Graphic novel tells the true story of Tibet’s national football team
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On a Tibetan cycling tour in 1997, a young Dane, Michael Magnus Nybrandt, had the idea of creating Tibet’s first national football team. This June 20, he published a graphic novel recounting his struggle to get the team up and running.
While the most garlanded international teams compete at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Tibetan players put on their team’s shirt, sit in front of the TV and watch the games, dreaming of taking part in the tournament one day.
The team has no Ronaldo or Messi, but the story of how it came to exist is an extraordinary one – as told in Nybrandt’s graphic novel “Dreams in Thin Air”.
China's 'unfair treatment of the Tibetan people'
It was while he was on a cycling trip across Tibet more than 20 years ago that Nybrandt was struck by the idea. “I’d already been interested in Tibetan culture for several years, and I was furious at the Chinese authorities’ unfair treatment of the Tibetan people – something that made me all the more interested in Tibet,” said the Dane in an interview with FRANCE 24.
While sleeping in a monastery during his 1997 trip, Nybrandt had a dream about managing the first ever Tibetan football squad. When he returned to Europe, he found himself thinking about it more and more. So after interning at the Danish Football Association, Nybrandt decided to do all he could to bring the idea to fruition.
But a big obstacle stood in his way. Tibet is officially a province of China, making it impossible to form an internationally recognised national team. So instead of going to Tibet, Nybrandt had to go to nearby Nepal and India to try to form a team out of exiled Tibetan players.
Once these footballers had got on board, Nybrandt tried to organise his team’s first match. He found a team willing to play against Tibet, in the form of Greenland, which is defined as an autonomous Danish territory.
'Scary to see extent of China's influence'
However, Chinese diplomatic manoeuvres soon put a spanner in the works. Beijing did everything it could to stop the match from taking place, and – seeing as Tibet is not recognised by the United Nations or FIFA (football's international governing body) – no country can officially play against them.
“It was a bit scary to see the extent of China's influence in Europe,” Nybrandt said. “I was just out of school when I started this project – then all of a sudden I was being summoned to a meeting at the Chinese embassy,” he told FRANCE 24.
Nevertheless, the young Dane refused to bow to pressure from one of the most powerful countries in the world. As a result, on June 30, 2011, Tibet played their very first match: it was against Greenland, in Copenhagen, and in front of more than 5,000 people.
Greenland won 4-1 – but it was never about the scoreline. In creating the first Tibetan national football team, Nybrandt raised further awareness of the fate of the Tibetan people – at the same time as providing a big opportunity for Tibet’s young footballers.
Nearly two decades on, Nybrandt is no longer at the helm of the Tibetan team, but he still continues to support it by helping to organise and promote matches. The inaugural ConIFA tournament – for stateless people and regions not affiliated to FIFA – took place in London in June 2017, and the Tibetan team came 12th out of 16.
With a preface by the Dalai Lama, Nybrand's graphic novel, “Dreams in Thin Air”, is the tourist turned football manager telling his story. Combining a simple visual style with fascinating content, it shows the value of persistence.
“The important thing is to never give up,” Nybrandt writes. “It doesn’t matter how difficult it is, you must never throw in the towel.”
This article was adapted from the original in French