Andrew Fiouzi is a staff writer at MEL.
When 23-year-old Rupasinghe received a call from an old friend in 2002, he nearly hung up the phone when the topic of getting out of Sri Lanka came up. “Of course, I wanted to go,” Rupasinghe says. He could finally join his relatives in Italy. Maybe even get a job spinning pizzas. But when he thought about leaving the island nation, he envisioned getting on a boat and sailing across the ocean inside of an eight-by-20-foot metal box like a piece of cargo. “That’s how my relatives got to Italy,” he says. “Not legally, but via boat and container lorry.”
His relatives were considered the lucky ones, too. Rupasinghe had read about a group of eight Sri Lankans who suffocated to death inside of a lorry before they made it to shore. He couldn’t risk something like that happening, and his parents would never let him try. But before he could cut his friend off, a question crinkled through the busted speaker of his phone: “Have you ever heard of a game called handball?”
Like Rupasinghe, 28-year-old Chandana received a similar phone call in 2002. It was from his older brother, who was already living in Italy, which has a large Sri Lankan immigrant community. There’s a plan, his brother told him, “to arrange a visit for you to come to Italy.” It would cost $4,000, his brother explained. Chandana could pay him back when he got to Rome. He just needed to learn handball.
Chandana had never played handball before — he had never even held one. He did, however, play volleyball in high school. “Our team won the national title,” he says. So it didn’t take long for him to learn the basics: Two 30-minute halves, a player can run three steps without dribbling the ball and the goal, like nearly every other sport, was to score. There were other rules as well. But those are the ones he remembers.
The first part of the plan was simple. The national German handball team was coming to Sri Lanka for a friendly match in Minuwangoda, a town on the western side of the island. The exhibition was being put on by the Asian-German Sports Exchange Program (AGSEP), an organization designed to expose young people in Sri Lanka to other cultures through sporting events. For it, the Sri Lankan Sports Ministry had hired a handball coach named Athula Wijenayaka, who Dietmar Doering, the founder of the AGSEP, believes was the one to dream up the wild plot to create a fake Sri Lankan national handball team. The team would be composed of 23 Sri Lankan men, who would fly to a national tournament in Germany, play handball and then promptly disappear.
Founding of AGSEP
Doering, a former professional table-tennis player who led the national German table tennis team to a national title, first traveled to Sri Lanka in 1981 for vacation. When he arrived, his taxi driver asked if they could stop to pick up some clothes at home. “He was taking me for a 10-day round trip throughout the island,” says Doering, so of course Doering said it was fine. The two men chatted most of the way there, and when they arrived, the driver invited Doering inside for tea. “There were all of these table-tennis trophies in the house,” says Doering. “I asked him about them, and the taxi driver told me they were his sister’s.” Doering next asked if he could meet her. The two fell in love, and Doering never left Sri Lanka.
In 1989, Doering — who by then was the coach of Sri Lanka’s national table-tennis team — had an idea: What if there were a program that brought together the people from his home country with his adopted one through sports? “That’s where the Asian-German Sports Exchange Program came from,” he says. “When you put a German professor with a doctorate against a Sri Lankan fisherman on a ping-pong table, their professional background disappears,” he says. “It’s just about the sport.”
From 1989 until 2004, Doering’s program was a big success. Sri Lankans played against Germans in hundreds of tournaments in a variety of sports. Sometimes the German teams would come to Sri Lanka. Other times, the Sri Lankans would fly to Germany. “Germans would invite Sri Lankans into their homes,” Doering recalls proudly.
So in 2003, when Doering received a call from a director in the Sri Lankan Sports Ministry about setting up a handball exhibition with the German national team, he had no reason to suspect anything strange. The only time he became a little suspicious was when the 23 Sri Lankan men showed up for a photo shoot wearing suits. “Most athletes I’ve met throughout the years wear gym clothes,” he tells me.
The Exhibition Match
Wijenayaka, the new handball team coach, had just a few weeks to get the Sri Lankan players ready for their friendly with the Germans. Practices were held a few times a week, where the players learned the basics, Rupasinghe remembers. None of them had any handball experience, but the key was to try to appear like they knew what they were doing — at least enough to keep Doering and the German officials from becoming suspicious. Amazingly, it (kinda) worked. “They hammered us 36 to 2,” recalls Chandana. “We had no chance at all.” Yet, Doering and the German officials still invited the Sri Lankan team to Germany for a handball tournament there.
“The German national handball team had been a program for 100 years,” Doering says in AGSEP’s defense. “We expected them to win.” He also believed that, given enough time to practice, the Sri Lankans might fare better in Germany against a lower-level team. Thus, Doering and AGSEP went about making sure each Sri Lankan player had a valid visa, and in September 2004, they sent the amateur players to spend two weeks in Germany for a 10-game tournament.
The team arrived in Wittislingen, a town in southern Germany, the afternoon before the tournament was set to begin. “We went sightseeing,” Rupasinghe tells me. They met the mayor of the town, took photos and had dinner with their German counterparts. “We sang and danced and had a great time,” he adds.
On game day, the team tried its best to show it had improved, but this time around, the Sri Lankans didn’t score a single point. “We got hammered again,” says Chandana. “The Germans didn’t laugh at us, though.” Instead, Rupasinghe explains, “They compared it to the early beginnings of German handball in 1900.”
At night, there was hardly any talk of sport. The Germans hosted the Sri Lankans for another dinner, and once again, they sang together and celebrated the evening. “We had a very great time in this place,” says Rupasinghe. “Felt a bit sorry as we all planned to go the next day, very early in the morning.”
After dinner, the Sri Lankan team went back to their rooms, packed up their clothes and waited until just before dawn. At 5 a.m., they finally slipped out of their hotel. “All of us, in groups of two and four, walked outside in different directions,” says Chandana. “We didn’t speak to others about where we were heading to.” That way, just in case any of them got caught, they wouldn’t have any information that might jeopardize one another. That said, most of them knew where they were headed anyway: Italy. “We knew from our relatives and friends, once we reached Italy there was no way of sending us back,” says Chandana. “Italian people are very friendly, and they like us to work in their restaurants. Sri Lankans in Italy have no problems with the police. We aren’t involved in drugs or any other criminal activities.”
The Next Day
Doering, who didn’t join the team on the trip, remembers catching some of the Sri Lankan match on the nightly news. “All looked good,” he says. “Standard [of play] was low, but we expected that.” At the time, Doering thought he was watching the first of 10 matches. “But of course, the other nine never happened.”
The following morning, a university student from Germany who was interning with AGSEP walked into Doering’s office. His face was pale. “He said, ‘Mr. Doering, do you know what happened?’” Doering recalls. “I said, ‘Don’t tell me that these people have gone.’ Somehow, I could tell by his face that they had.”
On his 33-mile drive from AGSEP headquarters in Marawila to the German Embassy in Colombo, Doering was on nonstop calls with TV stations around the world. “I took an extra battery with me before the drive,” he says. “BBC, Australia, even reporters from Saudi Arabia — all the news stations thought I was the mastermind.”
The news report Doering remembers most vividly from that day was from Fox News. He says they played up the civil war happening in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese and the Tamil Tigers, a separatist group known for setting off car bombs in the 1990s. “But that was mainly in the northern part of the country,” says Doering. Not to mention, he adds, “There were only three Tamil players on the team,” Doering says. “The rest were Sinhalese and one Muslim.” Nonetheless, the report suggested that a handball team full of Tamil terrorists had been smuggled into Germany.
Multiple media outlets also called the Sri Lankan Sports Ministry for their response. According to a BBC report from 2004, they responded by saying that the trip wasn’t authorized. Or in the words of a ministry spokesperson: “Handball is a sport very rarely played in Sri Lanka, and the formation of a national team was a mystery.”
But Doering says that’s not entirely true. “A director of the sports ministry knew,” he says. After all, it was an official at the ministry who put AGSEP in touch with Wijenayaka, the Sri Lankan team’s coach, in the first place. ( Wijenayaka couldn ’t be reached for comment.)
Where Are They Now
Within a decade, more than half of the 23 Sri Lankan handball players would return home. “I came back after six months,” says Chandana. “My child was sick. I felt homesick. I couldn’t find a job, though it was promised. I wrote a letter to Mr. Doering and asked for forgiveness.”
Rupasinghe went back to Sri Lanka in 2008, though he still has an Italian visa and “can go back to Italy any time I want.” “I was [in Italy] for four years working in a pizzeria as a pizza baker,” he tells me. “It was a good income, and I could support my family in Sri Lanka, who are very poor.”
As for Doering, he originally wanted to bring every member of the team to court. “They made me look like a fool,” he says. After the incident, the German embassy also blacklisted AGSEP from ever participating in sporting events in the country again. “No more teams got visas thereafter,” he says. “That’s the sad side of the whole thing.”
Over the years, though, Doering has developed a better sense for why the players did what they did. This wasn’t a story of crime or smuggling or malicious intent. Each of the men on the team supported an average of five to 10 family members back in Sri Lanka, he estimates. And he says that he has it on good authority that “each of those players sent money back to their families, every month.”
For them, then, they were playing a much more important game — a game of survival.