Hunsur, Mysore: - The first kick of the opening game of the prestigious Gyalyum Chenmo Memorial (GCM) cup tournament sent a ripple of excitement across the quiet south Indian Tibetan settlement in which the contest is being staged, on July 21.
A bountiful Karnataka monsoon has left Hunsur's Rabgayling settlement's green fields lush with tropical vegetation and corn swayed by cooling winds on either side of the trunk-road.
Twenty two Tibetan football teams have descended upon the small settlement to slog it out for the coveted GCM cup in a tournament organised in memory of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's mother, Dickyi Tsering – or Gyalyum Chenmo (the great mother) as she is known to Tibetans - a formidable woman whom the Tibetan spiritual leader credits for having sown "the seed of compassion" within him.
Organiser and executive secretary, Kalsang Dhondup, 58, is at the helm of modern Tibetan football. I caught up with him in his current makeshift office, in which he squeezed time out of his frantic schedule to talk to me.
"There are many memorials built to commemorate the deeds of important people," he said, after shoving some papers he was working on into a file.
"Wondrous architectural structures, the naming of roads, city squares and so forth. In the same line, we organise the GCM cup to remember the kindness and hard-work of the late mother of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Even if we can't remember her on a daily basis, we can be reminded of her during the memorial cup.
"We would like to encourage young Tibetans to learn from sport the spirit of sportsmanship and discipline and to steer them away from bad habits. All the football teams have so far been very good. All teams have made the necessary preparations and are taking the tournament very seriously. In the future we would like to see a home-club based in all Tibetan settlements.
"I am very impressed with the arrangements the local sports association has made in order to make this tournament a success, as it is part of our objective to leave behind infrastructure at every venue in which the tournament is held".
It was in Tibet in 1936 that Tibetans first encountered the 'beautiful game.'
Cambridge graduate Frederick Spencer Chapman was part of a group sent out to establish a British Mission in Lhasa. During his time in the Tibetan capital, then all but closed off to the outside world, the young telegraph decipherer kept a British Mission Diary, which provides a fascinating account of the first football games ever played in Tibet. Chapman played for British Mission team, the Mission Marmots, which pitted themselves – sometimes in the most inhospitable weather conditions - against Lhasa United, a team "turned out in garish Harlequin-coloured shirts."
"They were a remarkable looking team and certainly needed to be united. Playing at 11,800 feet is not much of an ordeal as one would imagine, and we appeared to be no more breathless than our opponents."
But the daily practices and plans to develop "a number of seven-a-side teams" came to an abrupt end when an unknown person stole the goal-posts for firewood and no efforts were made to replace them while sandstorms were witnessed at an alarming frequency.
In India today, whilst the exiled Tibetan community's finest male soccer stars frantically compete for the coveted cup, a young American woman is striving to provide the same opportunity for Tibetan women and girls. The Tibetan Women's Football Team's official website states that the aim of the initiative is to "inspire the girls and women of the Tibetan refugee community (and generate) a sense of pride in themselves and hope for their future...eventually (leading) to the formation of a national team."
Teacher and life-long soccer player Cassie Childers, 31, from New Jersey, organises football camps at various Tibetan schools with a team of international football enthusiasts and coaches. Speaking to the Tibet Post International during the second Tibetan Women's Football Select Training Camp, held at Gopalpur's Tibetan Children's Village (TCV), in January, she said: "we have two main aims at the camp: to empower the girls, and to get a team ready to compete against the top teams in India.
"For me it's all about fun. Just having fun and never giving up. If there is no fun, there is no point, and I think they play better when they are having fun."
The Tibetan Women's Football Team will play an exhibition match on the final day of the GCM tournament, on August 1.
Mungod's Doeguling football club's captain and coach, Tashi Phuntsok, 41, is accompanied in the contest by a team of aspiring young players aged 17 – 21. In a local community hall doubling as the team's dormitory, where I found him having navigated my way through a maze of clothes lines under an asbestos foyer, the GCM veteran who has competed seven times for the cup, said: "usually, we are indifferent towards the outcome of the game, but when we come as a team to play for the GCM cup, we take it very seriously.
"It is a very prestigious tournament, the biggest among the Tibetan diaspora.
"We have a reputation as the best team in the tournament and we will endeavor to reinforce that reputation and play very hard."