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The Entire Sri Lankan Handball Team Vanished In Germany, But Did The Team Even Exist?

April 12, 2023 People's Tonight 2145 views

TGWrites
March 31, 202312 items

In 2004, a group of men claiming to be the Sri Lankan National Handball Team disappeared while participating in a tournament in Germany. Unbeknownst to the organization that had sponsored the trip or the team’s German hosts, there actually was no Sri Lankan National Handball Team. Instead the men, none of whom had any previous experience playing the sport, had been brought together just a few weeks earlier in a plan that would get the men out of Sri Lanka legally, with the goal of emigrating to Italy. This bizarre story became world news, and in 2008, it inspired the film Machan, a fictionalized version of the Sri Lankan handball team saga.

Here are the behind-the-scenes details of how the scheme was put together and carried out, and the fallout when government officials and the team’s sponsor learned of the deception.

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• Photo: Machan / UGC / Yume Pictures / CEL Theaters

A Group Of Sri Lankan Men Formed A Handball Team As Part Of A Sports Exchange Program

The Asian-German Sports Exchange Program’s (AGSEP) purpose was to expose young Sri Lankans to other cultures through sports. In 2003, Dietmar Doering, the founder of the AGSEP, got a call from someone in the Sri Lankan Sports Ministry about setting up an exhibition match between the German and Sri Lankan National Handball teams.

Because AGSEP had been involved in setting up hundreds of matches between German and Sri Lankan teams in various sports since 1989, Doering was only slightly suspicious when the supposed members of the Sri Lankan team showed up for a photo shoot wearing suits. As he recalled to Mel Magazine, “Most athletes I’ve met throughout the years wear gym clothes.”

• Photo: Machan / UGC / Yume Pictures / CEL Theaters

The Team Practiced For Several Weeks To Appear As Though They Knew How To Play Handball

The problem was, Sri Lanka did not have a national handball team. So the Sri Lankan Sports Ministry hired a handball coach named Athula Wijenayaka, who only had a few weeks to prepare his 23-man squad for the exhibition game against the German squad. None of the team members had any previous experience playing handball, so practices were held a few times a week to teach them the basics of the game.

As Chandana, one member of the team, recalled to Mel Magazine, the team was overmatched when they faced the German national team in the exhibition match, “They hammered us 36 to 2. We had no chance at all.”

• Photo: Machan / UGC / Yume Pictures / CEL Theaters

After The Exhibition, The Sri Lankan Team Was Invited To Play In A Two-Week Tournament In Germany

Despite the Sri Lankan team clearly being overmatched, they were invited by Doering and German national team officials to participate in a two-week-long handball tournament in Germany. The AGSEP arranged for every member of the Sri Lankan team to get a visa, and in September 2004, the men arrived in Wittislingen, Germany. The Sri Lankan team was scheduled to play 10 games during the tournament.

Upon their arrival in Germany, the Sri Lankan players did some sightseeing and had dinner with some German handball players.

Rupasinghe, one of the members of the Sri Lankan squad, told Mel Magazine, “We sang and danced and had a great time.”

• Photo: Machan / UGC / Yume Pictures / CEL Theaters

After Their First Game Of The Tournament, The Team Spent The Evening Celebrating With Their Hosts

Although the Sri Lankan squad got shut out in its first game of the tournament, Chandana explained to Mel Magazine that “the Germans didn’t laugh at” them, while Rupasinghe added, “They compared it to the early beginnings of German handball in 1900.”

That night, the two teams again had dinner together, singing and celebrating and having a great time. But what the German hosts didn’t know was that the Sri Lankans had a secret. As Rupasinghe admitted to Mel Magazine, “[I] felt a bit sorry as we all planned to go the next day, very early in the morning.”

• Photo: Machan / UGC / Yume Pictures / CEL Theaters

The Next Morning, The Entire Sri Lankan Team Vanished

At 5 am on September 13, 2004, the entire Sri Lankan National Handball Team snuck out of their hotel in Germany. As Chandana told Mel Magazine:

All of us, in groups of two and four, walked outside in different directions. We didn’t speak to others about where we were heading to.

Chandana explained that, by leaving the hotel in that manner, if any of the men got caught, they would be unable to inform the authorities about where the other men were headed.

Later that day, an AGSEP intern walked into Doering’s office in Sri Lanka. As the organization’s founder remembered it:

He said, ‘Mr. Doering, do you know what happened?’ I said, ‘Don’t tell me that these people have gone.’ Somehow, I could tell by his face that they had.

Doering later told the BBC’s Sinhala service, “We initially thought the team had got lost in nearby woods while jogging,” but that a note had been found claiming that the 23-man team was headed to France and, “we now know they crossed into Italy.”

He added that they “even left their dirty laundry.”

• Photo: Machan / UGC / Yume Pictures / CEL Theaters

Some Of The Media Reporting On The Disappearance Accused The Team Of Being Terrorists

When the world media learned of the team’s disappearance, some accused Doering of executing the plan. Fox News went another direction, suggesting that the missing men weren’t handball players at all, but rather Tamil terrorists who had been smuggled into Germany.

At the time Sri Lanka was embroiled in a civil war between the Sinhalese and a separatist group known as the Tamil Tigers. But according to Doering, only three members of the team were Tamil. One was Muslim, and the rest were Sinhalese.

• Photo: Machan / UGC / Yume Pictures / CEL Theaters

The Sri Lankan Sports Ministry Said The Team Never Existed And That Its Formation ‘Was A Mystery’

Numerous media outlets reached out to the Sri Lankan Sports Ministry to get the organization’s reaction to the handball team’s disappearance. They were told that not only was the trip to the tournament not authorized by the Sports Ministry, but the organization was unaware of how the handball team had even been formed. As Sri Lankan Olympic Association president Hemasiri Fernando told reporters, handball was not a popular sport in the country.

But Doering insisted, “A director of the sports ministry knew,” and claimed that it had been an official at the ministry who had connected AGSEP with Wijenayaka in the first place.

• Photo: Machan / UGC / Yume Pictures / CEL Theaters

German Officials Revoked The Visas And Charged The Men With Violating Immigration Laws

Shortly after the team’s disappearance, the German Embassy in Sri Lanka retroactively canceled the visas for all 23 members of the team.

The men were also charged with violating immigration laws. Senior prosecutor Thomas Weith told the media that these actions were taken after the Sri Lankan Ministry of Sport confirmed the German officials’ belief that the handball team was fake.

As part of the investigation, German officials contacted the Sri Lankan Embassy in Berlin in an attempt to get more information about the men who had disappeared. Back in Sri Lanka, meanwhile, police questioned the players’ family members.

Doering told reporters that the players’ family members were facing “terrible financial consequences” since the men had pawned their assets in return for guarantees of as much as 4,700 euros (approximately $5,400) per person in order to fund the plan.

• Photo: Machan / UGC / Yume Pictures / CEL Theaters

The Team Fled To Italy To Start New Lives

The disappearance of the Sri Lankan handball team had been planned far in advance of its actual execution. Doering believed it was Wijenayaka who came up with the actual plan to form the fake team in order to get legal visas for the men to leave Sri Lanka. Chandana and Rupasinghe were among the men contacted about joining the “team.”

Back in 2002, Chandana got a phone call from his older brother, who lived in Italy. His brother told him that there was a plan to get Chandana a visa so he could come live in Italy, where there was a large Sri Lankan ex-pat population, but that the plan would cost $4,000 and require him to learn how to play handball.

That same year, Rupasinghe received a call from an old friend who had a similar plan to get the 23-year-old to be able to legally join his relatives in Italy. His friend asked him, “Have you ever heard of a game called handball?”

Rupasinghe’s relatives had gotten to Italy by hiding in a shipping container, but he had heard of others who had died from suffocation when attempting a similar voyage. He knew his parents wouldn’t allow him to make that kind of dangerous attempt to leave the country. But, like Chandana, he was eager to try and leave the country legally with the visa he would receive by playing handball.

As Chandana recalled to Mel Magazine about the day the team disappeared from the hotel in Germany:

We knew from our relatives and friends, once we reached Italy there was no way of sending us back, 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.

• Photo: Machan / UGC / Yume Pictures / CEL Theaters

Within 10 Years Of Their ‘Disappearance,’ Most Of The Team’s Members Had Returned To Sri Lanka

More than half of the team members returned to Sri Lanka within 10 years of their “disappearance.” Some, like Chandana – who only stayed in Italy for six months – struggled to adapt to their new life. As he explained to Mel Magazine:

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 returned to Sri Lanka in 2008, although he had a happier experience in Italy than his teammate and retained his visa so he could return to the country whenever he wished. He said:

I was [in Italy] for four years working in a pizzeria as a pizza baker. It was a good income, and I could support my family in Sri Lanka, who are very poor.

• Photo: Machan / UGC / Yume Pictures / CEL Theaters

The German Embassy Blacklisted The Exchange Program From Participating In Sporting Events

In the aftermath of this incident, the German Embassy banned AGSEP from participating in any future sporting events in the country and refused to issue any more visas for teams from Sri Lanka.

Doering, who had successfully had various Sri Lankan teams take part in his exchange program for 15 years, was disheartened by the planned disappearance of the handball team. He told the BBC’s Sinhala service:

This will be the last time we will be doing this. I am not planning to invite any more teams from Sri Lanka.

He even thought about suing each of the members of the team because, as he told Mel Magazine, “They made me look like a fool.” But as the years passed, he developed a better understanding of the reasons behind the team’s actions; on average, each of the players financially supported between five to 10 family members in Sri Lanka.

Survival and making a better life for themselves and their families – not defrauding AGSEP or anyone else – was the motive behind one of the stranger sports-related stories of the early 2000s.

• Photo: Machan / UGC / Yume Pictures / CEL Theaters

The 2008 Film ‘Machan’ Is A Fictionalized Version Of These Events

In 2008, a film titled Machan was released. Directed by Uberto Pasolini, it is a fictionalized re-telling of the events surrounding the disappearance of this fake Sri Lankan National Handball Team. Pasolini told The Guardian (U.K.):

I was attracted to the cleverness and the ‘f***-you’ attitude of the people who did this. There is so much humor and daring and a surreal quality to this scam. People who had never played handball before had to put together a team and be convincing. They had to get the uniforms and arrange the trip. Someone had to have a sense of humor to do this. It’s too surreal, too absurd.

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