Visa hurdles limit Wanderers fans at ACL final
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — The Asian Football Confederation says it has no power to intervene in visa issues for fans amid reports that only 14 Western Sydney Wanderers supporters — including one woman — were traveling to the Saudi capital for the final of the continental club championship.
Saudi Arabia has strict visa guidelines that can make it difficult for women traveling unaccompanied, and for Jewish visitors or people who have visited Israel.
Australian media has reported that Western Sydney’s chairman Paul Lederer, who is Jewish, would likely receive diplomatic access for the match. The Wanderers won the first leg 1-0 of the Asian Champions League final at home against two-time champion Al Hilal, with one section of the crowd at Parramatta full of fans from the Saudi club.
Leading Australian football commentator and former FIFA Ethics Committee member Les Murray said the AFC’s code of ethics bans signatory countries and football federations from discriminating on the basis of nationality, race and gender and that should be adhered to.
Several hundred Western Sydney fans initially expressed interest in traveling for the return match in Riyadh, but few were able to successfully negotiate the strict and complex visa requirements.
“With regard to visa applications to Saudi Arabia, the AFC trusts the host country’s relevant authorities will handle the matter professionally,” AFC spokesman Mohd Syazwan Mohd Mokhtar said in a statement to The Associated Press. “The AFC monitors the visa application of officials from the concerned member associations and clubs in facilitating the entry visa process. The AFC is not involved with entry visa applications of fans.”
Kate Durnell, reportedly the only female Wanderers fan traveling from Sydney to attend the match, said she was able to travel to Riyadh because she was travelling with her father. She will be allowed to sit with the other visiting fans, whereas female supporters at games in Saudi Arabia often have to sit in a different section of the stadium.
“Being the only female supporter going is obviously intimidating, but the excitement outweighs the nerves tenfold, and going with my Dad is obviously a bit more comforting,” the 20-year-old Durnell told Fox Sports Australia on Tuesday.
“Having only been on my first flight a year ago, my first interstate away game at the start of the year and this being my first trip out of the country, this is definitely going to be an experience,” she said. “I hope to represent Western Sydney, Australia and all female football fans as best I can.”
The AFC said in its statement that any visitors should “respect the local cultures and rules especially with regard to the appropriate clothing and conduct in public places of the host country.”
Despite only existing for two seasons, the Wanderers have attracted a large, devoted and passionate group of supporters mainly from the largely multicultural areas on the fringe of Australia’s biggest city.
Earlier this week Murray, commenting on earlier reports in Fairfax newspapers, said all football and sporting bodies should put pressure on Saudi Arabia to loosen its visa requirements for fans traveling to major sports events.
“But applying that kind of pressure takes guts from the governing bodies, something they have not always demonstrated,” Murray said in his blog on the SBS network website.
“International sporting bodies, especially FIFA, love to claim that their sports are catalysts for enhancing human harmony, equality and peace. It’s time they backed those words with action.”
Football Federation Australia spokesman David Mason told The AP from Sydney that while FFA contacted Saudi Arabian football officials to organize visas for their delegation and teams, it had no jurisdiction over anyone from outside of that group who planned to attend.
“This is Saudi government policy, and we have no way of changing that for a football match,” Mason said.
The Wanderers did not respond to telephone and email requests for comment. The Wanderers, aiming to be the first Australian club to win the Asian title, were due to leave Sydney on Tuesday night.
AP Sports Writer Dennis Passa contributed to this report from Australia.