With the Women's World Cup reaching it's final game, there is one women's team for whom football is not only a beautiful game but a beautiful way to bridge political and ideological boundaries. This week, a delegation representing the Tibet Women's Football programme is attending the Discover Football International Women's Football Cultural Festival in Berlin, Germany. The festival is sponsored by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany, the Ministry of the Interior, the DFBKulturstiftung, and the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation. The goal of the event, besides playing an international tournament, is to bring together experts on women's football, to exchange ideas, and to strengthen and empower girls and women in and through football. The concept of sports diplomacy is not new, and for Tibetans, it is an innovative and groundbreaking method to contribute to the freedom movement.
Seven Tibetan players are attending, their coach, Gompo Dorjee, a former men's national player for Tibet and member of Dhondupling Football Club in Dehradun, India, and the programme manager Cassie Childers of USA, who kickstarted Tibet Women's Football in 2011. The team is gathered with delegations from countries all over the world, including Brazil, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Tanzania, South Africa, and China. The theme of the festival is 'Beyond Borders'. In this spirit, the players are mixed onto teams with players from other countries to participate in a friendly tournament. Some of the Tibetan contingent will be playing alongside Chinese players - the first known meeting of Tibetan and Chinese athletes post 1959. The team also had a historical meeting with German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Tibetan football players meeting Angela Merkel this week in Berlin
This also marks the first time in known history that female Tibetan athletes have traveled abroad to represent Tibet at a sporting event. The Tibet Women's Football programme, launched in 2011 in India, has extended the opportunity to play football to more than 1,000 young Tibetan women and girls living in exile to date. Essentially a women's empowerment programme, TWF organizes combined football/empowerment camps twice yearly, and supports the formation of girls' club teams at refugee settlements throughout India. Annually, the top players are selected to train for the Select Team, which aims to travel abroad regularly, representing Tibetan women at football events all over the world. A BBC documentary was recently made about the team 'Soccer Nuns'.
Sadly, the initiative has had some major obstacles, due to sexism and lethargy from the Tibetan National Sports Association (TNSA). According to Childers, such obstacles led the team to decide to 'go independent' from the TNSA. Childers went on to say that:
TNSA began to block the activities of the programme, first by 'making optional' girls teams from operating at the eleven schools where we initially formed them. Meanwhile of course, there are three boys teams at each school. Secondly, invitations from abroad started coming in inviting the Select Team to come and play friendly matches. TNSA intercepted most invitations and tried to hide them. I was told directly by Kalsang (head of TNSA) that the team can never travel abroad because 'it is too stressful for him.' I was also told directly that a local exhibition match (2015), our normal summer camp (2015) and our normal winter camp (2016) will be impossible to arrange this year. In 2014, the players who were enrolled in Tibetan schools were not given permission to attend the exhibition match because "football is important for boys, not for girls". That's a direct quote. From a female TNSA board member at the time. Of course, their male counterparts were given permission. These are just a few of the many ways TNSA has tried to block young women from playing. There are so many more. The decision was based on sexist treatment. And quite simply, the girls wanted to play football. And going independent was the only way we could see that they could continue to play football unimpeded.
Childers explained that another obstacle faced with training a team to international level is the sheer distance between the base locations of their top players, and lack of training time. By training just twice in a year they won't reach their highest potential. Childers seeks support from the Tibetan government in exile in the name of sports diplomacy and the Tibetan cause:
We need to find a solution that would allow the top selected players to stay together in one place so they can train throughout the year. The talent is there, the resources are there, but we need time. One idea we have is to designate one Tibetan school as a football academy, where players (boys and girls!) can continue to receive their academic education and receive year round football training. If we can build the players up together from a young age, then the Tibetan national teams will be able to compete on a bigger stage.
On their first international tour, the team have met the German Chancellor, the German Foreign Minister, an ex FIFA board member, and journalists and footballers from all over the world. At each meeting the players have an opportunity to represent Tibet and share their stories.
As Childers says:
Meeting the Chinese team was also an incredibly moving experience. This meeting of athletes from countries that are supposed to 'hate' each other highlighted the fact that they are all just young women determined to do what they love: play football. And that regardless of politics, they can respect and care for one another on a human level. In this case, we saw sports transcend politics, and begin to heal a divide that had not experienced much progress in decades.