Photos By Safin Hamid/Metrography
Kurdish fans came out in full force to support the home team.
This summer most of the developed world excitedly watched Euro 2012 and qualifying matches for the World Cup in the comfort of air conditioning, guzzling pints and releasing beer farts into couch cushions. But in Darfur, Sri Lanka, Zanzibar, Western Sahara, Northern Cyprus, the Provence region of France, and a handful of other places, all eyes were on Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where the fifth VIVA World Cup was held in June.
The event is a biennial soccer tournament organized by the Non-FIFA board (better known as the NF Board) and the top competition for teams not recognized by the international soccer establishment. Twenty-seven of the NF Board’s members hail from autonomous countries, but the majority represent stateless nations.
The VIVA Cup, like many international tournaments, is ostensibly about unity, peace, and goodwill, but the athletes are also enormously proud to represent their micronations and regions. And while everyone can agree that good feelings are nice, winning is much better. Impressively, Darfur’s team of refugees qualified to compete in the tournament (and though they lost their first two games by a combined score of 33–0, they did score a goal against Western Sahara). In the final, Kurdistan beat Northern Cyprus 2–1.
A month after the games concluded, I spoke with Muhammed Askari, a die-hard Kurdish fan, and Mark Hodson, the head coach of Darfur United, to see how they felt about the games, soccer, and national pride.
A player for Kurdistan shoots against Darfur United.
Muhammed Askari is a 26-year-old journalist from south Kurdistan.
VICE: Were you excited when Kurdistan was named cup host?
Muhammed Askari: Of course! I think every Kurd was psyched to host the cup and to welcome the visiting nations. There were nine teams this year, more than ever before. Most were from Europe, but since word went out that we’d be hosting, we knew we had to win, especially since we lost to Padania in 2010.
What was the atmosphere like at the games?
All the Kurds went wild. To hear our own team sing our anthem, wear our uniform with the flag on it and everything… it’s every Kurd’s dream. I personally don’t identify myself as an Iraqi and I think a lot of Kurds abroad—we’re in four countries in the Middle East—feel the same thing. It’s kind of a bummer.
Do you think this is the beginning of a more internationally recognized Kurdistan?
It’s the beginning of something big for Kurdistan and for the soccer team. Myself, I’d like to think FIFA will take this as a chance to welcome Kurdistan into international play, in the same way Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have been.
That seems totally reasonable.
Yeah, Kurdistan is different from Iraq. It’s trees, rocks, nature; Iraq’s all desert. We’re happy to have hosted the tournament—we love visitors and tourists. Kurdistan has been a self-sufficient region for a couple decades now; we’ve got our own government and security forces. Unlike our Muslim neighbors, we don’t have a specific religion. We’re very open.
The way politics work out on the field is kind of odd—some players on the Kurdish team also play for Iraq, right?
Well, Halgurd Mulla Mohammed, who I think was the best player in the tournament, also played for the Iraqi national team. It’s the same with Khalid Mushir. But I feel like they’re more psyched to represent Kurdistan than Iraq, and the same goes for the rest of the team. They played with passion, since they knew they wouldn’t have another chance to represent their country at home. They made the home fans happy.