Tue. Jun 18th, 2024

For Kate, seeing her team play was a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experience. It also caused a stir

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun4,2024
Almost 10 years ago, Kate Durnell found herself in a packed stadium in Saudi Arabia watching her beloved football team.
She was 20 years old, and the only female fan in a small group to travel from Australia for the second leg of the Asian Champions League final. The Western Sydney Wanderers were playing Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal.
At the time, Saudi women were not allowed to spectate at football matches — part of a series of restrictions against women in the ultra-conservative Muslim country (some of which have since been lifted).
The restriction on attending matches was lifted for the final in the capital Riyadh as part of an agreement with the governing football body.
“I can’t believe I did it,” Durnell, now 30, told SBS News.

“I went into it naively — I was only 20 at the time, so forgive me! But looking back, I’m astounded that ‘past Kate’, as I like to call her, dove straight in … if anything was going to hold us back, we weren’t going to be upset, but it was something that we wanted to try and do.”

A woman sits in a football stadium stand.

Wanderers fan Kate Durnell appears in the new SBS documentary, Came From Nowhere. Source: SBS News

Durnell appears in the new SBS documentary, Came From Nowhere, which charts the rapid rise of the A-League’s controversial Western Sydney Wanderers from having no players or name to winning the Asian Champions League in the space of two years.

Also featured are former players, former Socceroos captain turned broadcaster and SBS commentator Craig Foster, former Wanderers chief executive John Tsatismas and other superfans, including former Australian Idol judge Ian “Dicko” Dickson.

‘Once in a lifetime’

Durnell had responded to an expression of interest from the club to attend the final in the Saudi capital.
She recalls getting her first passport, and a visa, along with requesting permission from the Asian Football Confederation and the Saudi royal family to attend with her father.
She also remembers the media attention — some of which focused on “the dangers” of her journey.
“I don’t think I was fearful — maybe just [feeling] trepidation of what would happen,” she said.

“But I was very lucky that once it was announced that I was going, a bunch of Saudi Arabian fans reached out to me on Twitter [now X] and were very welcoming, which was really nice and put me at ease.”

When Durnell arrived at King Fahd stadium alongside other fans, including Dickson, she said there were “a lot of eyes on all of us”.
“It was a bunch of Australian fans walking in amongst 60,000 Al-Hilal fans. It was quite the spectacle,” she said.
Durnell said the reception from fans was “inquisitive but positive”.
“I wanted to remain as respectful as possible to all of it,” she said, adding she felt “pretty safe the entire time”.
“[It was] a once in a lifetime … I look back on it so fondly.”

The Wanderers’ 0-0 draw in Saudia Arabia followed a first-leg 1-0 win the week before in Sydney and meant they were crowned champions of Asia.

Football players celebrate a win.

Western Sydney Wanderers players celebrate after winning the Asian Champions League Final second leg soccer match with a 0-0 draw against Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal at King Fahd stadium in 2014. Source: AAP / AP

The club’s beginnings

Durnell has been a fan of the Wanderers since the start.
Growing up in western Sydney, she wasn’t tied to any of the clubs that kicked off the launch of the national football competition, the A-League, in 2005.
The league was missing a team from the western suburbs.
After a series of events, which included billionaire Clive Palmer’s Gold Coast United A-League licence being revoked, the Wanderers came along seven years later.
The official club name, logo and colours were announced in June 2012 following consultation with fans.
“I didn’t go to the first few games, but heard a lot about them. I wanted to see if it was something I could be drawn to,” Durnell said.

“My best friend and I went to one game in the first season, and we were sold instantly. We haven’t stopped going since.”

Football fans at a match.

The documentary explores the Wanderers’ passionate and sometimes contentious fan base. Source: Supplied / Eric Berry

Durnell said she was drawn to the game-day experience, and the team’s diverse fan base.

“It was this undeniably emotional experience. It was more than just watching a game of football,” she said.

“The football was excellent and we had an incredible team at the time, but it was so much more than that.”

The fans: ‘Violent hooligans’ or impassioned football fans?

Among the Wanderers fan base is western Sydney grandmother and retired high school principal, Judith O’Brien — a former prominent member of the club’s controversial active supporter group, known as the Red and Black Bloc (RBB).
“I was called ‘Mama RBB’, and as I got older, ‘grandma RBB’,” she says in the documentary.
O’Brien is also known as the ‘Lozenge Lady’ as she used to hand out lozenges to RBB members to help their voices get through matches.
“None of this ‘we only get noisy when we are winning or when we get a goal’. It’s got to be out and out, heartfelt support for the length of the game,” she says.
From the start, RBB members have attracted some negative attention from politicians, police and the media over anti-social behaviour.
“I think the Wanderers fans at times have overstepped the line because they look to Europe and say, that’s what the culture is,” Foster says in the documentary.

“I don’t support the ultras who come and abuse coaches or abuse teams. I don’t want that culture here. I don’t support it.”

A man sits in a chair for an interview.

Craig Foster appears in the SBS documentary, Came From Nowhere. Source: SBS News

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” says journalist Michael Visontay.

“I’m sure that there are a number of fans who have crossed the line, who have gone too far.
“But Sydney FC fans have done the same thing, and it hasn’t gained them a reputation.”
As a sports lover, Durnell agrees.
“There’s nothing that I have seen at an A-League game that I haven’t also seen in an NRL or AFL game,” she told SBS News.

“There’s obviously bad apples in every code, and every supporter base. But when something happens in an A-League game, it’s top of the news.”

A chance to say ‘this belongs to us’

Chilean-Australian Pia Gabriel has always been around music.
After her parents migrated to Australia from Chile in the 1980s, she has lived in western Sydney her whole life.
“I’ve always played music growing up, always been around [it],” she says.
Gabriel is a drummer in the RBB’s “La Banda”, a percussion ensemble that plays throughout their matches.
From the start, she said “every ethnic group you can think of was involved”.
“When the official talk started coming up again for the Wanderers, this [was] a chance to say that this belongs to me. This belongs to us.

“It was a chance to showcase our culture.”

Western Sydney is one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse regions in Australia. Just over 40 per cent of the population was born overseas, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2021 Census.
For Durnell, the team “epitomises everything that we feel in the west”.
“We’re world-beaters, and given the chance and the right circumstances, I think we’ll be back to our winning ways,” she said.
“I think that will also breathe life back into the west.”

Came From Nowhere premieres 7.30pm on Sunday 26 May on SBS and SBS On Demand.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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One thought on “For Kate, seeing her team play was a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experience. It also caused a stir”
  1. As a die-hard football fan myself, I can only imagine the incredible emotions Kate must have felt being the lone female supporter in that stadium. It takes courage to break barriers like that, and I have so much respect for her ‘past self’ for diving into such a unique experience!

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