A squad of 15 boys, nearly half of which are from the Northern Beaches, will travel to India this June to compete in the Gyalyum Chenmo Memorial Gold Cup in June.
For over 40 years, Tibetans from all over the world have converged on the city of Dharamshala, currently home to the 14th Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile.
This year, for the first time ever, Australia will also be sending a team to the tournament, led by captain Jigme Ngama Ponpotsang. The team, called the Tibetan Community of Australia Football Team, was formally launched last month at Narrabeen.
“The boys from Australia mostly grew up in India, where they used to play soccer a lot. And once they came to Australia, they wanted to continue to play soccer,” Jigme said.
The Northern Beaches have become home to the largest community of Tibetans in the country. It is estimated that more than half of those who settle in Australia decide to come here because of the already established support networks.
Participating in community sport, and soccer in particular, has allowed many young Tibetans to take time away from stresses that may come along with resettlement and build their self esteem.
“After the Dalai came to India [in 1959], the project was settlements, schools and then sports,” said Karma Singey, the representative for His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Australia.
This philosophy has led to Tibetan sports leagues popping up across the country, as the community begins to establish itself elsewhere in Melbourne and Newcastle.
Now that the younger generation is more widely spread across the country, the Tibetan Community of Australia has them meet once a year for a friendly tournament of soccer and basketball.
Over the Easter weekend, it was Melbourne’s turn to host the Unity Cup, a role it rotates with the Northern Beaches.
“[The Unity Cup] is an important answer to improve the leadership and skills of young Tibetans,” Representative Singey said.
“I believe our players will be among the future leaders in the Tibetan community in Australia.”
The team is also hoping to make a documentary of their journey, under the direction of Mark Gould, who is mentoring young Tibetan filmmakers to tell stories of their own community after a successful career his own covering violence on the Chinese-Indian border and the diaspora’s desire to maintain connection to the homeland while in exile.
These competitions that allow the younger generation to come together and celebrate their Tibetan identity have been such a success in building social networks and self esteem, that they’re already calling for more opportunities to be added to the competition calendar.
“The Unity Cup gives us an opportunity to know who is going to be the Tibetan generation coming up in the youth, so we can know more about Tibetans and meet them and have a story with them, make a friendship,” Jigme said.
“It is building up the Tibetans to know where we come from and, in particular, what kinds of struggles were faced by our old generations. This opportunity being once a year, and waiting until Easter, is not enough at all.”
Tibet is unable to be offered FIFA membership and participate in the World Cup, meaning the GCM Gold Cup is the highest tournament where many of the players can compete and fly the Tibetan flag, the possession of which is illegal in China.
Many of the travel interstate boys will travel first to Sydney in May to meet and undergo intense training under coach Brad Palmer before heading to India.
For the majority of players, the Tibetan teams send teams to Unity and GCM Gold Cup are the only clubs they play at. However this is not the case of Shiwa Dul, the youngest player on the Australian team, who is juggling his HSC studies with training for the Newcastle Jets.
He will be taking his books over there, with the team helping him with his studies, while also taking time after the tournament to travel around Northern India.