The story of Lhasa Chengtou, what was Tibet’s only professional football team

Published on 23 September 2021 at 20:42


The history and background of Tibet is a long-standing one. With arguments and discussions around whether it is part of China or it is it's own independent region. But we're here for the football.


It was only at the beginning of the 20th century when Tibet was introduced to football. The British invasion of Tibet took place in 1903 to not only remove Chinese rule, but over fears of Russia invading Central Asia. After taking control, in 1913 the British and British Indians built a military training facility in the capital city of Lhasa and a trade agency in Gyantse. From there, Tibetans would watch as they played football and were invited to join them, learning the rules and basics of how to play. The sport continued to grow and more people were becoming interested in football, as opposed to favoured sports such as archery and wrestling. Football continued to rise in popularity up until the 1950's. Football teams were formed, such as the likes of Drapchi, Lhasa, Potala and the Bodyguard Regiment. Games were usually played amongst each other, against Chinese soldiers or other Chinese provincial teams.


But despite the progress, football in the region was soon forgotten about as decades of turmoil and civil unrest began to unfold in the form of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, Tibetan diaspora and the Cultural Revolution which lasted from 1966 until 1976. During the time, football was reduced to a minimum, the national stadium of Kham was destroyed and thousands of Tibetans fled to seek refuge in India alongside the 14th Dalai Lama who was living in exile in after also fleeing.


Lhasa Chengtou

Founded in 2017, Lhasa Urban Construction Investment F.C or Lhasa Chengtou were a professional team from Tibet and were one of the first to compete in the Chinese Football Leagues. Despite wanting to be based in Lhasa, Tibet, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) stated they needed to play their football in Deyang, Sichuan. 


The team began their footballing journey in the amateur leagues, before going pro a year later and joining the Chinese Champions League (Tier 4). In 2018, the team had been approved to take part in the 2019 Chinese Division 2 (Tier 3), however the Chinese Football Association rejected the clubs application. The reason for this was due to the club wanting to play their home games in their native Tibet and in the Capital city of Lhasa. After the rejection, the team decided to base their home in Deyang, Sichuan. Sichuan province despite being one of the closest in China to Tibet, was still 2,400 kilometers away from Lhasa. 


Lhasa Chengtou finished the 2019 season 26th of 32 teams in the Chinese Division 2 and only ever managed to play 5 games in Tibet, playing three times in Nyingchi and twice in Lhasa itself.


Despite the clubs best intentions and ambitions to play in it's home city, the application was denied by the Chinese Football Association due to concerns for player safety. The club's home ground in Lhasa is located at 3,650 meters (11,700 feet) above sea level. Due to this it means that around 20% to 30% of people who are not acclimatised to Tibet or playing football in the region will become ill at this altitude. During some games played at the stadium, the referee had to stop the game every 15 minutes to allow players to breathe oxygen tanks on the side line. There was also claims that during a match between Lhasa v Shenzhen Pengcheng, that six players had to be stretchered off due to altitude sickness. Although this was denied by Tibet.


Interestingly enough, in 2007 FIFA banned international matches from taking place on pitches with a altitude higher than 3000 metres, however the ban was lifted the following year in 2008.


At the start of 2020 and before the start of the season, Lhasa annouced that they would be withdrawing from the Chinese Division 2 and subsequently dissolved later in the year, despite the club and Chinese Football Association trying to reach and agreement, with consideration of Lhasa playing their home games at Nyinchi, however this was still 423 kilometers from their home. The dissolvement of the club just three years after being founded, was a huge setback not only to Tibetan football but also the ruling Communist Party and CFA. As given the history between the two, they would have wanted to make the Tibetans feel part of China and become more integrated.


Perhaps more could have been done, but given the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic had just reached its peak and was financially impacting many clubs, it was felt that Lhasa was expendable. However, it wasn't just a decision that the CFA made, as Lhasa wanted to leave the league, due to being unable to play their games at home.


In that year alone, Lhasa were the 17th club to depart/dissolve from the Chinese Football pyramid. Considering China's attempts to become a powerhouse in the world for football, it has certainly fallen short of the ideals it sets itself.


Unfortunately since Lhasa's demise, there have been no more Tibetan teams to compete at a professional level and with the Tibet National Team not being a member of FIFA or AFC and having players in exile. Football in Tibet shows no immediate signs of improving or being able to develop.

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