More Than a Game
Politics overshadows Greenland's win over Tibet

Posted: Saturday June 30, 2001 1:27 PM

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) -- Arctic Greenlanders thrashed a team of exile Himalayan Tibetans 4-1 in an unofficial soccer friendly played on neutral ground in a suburb of the Danish capital Saturday.

Politics overshadowed the amateur match, which took place in defiance of Chinese diplomatic efforts to have it stopped and the refusal of the Danish Football Association (DBU) to cooperate with the arrangement.

In front of a crowd of 5,100 spectators, including locally resident Greenlanders and Tibetan refugees, Tibet took the lead in the first few minutes with a powerful shot from Lobo. Greenlander Leon Geisler equalized before half time.

In the second half, the Greenlanders took complete control of the match with a goal by Niels Laursen followed by two from Ole Rasmussen.

"As a football match, the game was not up to much but it was fun with flag-waving Greenlanders in the crowd along with refugees from Tibet," a radio commentator said.

"The tempo was fast but the football was lower division stuff. Greenland totally dominated the second half."

There were no incidents on or off the field.

Dane Michael Nybrandt, who worked on arranging the match for almost a year, coached the exile Tibetans, mainly based in Britain, Germany and Switzerland, while former Danish national coach Sepp Piontek was at the helm of the Greenland team.

Behind the scenes of this curious soccer match, a more serious political game was played, with China trying to stop the game, sources told Reuters.

The DBU, which acknowledged it had been approached by the Chinese embassy in Copenhagen regarding the match, opposed the fixture.

"We can all sympathize with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, but FIFA (world soccers governing body) regulations are absolutely clear on this issue," DBU information chief Lars Berendt said.

"The 22 players obviously have the right to play their match but we had to reject their request for assistance as we must respect FIFA rules."

Neither Greenland nor Tibet are members of FIFA, though Greenland is currently trying to gain DBU backing for a membership application to UEFA, European soccer's governing body.

No pitch

The ice-bound Arctic territory lacks one key qualification for UEFA membership -- a grass pitch.

Greenlands Sports Federation fought to have the match against Tibet played in the face of fears of Chinese retaliation. Greenland, a Danish province enjoying limited home rule under Denmark, has a significant export of prawns to China.

Thousands of Tibetans led by the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, nine years after the Chinese army entered Tibet and overthrew the Buddhist theocracy there.

Last year, relations between Denmark and Beijing were strained over a visit to Copenhagen of Tibets exiled spiritual leader. The Chinese government urged Denmarks government to cancel its arrangements for a meeting between the Dalai Lama and Danish Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen to "allow bilateral relations to develop smoothly."

In the event, Rasmussen met the Dalai Lama on May 21 for 45 minutes at Copenhagen International Airport and not in his own office where he usually receives foreign dignitaries.

Along with other European Union member states, Denmark officially recognizes Tibet as a part of China.

Underdog Tibetan soccer team claims victory before the game begins

BAGSVAERD, Denmark June 29, 2001 (AP) It's an unofficial game without a flag ceremony or national anthems. The self-styled Tibetan national soccer team is far from being a dream team, and it's expected to lose in the friendly against all-amateur squad, Greenland.

But the 18 players exiles from the Himalayan territory that was occupied by China in 1950 can't wait for the kickoff on Saturday.

"Having the team on the turf itself is a victory for us," said squad manager Karma T. Ngodup. "Of course we would also like to win but just being there itself is a first victory."

China, which claims sovereignty over Tibet and rejects descriptions of it as a nation, has protested the privately organized game and asked the Danish Soccer Association, known as DBU, and city officials to stop it. DBU replied it was not involved because none of its 1,600 member organizations were involved.

City officials said they would not interfere and granted permission for the game to be held in Copenhagen's suburban Vanloese stadium, with restrictions including a ban on hoisting flags or singing national anthems. "We cannot promise that fans carried away by the game will not start waving small flags," game organizer Michael Nybrandt, a former Danish league soccer player, said.

The players, drawn from refugee groups in India, Nepal and Europe, arrived on June 22 to start training in a camp at a school closed for the summer break in Bagsvaerd, 20 kilometers (10 miles) northwest of the capital, Copenhagen.

They will wear their colors for the first time dark red jerseys with blue vertical stripes and dark red shorts that were donated by a local company. The jersey will have a team logo on the chest and Tibet's flag on the arm. Nearly all 3,000 seats at the Vanloese stadium have been sold, with tickets costing up to 110 kroner (dlrs 13).

In Copenhagen, a Chinese Embassy spokesman, who declined to give his name, said it was "a pure political demonstration to support the Tibetan independence (and not) a sports event."

Neither team belongs to FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, so Beijing had no power to stop the match. The Tibetan team was formed in 1998 and played its first overseas matches in Italy in 1999.

"The Chinese are always opposed to what we do," goalkeeper Tamdin Tsering, a 26-year-old gym teacher from the northern Indian city of Dharmsala, home to the world's largest exiled Tibetan community.

Some 300,000 kroner (dlrs 35,000), much of it donated by international Tibetan organizations, has been spent on plane tickets and renting the stadium and the Hareskoven school where the team is staying, Nybrandt said. Jens Espensen, a former professional soccer coach from Denmark, spent his vacation training the Tibetans.

"My job is to line up a team that can show they really want to achieve something and not be ridiculed," Espensen said, adding that many good players from Dharmsala were unable to travel to Denmark because of bureaucratic hurdles. "Greenland is much better than us. They are structured. Some of our players lack some basics."

The amateur team from the Arctic semiautonomous Danish territory of Greenland is coached by German-born Sepp Piontek, who led Danish teams that qualified for two European Championships in the 1980s and a World Cup in 1986. (jo-krg)