This piece first aired in June, 2010, as part of the show, “Absent Aid”
Host Intro: This summer, 32 countries from around the world will participate in the FIFA world cup. Countless more tried to make the tournament in qualifying matches. But, for Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region in Northern Iraq, the chance to participate in the FIFA world cup does not exist. Kyle Crawford reports.
KYLE CRAWFORD: For years Kurds have dreamed of an independent country of their own. Most countries take for granted the ability to compete in international sporting events like the FIFA world cup. So together Iraqi Kurdistan and other nations not recognized as independent countries participated in the VIVA world cup. The VIVA world cup is organized by the New Federation Board which is an umbrella association for nations unaffiliated with FIFA. Mohammed Askari, an avid Kurdish sports fan living in Abu Dhabi talked about why Iraqi Kurdistan and other regions who see themselves as independent are not allowed to participate in the FIFA world cup.
MOHAMMED ASKARI: There is an article in the FIFA law and statutes. It’s article 10 as far as I remember. Which says that only an independent state recognized by the international community can participate in FIFA events that includes the World Cup and that includes friendly matches as well.
KYLE CRAWFORD: This year was the 4th ever VIVA World Cup and it took place in Gozo, Malta, an island off the coast of Italy. The tournament was last held in Padania, a region of Northern Italy, where Padania defeated Kurdistan in the final. For many Kurds the tournament is a unique chance to celebrate their own identity.
MOHAMMED ASKARI: It’s just an indescribable feeling of joy you get when you watch your players singing the national anthem before a football match and having Kurdistan flag around them or near them. I remember the first that I watched the game because Kurdistan TV did show our first game.
MOHAMMED ASKARI: It sounds crazy probably, but if you ask me which is more important to me the FIFA world cup or VIVA world cup. I’d definitely say VIVA.
KYLE CRAWFORD: The Kurdish team first participated in the VIVA world cup when the Sami – a group of people who live in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia – hosted the tournament back in 2008. Askari says watching his home team play for the first time was incredible.
MOHAMMED ASKARI: They broadcasted the game live and I remember that I made sure to come back home two hours prior to that match and it was just like a literally felt Goosebumps to watch these players stand there and sing the national anthem. I didn’t care about the result I thought even if we lost 10-nil who cares. It’s just the feeling that you get. We’re playing football; competing international events and we’re trying to show the world who we are. It’s just an incredible feeling. I really can’t describe it.
KYLE CRAWFORD: Estimates put the number of Kurds around the world at between 25 and 30 million. They live in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. But only in Iraq do the Kurds have a form of self-governance. Dastan Shervani is a sports journalist who lives in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and he describes what makes the Kurdish people so unique.
DASTAN SHERVANI: We are the Kurds. We have our language, our own history our own culture our own society our own economy our own government. Everything is our own.
KYLE CRAWFORD: But the Kurds know that attaining independence will be very difficult.
DASTAN SHERVANI: Well, With regards to independence it is not easy to get independence because we are surrounded by I can call them four enemies because Iran doesn’t want us to get independence and Iraq the same, Syria the same and Turkey the same.
KYLE CRAWFORD: Since Kurdish independence will be so difficult to achieve, watching the Kurdish National Soccer team participate in the VIVA world cup is one way Kurds can express their independence to the world.
DASTAN SHERVANI: We dream of our national team which is the Kurdish national team but so far because of political interests, we couldn’t have this national team. So it is better for us to participate in a tournament like this because at least this is a team that represents Kurdistan, and raises Kurdistan’s national flag.
KYLE CRAWFORD: Shervani went on to explain the importance of the tournament for aspirations of Kurdish independence.
DASTAN SHERVANI: There are some political goals in participating in this tournament. We want to show the world that we have our team. We have our own language our own region, our own stadium our own team our own players so we should get independence because we deserve it.
KYLE CRAWFORD: After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Many Kurds saw major changes in their lives. They achieved much greater independence after decades of struggle and oppression under Saddam’s regime. Kurdish sports have been able to thrive recently.
DASTAN SHERVANI: Sport in general and football especially has developed, as well, because before the sport organizations were controlled by Saddam and his sons and they were not allowing Kurdish teams to get any, any, any accomplishments but now we get our freedom so we achieve what we deserve.
KYLE CRAWFORD: Iraqi Kurdistan made it to the championships of the VIVA World Cup for the second year in a row but they lost 1-0 to the team from Padania, the same team they lost to in the championship of the previous tournament.
Supporters of the Iraqi Kurdish team are looking forward to 2012, the next time the VIVA world cup will be held. This time the tournament will be held in Kurdistan.
DASTAN SHERVANI: And we are really happy for this decision because it will be a great event maybe the greatest sports event in the history of Kurdistan.
KYLE CRAWFORD: Askari the Kurdish sports fan echoes this view.
MOHAMMED ASKARI: we’ve won the 2012 world cup and its so great that we’re looking forward to it really, to have all these nations come to Kurdistan, to see themselves that this region is capable of being independent.
KYLE CRAWFORD: Hosting the VIVA world cup is something many Kurds are looking forward to. However, as Shervani says this is not enough. He explains that he has hopes of Kurdistan competing in the FIFA world cup, one day, the same tournament that soccer power houses like Brazil, Italy and France compete in.
DASTAN SHERVANI: But as a Kurd of course that is my dream to see Kurdistan national team participating in this tournament even if it is in 100 years, I don’t care. That is my dream and the dream of all Kurds.
KYLE CRAWFORD: Whether independence is achieved or not, what is clear is that the Kurds are a distinct and proud people who love soccer. Iraqi Kurds look forward to the next VIVA world cup where they hope to raise the championship trophy and celebrate a victory that is about more than sports. In the weeks ahead, though, Kurds will have to watch on as the world cup takes place in South Africa without a team of their own.
For War News Radio, I’m Kyle Crawford.