Visa flap may sink World Cup qualifying match for Guam
HAGATNA, Guam (AP) Visas for members of the Guam national soccer team to enter Iran have been delayed two weeks ahead of a qualifying match, leaving a Guam official to say political tensions between the U.S. and the Islamic republic shouldn't affect sports.
Matao, the national soccer team for the U.S. territory of Guam, is scheduled to play Iran on Sept. 3 in a Group D World Cup qualifying match, but the team has struggled to get the necessary visas.
Guam Football Association President Richard K. Lai said the Iran Football Association has been giving them ''the run-around,'' and if the situation doesn't get straightened out soon, the lack of visas could keep Guam players out of Iran.
Guam began the process of obtaining visas to Iran in June and was told only recently by the association that it would take 21 days to first obtain an authorization code to get their passports stamped with visas, Lai said.
They were told that would initially take seven days, and Matao planned a training camp in Qatar the week before match with Iran, he said.
''We asked them to forward all the reference numbers to the Iranian Embassy in Qatar. They said that was not possible because the training camp is only five days and then it takes seven days to get the visa,'' Lai said.
The team then sent the passports to the Guam's congressional delegate in Washington, D.C., to process the passports through the Pakistani Embassy, which handles Iranian interests in the U.S. since the two countries don't have formal ties.
But Guam officials this week decided to change the location of the training camp to Japan, and suddenly asked that the passports be returned so they can gain entry for the camp in Osaka.
Lai is hopeful the Iran Football Association, its travel sponsor to the Islamic republic, steps in and Iran grants visas to the players upon arrival.
''They gave a visa upon arrival for our national team in 2003 when we lost to them 19-0,'' he said. ''Why can't they give us visa upon arrival today?''
The Asian Football Confederation said in an emailed statement that its understanding is that the Iran Football Federation was preparing the visas to be sent to a third country by Friday.
Lai was uncertain what the ramifications would be if the game is not played Sept. 3.
''That is something FIFA and AFC need to decide; how to remedy the situation. Maybe we schedule the match to play somewhere else. I don't know,'' he said.
FIFA, the organizing body for the World Cup, did not respond to a request for comment, and there was no way to leave a message after-hours Thursday at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington.
''I know that the United States and the Iran country have political (differences) but it should not affect the player to get a visa to play football,'' Lai said.
Matao has had a thrilling ride during recent 2018 World Cup qualifying matches. At its home stadium in Guam, 5,000 spectators cheered as the Guam team beat India and Turkmenistan in June.
Guam's next home game is set for Sept. 8, when it hosts Oman.
About 160,000 people live on Guam, an island about 3,800 miles west of Hawaii. Its residents are U.S. citizens, but they can't cast ballots for the country's president.