February 25, 2020

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Story of Tibetan football a triumph

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/5/2017 (1004 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In 2006, the Dalai Lama awarded Hergé’s 1950s Tintin in Tibet the Light of Truth Award for promoting the plight of the Tibetan people around the world. Now, he has written an introduction to another graphic narrative about a young European man travelling in Tibet, Dreams in Thin Air. Unlike Tintin, however, the protagonist in this book is very much a real person and his story reminds us that sports and politics are never far apart.

Dreams in Thin Air is the story of a young Danish man named Michael Nybrandt, who became an unlikely ambassador for the Tibetan people through the even-more-unlikely medium of football (soccer) 20 years ago. The story starts in 1997, when a relatively naïve young Nybrandt travels to Tibet with a friend for a cycling adventure. They stumble upon a Buddhist monastery of football-mad monks. A stunning silent sequence conveys the excitement of the match Nybrandt plays with them, which becomes the lightbulb moment for a dream it would take years to realize.

Nybrandt collaborated with Danish cartoonist Thomas Mikkelsen to tell his story in a beautiful, classically illustrated graphic narrative that will appeal to readers of all ages. Since this is a true story, it won’t be a spoiler to say that Nybrandt eventually helped to put together the first national Tibetan male football team and organized an international match with Greenland in Copenhagen. The goal was twofold: to draw international attention to the Chinese government’s treatment of Tibet and to give Tibetans an international-level sports team of which they could be proud.

The book explains football’s enormous popularity in Tibet, especially amongst young monks, and in Tibetan communities in exile in India. Nybrandt worked with Tibetan coaches and managers to raise a team from these communities. The book details with some humour their efforts to train a professional team and wade through red tape to play an international match in Europe. The Chinese government does not come off well: it is presented as exerting undue influence on European football officials and governments to sideline the team.

A rich colour palette, skilful layouts, and pleasing line drawings create a visually dynamic graphic narrative. As narrator, Nybrandt does not overwhelm Mikkelsen’s cartooning with too much text, so that the drawings themselves are able to carry a lot of the story. The playing sequences are as exciting as being on the pitch itself, and the more intimate moments of friendly cultural exchanges, tense bureaucratic meetings, and frustrating delays are equally arresting.

Nybrandt and Mikkelson have produced a culturally sensitive portrayal of Tibetan culture and the geopolitics of international football that nevertheless has moments of humour and joy. On the one hand, the setting and characters make this a unique true story. On the other hand, Dreams in Thin Air is a classic tale of an underdog sports team playing for much more than the game. Its success lies in combining the predictable and the surprising without resorting to the exoticism or hollow benevolence that might shape a European’s story of his contribution to the Tibetan cause.

Football fans and political sympathizers will find their interests met in this book, but it is also a pleasurable and informative read for anyone who likes a good story with an uplifting ending that makes the most of visual storytelling.

Candida Rifkind teaches Canadian literature and graphic narratives in the English department of the University of Winnipeg.


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