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The first match of CONIFA, the Confederation of Independent Football Associations, saw the host team Tibet defeated by Team Sapmi 1-13.RUHANI KAUR/The Globe and Mail

Jamyang Choetso has spent much of the past two years run off her feet, working as a nurse in the pandemic-stricken Indian capital of New Delhi. So it was only natural that she would take some time off – to participate in an international sporting event.

Choetso, 25, is captain of the Tibetan women’s national soccer team, which, on July 1, faced its biggest fixture yet, the opening game of the first ever CONIFA Women’s World Cup. Tibet is the tournament host, though geopolitics being what they are, games are being held at a stadium in Paonta Sahib, in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, some 150 kilometres from the Tibetan plateau. (Tibet ultimately lost its first match, 13-1.)

Team captain Jamyang Choetso, 25, looks on from the hills at the Tibetan settlement in Paonta Sahib.RUHANI KAUR/The Globe and Mail

Founded in 2013, CONIFA – the Confederation of Independent Football Associations – aims to be FIFA for all those groups unable to join the global soccer body. For many participants, including exiled Tibetans, CONIFA competitions provide a rare opportunity to represent their country or culture on the international stage, albeit one far removed from the glitz and glamour of the FIFA World Cup.

“It’s a way of saying that even though we’re a minority, we can still do anything,” said Anja Rasmussen, a 23-year-old player for FA Sapmi, a team representing the indigenous Sami people of northern Europe.

Choetso described playing for Tibet as “one of the greatest achievements of my life.” Like many of her teammates, she was born in Chinese-controlled Tibet. Her family fled to India in 2005, and moved to Dharamshala, the community high in the mountains which also hosts the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration, the exile government.

It was there Choetso started playing soccer, as a 13-year-old. Back then, it was rare to see girls play, and when she took to the pitch, it was mostly against her male classmates.

While there has been a Tibetan men’s soccer team since 2001, it was not until over a decade later that a women’s squad was created, coached by former men’s international Gompo Dorjee and Cassie Childers, an American then living in Dharamshala.

Choetso was among the first players to be recruited, and in the years since she has gained her own coaching licence and become the team’s captain, as well as one of its top scorers. But while the success of the team and its relative fame within the Tibetan diaspora has meant more girls are taking up soccer, Dorjee said it could still be a struggle to find talent.

Ahead of the CONIFA Women’s World Cup, the 43-year-old spent months criss-crossing Tibetan communities in India and Nepal, lobbying parents to let their girls come to training camp.

“Some are reluctant, because there was no culture around playing this sport before,” Dorjee said. “They think that football is not a girl’s game, so it can be really hard to convince them.”

The match was held in Paonta Sahib, in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, some 150 kilometres from the Tibetan plateau.

A local crowd gathers to cheer on the home team, Tibet, in the first match of the CONIFA tournament on July 1.RUHANI KAUR/The Globe and Mail

Even for those keen to participate, there were difficulties. Most of the Tibetan squad are university students, and had to beg for time off to train, while others like Choetso saved up their leave to travel to Paonta Sahib.

The women’s side has faced setbacks before, including struggles for funding and recognition. In 2017, the team were denied visas to travel to the United States for a competition, and co-founder Childers left following a dispute with the Tibet National Sports Association, which oversees both the men’s and women’s teams.

TNSA once dreamed of joining FIFA, or at least competing against other international sides, but political pressure from China makes this next to impossible. Beijing regards Tibet as an indelible part of its territory and India-based exile groups as “anti-China separatists.”

In June, Beijing passed a revision to the national sports law allowing for “countermeasures” if any “country, region or organization damages the sovereignty, security, development interests and dignity of the People’s Republic of China in international sports.” Pressure from Beijing has long prevented the self-ruled island of Taiwan from participating in events under that name, forcing it to compete at the Olympics and other tournaments as “Chinese Taipei.”

Tibet is instead a member of CONIFA. The body also includes East Turkestan, the name used by many Uyghurs for the Chinese territory of Xinjiang, as well as non-sovereign nations such as Cornwall in Britain, the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, and teams representing the Romani people and those who live in the Cascadia region of the western U.S. and Canada.

“Those cultures we celebrate are specifically the ones that don’t traditionally have the same access and opportunity to play at the international stage,” said d’Alary Dalton, CONIFA’s director for women’s football.

Joshua Keating, author of Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood, said many CONIFA members “look at it as a stepping stone to legitimacy,” pointing out that participation in the Olympics and the World Cup are also “often viewed as a kind of proxy for geopolitical competition.”

He quoted Frank Zappa, the late American musician, who argued “in order to be a real country, you need a beer, an airline, and a football team.”

Team Sapmi line up to greet the host team, Tibet, who welcomed them at the first CONIFA match in Paonta Sahib.RUHANI KAUR/The Globe and Mail

While CONIFA takes a broader view of nationhood than FIFA, it is not by any means free from politics. Ahead of a planned European competition in France earlier this year, organizers objected to the inclusion of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian-supported breakaway republics in Georgia.

Some CONIFA teams have also struggled to get visas to take part in matches, while West Papua players, all stateless refugees in the Netherlands, cannot leave that country as they may not be able to return, Dalton said.

“But I think because of the nature of what we do, we have the potential to highlight these challenges,” she added. “We want to get the larger global society to think about are these the kind of barriers we want to put up, or do we want to break them down?”

And for those players who do take part in CONIFA events, Dalton said it can be “pretty powerful for them, not only do they gain all this confidence and self esteem in who they are, they gain some notoriety that might give them access to other opportunities.”

Dorjee, the women’s team coach and former men’s international, said that to represent Tibet on the pitch “is a pride and honour for each and every player.”

“It speaks so much volume to the world that we are a real country, and we are fighting for our freedom,” he said. “Through this sport we will tell the people that we belong to our nation and we have our own identity.”


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