Soccer Festival brings Team Tibet, inclusion to Empire Field

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      This weekend marks the 13th year of the Vancouver International Soccer Festival and the tournament has been making headlines for featuring an unlikely contender.

      Indeed, among the amateur teams in the tourney is a women’s squad from Tibet.

      The 14 women, age 16 to 20, all Tibetan refugees living in India or Nepal, were initially supposed to be guests of the Dallas Cup, an international youth soccer tournament in Texas, but their visa applications were denied by the American government.

      That’s when Adri Hamael, founder and executive director of the VISF, picked up the phone.

      “It was all over the news that Team Tibet was denied entry to play in the Dallas Cup, and the wheels started turning in my head,” says Hamael over the phone to the Straight. "Number one, I was really angry about it because how much threat are 15 Tibetan women to the United States of America? Or anyone? So my anger gave up to ‘I need to get this team to come to Canada.’ "

      At the time Hamael wasn’t aware how challenging it would be to arrange for the women to travel to Canada and play. Getting the women visas was made easier due to help from the Canadian embassy.

      “Our government opened their arms and said ‘Yes.’ I was kind of shocked.”

      With the fundraising for the plane trip already in place due to the expected flight to Dallas, Hamael said that the tournament covered the rest of the costs.

      “They fundraised for their own plane tickets. These girls aren’t just a charity case, they worked hard to prepare for the Dallas Cup, including raising $20,000 for their plane tickets. I offered to pay for all other expenses. They are staying with us for two weeks, we are paying for their accommodation, their training facilities, food, transportation, which is a significant cost.”

      It wasn’t all easy, however, as Hamael cut ties with both the B.C. Soccer Association and Canadian Soccer Association over what he brands as “unnecessary scrutiny”.

      “I just think it’s against our principles to single out one team and say ‘this team needs a special permit to play in a tournament, when inclusion is the core value of what we do,” says Hamael.

      “Why aren’t you asking me for this on all other participating teams? They were asking me for documents I cannot provide. Because there are no Tibetan football federations accredited and affiliated with FIFA. So I regretfully cancelled my sanctioning with the B.C. and Canadian soccer associations and moved forward."

      In all, the team will be in Vancouver for two weeks. So far, the team has spent the first several days practising with Canadian soccer legend Andrea Neil and touring around the city.

      And while it’s the first time a women's team from Tibet has faced international competition, the VISF was started on a platform of trying to include players from different nations on its fields, no matter their country’s geopolitical status.

      “I started it explicitly to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” says Hamael, a Palestinian-Canadian himself. “It started with bringing teams from Israel and Palestine and, instead of pitting them against each other, we formed a team of half-Palestinians, half-Israelis, where they played as one team united against all ethnic local teams and First Nations.”

      That first tournament was played at Connaught Park with eight teams. The 13th edition takes place at Empire Field with 30 different cultures represented.

      While most fly under the moniker of a specific country, there are also teams representing the Musqueam First Nation and last year’s women’s champs, the Native Indian Football Association. There’s also a Newcomer team, which features refugees from the last year or two.

      One thing you won’t find is a team of all men, explains Hamael.

      “We used to have men’s teams, but I wanted to promote peace and men can be very intense.”

      The Vancouver International Soccer Festival kicks off on Saturday and Sunday (July 8 and 9) at Empire Field. 

      Follow @ncaddell on Twitter.