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Team Sri Lanka: Disappeared But Why?

In 2004, the German Handball Federation was fascinated to be hosting for the very first time, the Sri Lankan Handball team for a series of friendly matches between the 2 countries. These weren’t competitive games but more of an exchange of abilities & the beginning of mentorship between them.

The Germans are credited for officially inventing Handball in 1917, which is an Olympic sport so it is very prestigious to be related with a national team of the sport.

The Warm Wittislingen Welcome!

BBC NEWS | South Asia | Sri Lanka handball team vanishes
Pic: BBC

After a 10-hour flight, you’d anticipate the Sri Lankan Team to be haggard and exhausted but they were pleased with having landed and had a spring in their step like adventurers at a new frontier!

They were rapidly put up at a hotel and were made comfortable by their German hosts who hosted a feast in their honor. The teams got to greet each other & they sang & danced the night away. There was awkward gesturing and in broken words, the people from these 2 countries who speak different languages, attempted to communicate. The taste of joy & merriment hung in the air.

Over the next couple of days, the hosts took the team exploring all over the town where the Sri Lankans were introduced to the Mayor of Wittislingen.

Then came the day of their first friendly match! Right on time, the Teams reached & after handshakes, the referee blew on the whistle to kick off the match. It was an ultimate disaster; the Sri Lankan team was playing at a level near to amateur. They were beaten easily by the Germans. It was anticipated of the visiting team to not be of the similar caliber as the home team but this was rather severe, almost annoying to watch. A couple of the players had some skill and were attempting their best to save face but it is not a one-man sport after all and the shortcoming of the team was left vulnerable for the Germans to see.

No concerns, another day another match, right? These losses would teach them important lessons and improve them.

After the terrible game, the team again had an incredible night of food, music & dancing. The Sri Lankan players played drums and sang their regional songs and also for some reason, a nearly unrecognizable rendition of Shaggy’s You’re my Angel.

Going..going..gone?!

It was a day for Match #2 on September 13th, 2004. Auxiliary members from the Bavarian Handball Team headed over to the hotel where the 23-member strong Sri Lankan Handball team was staying. Having agreed at a 7 am breakfast, the German hosts waited another hour out of decency but by 9 am they were nervous something may have occurred to the Sri Lankan Team. They busted open the door to the big conference room where the team was put up, the mattresses lined up on the floor were slept in and disheveled as if left in a hurry. All the suitcases were still there, shoes, sports uniforms, and gear were scattered about the room. Everything was there except the 23 men from the grand old isle of Sri Lanka! Where had the team vanished to?

Concerned that the men had possibly gone out jogging in the woods & gotten lost, the Bavarian hosts set out an investigation party to look for them. The Wittislingen police were informed as was the Sri Lankan Embassy in Germany.

Then someone took a closer look at the hotel room and discovered scrawled on a piece of paper, a weird note patched together with misspelled words that were simple, apologetic, thankful & still somehow optimistic.

The note read.

“For Everyone, we want to say thank you. You are very generous. We have decided to leave Germany & travel to France. We want to discover better further life. This is our conclusion & we will take full accountability & risk for our decision.

You all were very nice to us. Please forgive us for our decision. We don’t have any other way right now. We cannot go back to Sri Lanka so we will go now. Please don’t be concerned about us we will be fine. You have done a lot for us & we thank you all again.” With love, Manager (name signed)

The whole convoy of 23 men had scattered into Germany and could not be traced beyond the regional train stations and cab stops. They had vanished in search of a decent life to alleviate themselves from the poverty & civil war-ridden existence back home. The poor unsuspecting Germans were left in the lurch with shattered dreams of mentoring a new team in their Homegrown sport. This entire shenanigan was nothing but a ruse right from the beginning!

As the Germans might say, “Das ist das Leben!” That’s life!

Pregame Strategy

This disappearance did not happen in a vacuum. You don’t just waltz into Europe from formulating nations oh no this example of unlawful immigration was a carefully laid plan and took months to commit.

The exchange program between the 2 countries was promoted by an organization called the Asian-German Sports Exchange Program or AGSEP for short. It was begun by Dietmar Doering a German transplant in Sri Lanka. Doering was an avid Table tennis player and began this exchange program with his home country and with the assistance of Sri Lanka’s government helped foster hundreds of friendly visits between the countries over numerous sports. Never handball though. There just wasn’t any interest in the sport in South Asia. Cricket & Soccer reigned supreme in the hearts of all desi people then & now.

Out of the blue, in 2003 Doering earned a call from the Sri Lankan Sports ministry about inviting the German Handball team over for a friendly match. This was incredible because Doering had never listened to a local team that played the sport.

The ministry appointed a head coach Athula Wijenayaka who in a matter of weeks put together a ragtag group of men together as the official team.

The new head coach held practice sessions ca couple of times a week and instructed the bare minimum basics of Handball to the men. They were tutored more on how to seem like they knew handball and posture as athletes. It worked because the German Team came & with much publicity an exhibition match was held. The home team was crushed 2-36 which is very atrocious but somehow, they still managed to get an invite to Germany to play matches there as is formal for the Exchange program.

And so, motivated by yet another possibility for intercontinental harmony, Dietmar Doering committed himself & the resources of his organization AGSEP to getting this trip to Germany underway. The largest obstacle in the process was of course getting Visas from the German Embassy.

Like I mentioned before, a brown person barely waltzes into a non-brown country. The stamp of authorization & recommendation from a German national like Dietmar Doering & his highly successful AGSEP foundation was a big boost of confidence in the visa applications of these 23 men. They were shortly authorized & the 2004 trip was scheduled to play 10 games over 2 weeks in Wittislingen.

So these men not just bamboozled the Germans but also the AGSEP foundation & the German embassy in Colombo too! Doering suspects the head coach was the mastermind behind the entire thing. Nonetheless, if you think about it, there had to have been someone at the Sri Lankan Sports Ministry who either supported this agenda or was hoodwinked themselves because the call to AGSEP had come from the ministry.

It’s uncertain these 23 men had the strength or influence over ministers but it’s not completely unthinkable. Sri Lanka is right below India on the global corruption index charts at No. 99 out of 195 countries.

Why though?

On average each of those men had a family of 5 some up to 10 that they wanted to support financially. Civil war had ripped the country apart & limited the means of job for many of these men. While they weren’t precisely the poorest of the poor, they were the brave ones who were game to chance their current freedom for future freedom.

The preliminary investigation had indicated that most of the men had crossed into Italy.
Why Italy? Well, there is a big Sri Lankan population in Italy, nearly 100,000 strong! A lot of the agricultural labor in Italy is South Asian. Some of these men had relatives already residence in Italy so they just had to get there by hook or crook & they would be Golden.

The particular route from Sri Lanka to Italy would involve being locked up in a container on merchant ships for weeks, wishing to stay alive by the time to get there. In comparison, this handball con was like an extravagance deluxe premium experience in the annals of unlawful immigration yeah?

Some of these Handballers were ultimately tracked down & surprisingly near to half of them had actually returned to Sri Lanka but now had Italian Visas & could effortlessly go back when & if they want to. They disclosed that they had paid around $4000 to be part of this team. That is an enormous sum!

In any case, this incident damaged the relationship between the 2 countries as far as the AGSEP exchange program went and no other teams were invited back since then.

Art imitates Life

In 2008 a movie called Machan was made by an Italian director telling a narrowly fictionalized tale of this con. In an incredible twist, life imitated art when after the shooting of Machan wrapped up in Germany, one of the Sri Lankan actors failed to show up at the airport & illegally immigrated into Europe himself just like the characters they were playing!

Officially we do not know where a majority of these 23 men are. I’d like to visualize they found better lives somewhere in Europe & were eligible to assist their families back home in Sri Lanka. Illegal immigration is more an indication of a human rights disaster all over the world than it is a crime.

In 2010 Sri Lanka eventually debuted an actual legit officially stamped Handball Team at the South Asian Games in Bangladesh. No word on if they have ever encountered the Germans again! The courts will be especially accused if they did or will in the future.

Source: Reddit

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