Iraqi Kurdistan in a League of Their Own

Kurdistan Football Association

As the Euro Cup draws attention from the soccer-loving world (read: everyone but the US), another lesser-known competition has just ended. Iraqi Kurdistan beat out Northern Cyprus in the VIVA World Cup. What’s that? You didn’t catch the game? I’ll be honest, I didn’t either. The games were held in Erbil, and though it was the largest contest in VIVA’s six year history, it only featured nine teams. What brought these teams together? Only sub-state nations unrecognized by FIFA are invited to join VIVA (which is always capitalized, though unlike FIFA it is not an acronym). VIVA raises interesting questions about the role non-state actors play on the international stage.

Back in 2008, delegates from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) flew to Cardiff, Wales for a sports conference. Seemingly an unlikely partnership, the Kurds and Welsh both share regional autonomy within a larger, encompassing state. Also present at the conference were experts and representatives from Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Catalonia, Samiland, and England- each a country subsumed, to a greater or lesser extent, into a larger state body. The KRG came looking for pointers on how to create a national culture of sports within Iraqi Kurdistan. Doing so would cement their national identity as separate from the rest of Iraq.

There is precedent for this kind of split identity. For example, while England, Wales, and Northern Ireland are all part of the United Kingdom and form a single Olympic squad, they each compete separately in FIFA events like the World Cup. However Catalonia, home to the fantastically successful FC Barcelona, participates within Spanish national teams for all but the most obscure sports (apologies to fans of korfball). As Iraqi Kurdistan navigates its relationship with the larger Iraqi State, the question of sports teams will eventually need answering. Should Kurdistan compete separately, like Wales, or as part of the whole, like Catalonia?

Though not as dramatic as other challenges facing Iraq, the question of sports identity brings a personal face to the larger question of national identity. While a Kurdish national team may help unify the region and allow Iraqi Kurds a new way to express pride in their identity, it may further alienate them from the rest of Iraq. The current unified Iraqi team brings different groups together, and has been cited as a powerful demonstration of ethnically diverse peoples working towards a common goal. At the same time, many Kurds feel their own regional identity being marginalized. If the team rosters were not proportionally representative of Iraq’s diversity, one could imagine accusations of foul play.

For young people growing up in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, these concerns aren’t abstract hypotheticals. Just like here in the US, sports in Iraq play a large role in identity formation. Which national team your soccer idol plays for really does make a difference. With the enormous influence sports can have, those who organize them have a responsibility to their fans to act cautiously and responsibly. Just as FIFA promotes a “Say No to Racism” campaign, sports fans throughout Iraq must remain mindful of their own message. However this issue is resolved, it should be seen as an opportunity to promote peace and stability. It may just be soccer to us, but for Iraqis this is no game.

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