Baichung Bhutia and Tim Brown.
DHARAMSHALA, May 19: Indian football icon and former captain, Bhaichung Bhutia will kick off the 18th edition of the most popular Tibetan football tournament, the Gyalyum Chemo Memorial Gold Cup to be held in Dharamshala next week.
Bhutia, who hails from the Indian state of Sikkim, was the first player from the sub-continent to play professional football in Europe and also the only Indian footballer to play more than 100 matches for his country during his distinguished 16-year career.
“Bhaichung Bhutia has accepted our invitation to be the Chief Guest at the tournament,” Kalsang Dhondup, executive secretary of Tibetan National Sports Association, organisers of the event, told Phayul.
In 2008, during the pan-Tibet peaceful uprisings, Bhutia, had declined from carrying the torch of the Beijing Olympics, during the Indian leg of its rally.
Bhutia had told reporters that he “sympathised” with the Tibetan cause and the decision was his “way of standing by the people of Tibet and their struggle.”
Apart from Bhaichung, former New Zealand footballer Tim Brown is also expected to attend the inaugural ceremony.
Organisers added that the tournament will honour and pay tribute to the Tibetan self-immolators and will be played in a spirit of solidarity with the plight of the Tibetans inside Tibet.
“Players will be wearing black arm bands throughout the entire tournament in a show of our support and solidarity with Tibetans inside Tibet,” Dhondup said. “Photos of our martyrs, who set themselves on fire calling for Tibet’s freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama, will be displayed around the ground.”
This year, 19 teams are vying for the most coveted football honours in the exile Tibetan community. 26 matches will be played, starting from May 26, with the finals scheduled on June 5.
Following the opening ceremony, the first ever official Tibetan women’s football team will take the field for a historic exhibition match with the Himachal Pradesh women’s football team.
The GCM is the most popular football tournament in the exile Tibetan community. It was initially organised in 1981 as a "club level tournament in memory of the late mother of the XIVth Dalai Lama."
The 17th GCM was played in the Tibetan settlement of Mundgod with the Golathala team, the minnows from Bylakuppe lifting the trophy.