The Strange Disappearance of Sri Lanka’s Imaginary Handball Team
It was a strange case that made global headlines—a group of men claiming to be Sri Lanka’s National Handball Team vanished without a trace during a tournament in Germany.
But here’s the twist: the Sri Lankan team never existed! This mind-blowing scheme was concocted weeks before the event to illegally emigrate to Italy. How did they pull it off? Read on to discover the shocking truth behind this story and the aftermath of it coming to light.
The Phantom Handball Team: How the Sri Lankan Men Fooled Everyone
Initially, it was a sports exchange program with a noble goal: exposing young Sri Lankans to other cultures through athletics. But what happened was far from laudable.
In 2003, a call came from the founder of the Asian-German Sports Exchange Program about setting up an exhibition match between the German and Sri Lankan national handball teams. Little did he know, the Sri Lankan team that showed up for the photo shoot wearing suits was not a real team.
Humble Beginnings: How the AFSEP Brought Cultures Together Through Sports
The brainchild of Dietmar Doering, the AGSEP aimed to give young Sri Lankans a chance to experience other cultures and foster goodwill through athletics.
Although the phantom handball team incident may have marred the program’s reputation, it doesn’t change how AGSEP played a crucial role in promoting cultural exchange and understanding.
Fake It Till You Make It: Sri Lankan Team's Weeks-Long Charade to Master Handball
The Sri Lankan Sports Ministry hired Athula Wijenayaka, a handball coach, to get the team into good shape. Sadly, with only a few weeks of training, they could not hold themselves against the German team.
The team had practiced several times a week to learn the basics of the game. When the exhibition match finally came, the Sri Lankan team performed its best. Despite their efforts, the German team took over the fame, winning by a whopping score of 36-2. It was indeed a crushing defeat.
From Underdogs to International Contenders: Sri Lanka's Unlikely Rise
After their downfall in the exhibition match against Germany, people didn’t expect much from the Sri Lankan team. However, the unforeseen happened when they were invited to participate in a two-week-long handball tournament in Germany.
Thanks to the AGSEP’s efforts, each Sri Lankan player received visas and arrived in Germany ready to play. In September 2004, the men arrived in Wittislingen, Germany. Despite their background, they were determined to make a name for themselves.
Sights and Sounds of a Memorable Journey
Upon their arrival in Wittislingen, the team had the opportunity to enjoy the country’s culture and traditions. They also had dinner with the German handball players, where they bonded and had a great time singing and dancing.
During their time there, the Sri Lankan team played ten games, showcasing their new skills and determination. It was truly an unforgettable journey for the team.
A Shocking Secret Unveiled After Celebrating with Their German Hosts
After another tough loss, the Sri Lankan team found relief in a night of singing and celebrating with their German hosts. Rapasinghe, a team member, noted the Germans compared the match to the early beginnings of German handball in 1900.
Behind the smiles and laughter, the Sri Lankan team had a secret plan. But what could it be? As Rupasinghe later confessed, they were all prepared to leave early the next morning. What was going on with this team? Read on to find out!
The Team’s Great Escape
In a daring and unexpected move, the team vanished from their hotel at exactly 5 am on September 13, 2004. Chandana, a team member, explained that they all left in groups of two and four and walked in different directions.
He further stated that leaving the hotel in that manner meant that if any of them got caught, they could not disclose where the others were headed. So, the 23-man team left without a trace, leaving nothing but their dirty laundry.
A Mysterious Note and a Trip to France
Initially, the founder of AGSEP, Doering, told the BBC’s Sinhala service that he thought the Sri Lankan team had gone missing in a nearby woods while jogging.
But a note later disclosed the team was headed to France, and they had even crossed into Italy. The reasons for their hasty disappearance remain a puzzle, yet it’s believed the men were seeking asylum in Europe.
Controversy and Theories Surrounding the Team’s Disappearance
Media outlets went into a frenzy when the team vanished from their hotel in Germany. While some accused Doering of masterminding the plan, others suggested that the team was a group of Tamil terrorists smuggled into the country.
But were any of the claims true? According to the team’s founder, only three team members were Tamil, one was Muslim, and the rest were Sinhalese.
Uncovering the Truth Behind the Vanished Handball Team
After the team’s disappearance, the world was left with more questions than answers. When the media outlets reached out to the Sri Lankan Sports Ministry, they couldn’t believe their ears.
Not only was the team not authorized by the ministry, but the organization was clueless about how the team had been formed. Despite this, Doering claimed that an official at the ministry had helped connect his organization with the team’s coach.
Dangerous Allegations Against a Vanished Team
Despite Hemasiri Fernando, president of the Sri Lankan Olympic Association, telling reporters handball was an uncommon sport in the country, Doering still protected the team.
As time went on, claims about the team being a group of terrorists were fueled by the ongoing civil war in Sri Lanka at the time. But Doering kept protecting the Sri Lanka team’s reputation by refuting all allegations. Regardless, that didn’t eliminate the mystery surrounding its disappearance.
Game Over: Visas Revoked and Charges Filed
After the team vanished, the German Embassy in Sri Lanka annulled the visas for all the team members. But that wasn’t all—the team members were also charged with immigration violations.
Thomas Weith, a senior prosecutor, noted that these actions were taken after the Sri Lankan Ministry of Sport verified the team was fake. Thus, the team’s bid for asylum had failed.
Pawned Assets and Broken Dreams
As part of the investigation, German officials contacted the Sri Lankan Embassy in Berlin to get more information about the team. During the process, they uncovered a trail of broken promises and pawned assets.
Each man had pawned their assets in return for guarantees worth 4,700 euros per person to fund the plan. The players’ family members were left to face terrible financial consequences of their loved ones’ failed asylum bid while the men remained on the run.
The Secret Plan Using Handball to Flee Sri Lanka
The team’s disappearance had been carefully calculated before its actual execution. Doering was convinced that Wijenayaka devised the plan to initiate the fake team. Rupasinghe and Chandana were among the men who reached out about joining the team.
In 2002, Chandana received a mysterious call from his older brother, who lived in Italy. His brother told him about the plan to get Chandana a visa so he could come live in Italy. But the plan required them to learn to play handball and join a fake team. Without hesitation, the men agreed, knowing it was their chance for a new life.
A Desperate Escape to Italy
For Chandana, Rupasinghe, and other fake team members, their plan to exit Sri Lanka was a desperate one. They knew they couldn’t hide in shipping containers or take unsafe routes.
So, despite the uncertainties and risks, they formed a fake team and traveled to Germany where they would disappear and finally gain entry into Italy—the men were ready to do all it took to start a new life in a foreign land.
Home Is Where the Heart Is
They say “home is where the heart is.” Despite a successful escape and the start of a new life in Italy, most men returned home within a decade of their disappearance. For Chandana, homesickness and struggles to adapt to a new life led him back Sri Lanka within six months. He eventually asked Doering for forgiveness.
Others, like Rupasinghe, enjoyed success in Italy but returned home in 2008 to support their families. He had a great experience working in an Italian pizzeria, and also retained his visa. The taste of freedom was bittersweet for these men, but they found home was truly where their hearts were.
German Embassy Bans AGSEP From Participating in Sporting Events
In the aftermath of the preplanned disappearance, the German Embassy blacklisted AGSEP from taking part in any future sporting events in the country. It also refused to issue any visas for any Sri Lanka team.
Doering, who had organized exchange programs for 15 years, was let down by the news. He informed the BBC’s Sinhala service that he would no longer invite teams from Sri Lanka.
Motive Behind the Bizarre Sports-Related Story
Originally seen as a dishonest act by the team, it later became evident that the motive behind the disappearance was to support their families back home financially.
Each player provided for an average of five to ten family members, and the chance to earn money in Italy through handball was too tempting to deny. While Doering felt foolish, he better understood the men’s actions. Their motive was survival, not defying AGSEP.
The Real-Life Con That Inspired the Film ‘Machan’
In 2008, the film Machan was released. Directed by Uberto Pasolini, the movie is a fictionalized version of the fake Sri Lankan National Handball Team’s escapade.
The film captured the humor, surrealism, and daring qualities of the real-life hoax that fooled the world. Pasolini said he was attracted to the cleverness and attitude of the team members who pulled off the audacious plan.