LHASA, TIBET: There may be mid-game oxygen breaks, but no team will fancy a trip to sky-high Lhasa Chengtou next season after they made history by becoming the first Tibetan side to reach China’s professional league.
Lhasa, whose 735-million-yuan ($110 million) stadium is the highest in China and one of the highest in the world, clinched promotion from China’s amateur league to the third tier along with five other sides.
But doubts surround whether Lhasa will be allowed to stage games at their modern Cultural and Sports Center stadium because of its dizzying altitude 3,658 metres (12,000 feet) above sea level.
During home matches, players are allowed to use oxygen every 15 minutes from handheld canisters lined up on the side of the pitch to avoid the nausea and vomiting associated with altitude sickness.
Lhasa, whose players mostly come from areas of China outside Tibet, won promotion to League Two after beating Shenyang Dongjin 2-1 over two legs in a play-off.
The home leg was moved to a neutral venue in Huizhou, in southern China about 4,000 kilometres from Lhasa, supposedly because of problems with the pitch, though there were suspicions that it was more to do with the altitude.
Lhasa won 2-0 in the first leg and lost 1-0 on Sunday in the return match at Shenyang to squeeze into the professional leagues.
“Football has deep foundations among the people in Tibet and it is absolutely the first sport,” Wang Dui, a senior club official, told the state Xinhua news agency.
“Go and have a look in the older part of town in Lhasa, you can see kids playing football everywhere in the alleys after school.
“Lhasa has its own street football culture.”
They will, however, not have it easy in the professional league, and questions swirl around whether the Chinese Football Association (CFA) will allow games at the mountainside Lhasa stadium.
The venue, which also has a running track, can seat more than 20,000 people but Lhasa only gained CFA permission in August to play their games there.
Claims circulated online that in a subsequent game against Shenzhen Pengcheng, six of the visiting players were stretchered off due to the altitude — an incident which was denied by Tibetan police.
Although Lhasa Chengtou were only formed in March, football has a long history in Tibet after it arrived in the remote region with the British army at the beginning of the 20th century.
Chinese officials, who keep a tight rein on information coming out of Tibet, have been pushing football there in the hope that having a team in the national league will help Tibetans feel more integrated into China.
The local government last year released plans to ramp up development of football in the region, in keeping with a national push led by President Xi Jinping.
Officials also took steps to make it easier for footballers, including ordering oxygen bottles to be dotted around pitches at five-metre intervals and ensuring that hotels for visiting teams have oxygen-supply equipment, the state Xinhua news agency said.