Beijing is hopeful that “the beautiful game” of soccer and Lhasa FC, Tibet’s first club, will help to soothe lingering tensions between Tibetans and Han, the ethnic majority in China.
Officials hope the highest club in China, established in 2015, can break down barriers in the mountainous region, where relations with Beijing have sometimes been strained since its “peaceful liberation” in 1951.
“In the club today, there’s no discrimination,” said Luosang Sanzhu, the team’s Tibetan midfielder, while practising on the manicured pitch, his great shirt soaked in sweat.
“The atmosphere is great.”
Luosang, 29, a former gym teacher has emerged as one of the leading lights in the team, which face an unusual headache when recruiting players.
At 3,700 metres above sea-level, altitude sickness is a constant hazard for non-Tibetans – and is deterring Han players from joining.
“Recruiting them is difficult,” club president Cidan Duoji, an ethnic Tibetan said.
“They think that it’s dangerous to play football here because of altitude sickness.”
Native Tibetans have adapted over generations to the lack of oxygen at high altitudes, which can cause headaches, vomiting, insomnia, or fatigue, and makes playing sports difficult for outsiders.
Consequently, only 10 per cent of Lhasa FC’s squad are Han, although members of the ethnic group are numerous elsewhere in the regional capital, which sits on the Tibetan Plateau.
“Lhasa FC … is a place of cultural exchange for the two communities,” said Cidan, surrounded by the club’s red mascots. “We want to show that Tibet can also be a place for sports,” he added.
The tranquil setting belies a troubled past.
Beijing reaffirmed control over Tibet in 1951 after four decades of de facto independence for the Himalayan territory.
Since then, many ethnically Han immigrants – the country’s largest group by far – have moved to Tibet, where they remain a minority.
In 2008, demonstrations by Tibetan monks in Lhasa degenerated into deadly violence targeting Hans before being quelled.
Although Lhasa FC’s team lack diversity on the pitch, the hope is that having a club in a national league will make Tibetans feel more integrated into China.
Lhasa FC currently play in China’s amateur league, the country’s fourth-tier football competition and a world away from the moneyed Chinese Super League with its millionaire players and tycoon owners.
While Luosang earns 5,000 yuan (US$750) a month as part of the team, which is a good salary in Tibet, Super League clubs have spent a collective €$400 million (US$450 million) buying players this year.
Nevertheless, Cidan is bullish – perhaps hoping that Lhasa’s altitude will give his team an advantage in home games.
“We hope to reach the Chinese Super League and even beat Guangzhou Evergrande!” he said, referring to the five-time defending champions and double Asian title-holders.
Soccer arrived in Tibet at the beginning of the 20th century with the British army, but before Lhasa FC’s founding the vast region was bereft of clubs.
“Football is booming now, with a growing number of competitions organised every year,” Luosang said.
Beijing has previously used sport as a political tool, including the “ping pong diplomacy” of the 1970s and the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where China showcased its newfound economic might.
China is also embracing soccer like never before, with President Xi Jinping heading a drive to host and even win the World Cup – a tall order for a country that is now only 78th in the world rankings of Fifa – the sports international governing body – sandwiched between Saint Kitts and Nevis and Guatemala.
Overseas or exiled Tibetans have also looked to the sport as a way to promote their cause. Last year, a women’s team of India-based Tibetans played Chinese university students at a tournament in Berlin.
And a “Tibet national team” not affiliated with Fifa and supported by the self-declared Tibetan government in exile – which resides in India and opposes Beijing’s rule – has played dozens of matches against other non-recognised teams since 2001.
Their results have been mixed, with losses of 1-4 to Greenland, 0-22 to Provence, and 0-5 to Gibraltar, but a 12-2 victory over Western Sahara.
Just like China’s top clubs, such as Guangzhou Evergrande and Jiangsu Suning, Lhasa FC have a corporate founder: the Tibet-based state-owned enterprise Pureland, which sells local specialities including traditional medicines and mineral water.
“But running a club in Tibet is economically risky,” sports columnist Jin Shan said.
“The region has few developed cities, and the football market is still small.
“In short, the return on investment is far from guaranteed.”