined FIFA, we could play Brazil, Italy or Spain.”