Sunday, June 06, 2004

Some cows are on the pitch...

There's that same match day excitement, the same regular stream of people walking to the game. Only this definitely isn't the Tottenham High Road. And the most commonly sported colours aren't blue and white but claret and saffron, because many of the fans are Tibetan Buddhist monks, dressed in their usual robes. The route is along a road through a forest, until a path branches off and climbs up the hill towards the Tibetan Children's Village.

I arrive and meet the Tibetan manager, who points me towards my seat, a plastic chair in a metal-grilled box, high above the half-way line. I sit there waiting for the other selector to arrive. He never shows.

I take in the scene. There are about 1500 people here for the opening ceremony and first two games, Pokhara v Mysore and Bir v Kathmandu. They're sat around the rocky stands, which don't resemble old football terraces as much as they do rice terraces. One of the stands is plusher than the others. They've set up a lavish awning on top and laid out a few seats for visiting officials and dignitaries. This is where the Tibetan Prime Minister will take his seat, having addressed the crowd before the matches.

Among the very few advertising hoardings, featuring such sponsors as the McLeod Ganj Taxi Drivers' Union, are some official slogans and words of encouragement. "May the best wins." "Winning and losing are part of the game." "Cheer Up! All the Best" And my personal favourite, "Participation is more important."

While I'm looking around, a large black cow walks onto the pitch on its own accord. A small cheer goes up. Is this the equivalent of a streaker? The cow saunters across the sand-covered surface as if in time to the victorious Tibetan music playing over the loudspeakers. No police or stewards run on to remove her. She just continues serenely on her way until she reaches the other side of the pitch and the staircase out. She exits the arena as freely as she arrived.

A school marching band come on to get the ceremony underway. They beat their drums as all the tournament's teams walk on. There's a good sense of occasion. The loudest cheer is for the Bir team, who've brought a couple hundred supporters the 60 km or so. One enthusiastic fan runs across to hand his team captain a Bir flag (to add to the one he's already holding). He gets a cheer as well.

Of course, I can't understand anything the Tibetan Prime Minister says. I've let a Bir fan come up and take the seat next to me - until the other selector arrives. I ask him to translate but he doesn't understand the speech either. He says the words are too lofty.

At the end of all this, the Tibetan national anthem, the shaking of hands and the team photos, the football finally begins. Pretty early on, I can tell I've got my work cut out. The quality is not good. Every so often I see a player do something remarkable. I scribble down his number, a note to keep watching him. Then, almost without fail, he produces something undeniably awful soon afterwards. It’s OK though – I’m used to this at White Hart Lane.

Pokhara, the reigning champions, are clearly the better side, much more composed. They go into a deserved 1-0 lead through a massive 35-yard shot from the right wing. Mysore, who are playing in England kits, take on a suitably English attitude – making up in strength and determination what they lack in skill. It pays off when their number 25, who’s been otherwise terrible, slams the ball against the bar from far out. The Mysore captain follows up to equalise.

Half-time and I make the trip across the pitch to see the Tibetan manager and discuss the missing selector. He tells me he’s the other selector. It’s good to have someone on each side of the pitch. But right now the second half’s starting, so – despite this wisdom – I can take a seat with him among the dignitaries.

For a while, it’s all very pleasant. I’ve got a better view here: no metal grille, so I don’t feel like a terrace supporter in the dark days of European football hooliganism. Plus there are people serving us tea and deep fried Tibetan biscuits. But then, ten minutes into the second half, chaos breaks out.

The winds have been getting stronger for a while now and the air’s heavy with moisture. There’s clearly a storm on its way. When the rain comes, we’re fine under our awning. Most of the fans are OK too, having brought their own umbrellas. But then it really picks up. One of the 30ft-long metal poles, wedged against the stand to hold up the awning, comes loose and falls towards the fans 40 feet below. Someone shouts out and, miraculously, it hits noone. The officials get to work taking the other poles down and collapsing the awning, which at one point threatens to fly away in the ever-increasing wind. I look across the stand to see what the Tibetan Prime Minister’s doing, but I think he’s left already.

The football stops for a couple minutes – the referee’s become aware of the near disaster – but, commotion over, they quickly get back under way. Meanwhile, I’m now exposed to the downpour. My box (let’s call it my ‘gantry’) is all the way on the other side. I pack in with the other supporters under the only covered bit of the main stand, under the previously covered VIP area. We can hardly see the football, but we’re all very cosy and amused here. I'm faintly aware of two dogs that have run on the pitch and have started sniffing each other right in the middle of play. The referee blows for full time. Must have been the quickest 45 minutes of football I've ever seen - or, rather, not seen. 1-1.

In between the two matches, the rain lets up. Now’s the time to get back to my gantry. But when I get there, I find it’s been taken over by about 30 Bir supporters. I bet this never happens to Sven. So I tell them: “I’m sorry, this is a selector’s box. You can all stay here just as long as I can get to that chair at the front.” I must say, I do feel pretty guilty chucking a Tibetan woman off the seat.

The second game is much better. Bir go 1-0 up, sending their fans into a rapturous round of “We will rock you.” But Kathmandu’s class shows in the second half and they finish 4-1 winners. And there’s some new talent too, a tall Kathmandu centre back who’s strong in the challenge and brings the ball out with a confident, loping stride. Someone to watch in his next game. The Bir fans, so vocal and upbeat before, filter out before the final whistle, dejected and ready for the couple hours’ trip back. I, on the other hand, cannot wait until tomorrow.

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