Back in 2007, three years before professional soccer teams were set to descend on South Africa’s cities, 2010 World Cup fever was already taking hold. In Cape Town, where I was living at the time, billboards, posters, and television ads encouraged South Africans to keep the cities clean and safe in preparation for their 2010 visitors and hotels and restaurants had begun remodeling in anticipation of the hordes of fans. It will be the first World Cup to be held on the African continent, and South Africa—whose political, social, and financial troubles are well documented—has a lot riding on the month-long event. Now, two days before the ref’s whistle signals the start of the first game between South Africa and Mexico, World Cup madness has reached a hysterical pitch—both within the host country and in the far-flung corners of the globe. And while some can head to the nearest sports bar or flip on the living room TV, for others keeping up with the event can be far more difficult. Such is the case in the 1999 film The Cup. Directed by Khyentse Norbu (also known as Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche) and based on real events, The Cup is the story of young Tibetan monks with a passion for soccer and an obsession with watching the World Cup—despite the lack of a television set and strict rules against traveling to town to watch the televised matches. Though Norbu received criticism for his portrayal of Buddhist monks as soccer-crazed fans, the film exposed a side of monasticism rarely seen by outsiders. As Dmitri Erhlich wrote in his review of the film for Tricycle:

The movie’s content may not have increased the director’s popularity among conservative critics at home, depicting a side of monastic reality that will seem irreverent to some. The monks of The Cup engage in all kinds of behavior that would seem improper of a monastic community, even to the extent that they become involved in a brawl. As Norbu said recently, “Everyone thinks monks are pious and disciplined. But they forget that monks are human too. The monastic code is an ideal, a goal to be hit.”

I remember seeing the then newly-released film as a soccer-crazed 13-year-old. Soccer, I realized for the first time, was being played by kids of all nationalities and faiths. It dawned on me that—despite the differences in our dress, our schooling, and our language—the young monks’ love for the game was strikingly similar to my own. Now, on the eve of the 2010 World Cup, Norbu’s film is a reminder that though the games may be played in the stadiums of South Africa, the fans are watching from the far corners of the earth. Read Tricycle‘s interview with filmmaker and Tibetan lama Khyentse Norbu here and check out the film trailer for The Cup:

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