British Columbia

Soccer organizer facing extra scrutiny after inviting Tibetan women's team to tournament

The Tibetan woman's soccer team which was denied entry to the United States could now be facing problems in Canada.

'I believe they are trying to find something to prevent the team from playing'

The organizer of the Vancouver International Soccer Festival believes he is coming under extra scrutiny for inviting a team of Tibetan women in exile. (Tibet Women's Soccer)

After being denied entry to the United States and a prestigious tournament in Dallas, the Tibetan woman's soccer team was thrilled to accept an invitation to the Vancouver International Soccer Festival instead. 

But it appears team Tibet could now be facing problems playing in Canada too.

Tournament founder Adri Hamael says the Canadian Soccer Association has suddenly started asking for all kinds of additional paperwork, including travel documents for the Tibetan players and a copy of the tournament rules. 

Team Tibet players in their team jerseys. FIFA does not recognize Tibet. (Tibet Women's Soccer)

An email sent by the B.C. Soccer Association on behalf of the CSA also suggested that non-compliance with the requests may affect the insurance status of the tournament, which is set to begin July 7.

Hamael says he's always had a good relationship with the B.C. Soccer Association and has never had any dealings with the CSA. He calls the requests "strange" and unprecedented in his 13 years of organizing the event.

"I believe they are trying to find something to prevent the team from playing," he said.

'A bit sinister'

"I find it a bit sinister, if you will,  that after this many years they want to look at my rules and are subjecting me to this much scrutiny. I know it's because of team Tibet, but they won't say it."​

Tibet is not recognized by FIFA, the world governing body for soccer, and Hamael worries that is what's driving the CSA's sudden interest in the Vancouver International Soccer Festival.

"I suspect a big country is putting the pressure on the Canadian Soccer Association saying this team shouldn't play under the name Tibet," he said.

CBC News requested an interview with an official from the CSA but has not heard back.

The Tibetan team is made up of 14 players age 16 to 20 who are part of a humanitarian outreach program teaching soccer to Tibetan girls living in exile in Nepal and India.

Tibet is considered an autonomous region of China, but that status is contentious. The country was invaded by China in 1951 and its leader, the Dalai Lama, exiled in 1959.

'They already know that'

One of the requests Soccer Canada has made of Hamael is for copies of  travel papers issued to the Tibetan players by their national association, even though no national association exists — something Soccer Canada would likely be aware of.

"One hundred per cent they already know that team Tibet isn't affiliated with a national organization. The world knows — they were on ABC, BBC and NBC — they know the conflict this team has," said Hamael.

Team Tibet received international media attention when players were denied U.S. tourist visas to attend an international youth tournament in Dallas earlier this year.

The Tibet women's soccer team poses for a team photo. (Tibet Women's Soccer)

The story motivated Hamael to offer the women a spot in the Vancouver International Soccer Festival. Team Tibet crowdfunded $20,000 to cover travel expenses and another $11,000 has been raised locally to pay for food, hotel and other expenses. 

Hamael says it's been difficult communicating with the CSA and B.C. Soccer Association.

He says regardless of the outcome, team Tibet is still scheduled to arrive in a week, and the tournament will still go ahead as planned.

"I really am nervous of any last minute surprises. I fear they will take our sanction away, perhaps to satisfy FIFA or whoever is pressuring them," he said. 

"It's just really alarming with one week to go."