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CONIFA World Cup: Football as a platform for reconciliation

The 44-year-old Gompo Dorjee is a Tibetan in exile and is leading FC Tibet as a coach in the CONIFA World Cup

When Jamyang Chotso escaped from Tibet at the age of eight, she had to hide in caves during the day and walk at night – without her parents. Now she is leading her team as captain at the alternative football World Cup.

When she was 12, Jamyang Chotso kicked a soccer ball for the first time – in a refugee camp in Dharamsala, the city in the mountains of northern India: where the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile are based. “I didn’t even have shoes,” Chotso recalls. “We played on a dusty school soccer field.”

Chotso is the central defender and captain of Tibet FC, the host team of the CONIFA World Cup. The association of independent teams from all over the world that are not organized in the world football association FIFA is organizing a tournament for women’s teams for the first time.

Tibet Women's National Football Team Jamyang Chotso
Jamyang Chotso: ‘We are not allowed to visit our parents and they are not allowed to come here’

For 25-year-old Chotso, it’s reconnecting with the country she had to leave as a small child. Tibet was an independent state until its incorporation into the People’s Republic of China in 1950, which was controversial under international law. Like many Tibetans, their parents decided to send their children away. Escape helpers brought Chotso and her siblings to northern India. “I was too young then to understand what was happening,” she told DW. She just didn’t understand why her parents decided to send her to India.

Escape, Origin, and Pride

But their dangerous journey first took them to Nepal. “We were out at night and had to hide in caves because it was too dangerous to walk during the day,” says Chotso, who now works full-time as a nurse in New Delhi. She then drove the rest of the way to the north Indian refugee camp in the trunk of a car.

To date, she has not returned to Tibet. “We don’t know what the Chinese government would do,” explains Chotso, who will probably never see her parents again. “Due to strict official regulations, we are not allowed to visit our parents and they cannot come here,” says Chotso, who attended a Tibetan school in her village with other refugee children.

Despite the very limited training opportunities, she discovered the fun of football here. “There weren’t any tournaments that we could have entered,” explains Chotso. And football-playing women were not wanted anyway.

Chotso says it’s thanks to her coach’s dedication to an American named Cassie that she’s evolved as an athlete and footballer. Twelve years after her first contact with the football, she is captain of FC Tibet, her great personal pride. “Even if we live in India, we must never forget our origins,” says Chotso.

The 44-year-old Gompo Dorjee is a Tibetan in exile and is leading FC Tibet as a coach in the CONIFA World Cup
FC Tibet coach Gompo Dorjee: “The World Cup has political, cultural and emotional power”

Tibet FC coach Gompo Dorjee shares her heritage and pride. The 43-year-old lives in Clement Town, India, but comes from Dege, Tibet, where his parents come from. He too feels a “political, cultural and emotional force” in relation to the tournament. Since the Tibetan Sports Association (TNSA) cannot host the tournament at home, the game will be played in the Indian industrial city of Paonta Sahib on the banks of the Yamuna River.

Recognition for stateless athletes

Unlike FIFA, CONIFA is largely unknown despite having 50 members representing over 700 million people worldwide.

The association describes itself as a politically neutral organization whose aim is to “build bridges through friendship, culture and the joy of football”. For Jamyang Chotso, the July 1-6 tournament is about much more than the winner’s trophy. Namely, to bring football back into the national consciousness, which she believes has been pushed out of Tibetan culture.

“Football is a way of connecting with people from all over the world,” she says, and she hopes the tournament will serve as a “showcase of Tibetan ethics and culture.” Chotso also sees a major breakthrough in the tournament for women’s sports in general and hopes she and her teammate can inspire young girls.

Cultural change through football?

Gompo Dorjee says many of his players share a story similar to Chotso’s, praising their “passion and dedication”. Most of the players are students and nurses at the same time, who “before”, according to the coach, would not have played football. In his view, the World Cup will play a major role in Tibet’s cultural life “by empowering Tibetan women.”

For the long-standing CONIFA member TNSA, the organization of the tournament is an important milestone in the targeted promotion of the women’s team. In Paonta Sahib he built a stadium in a Tibetan settlement where the tournament will be played. The association hopes to “motivate the youth of Tibet and make a difference in the struggle for our identity and culture.”

Jamyang Chotso is representative of these Tibetan youth. Win or lose, soccer is her platform to champion Tibet and reconnect with the country she left as a child.

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