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Kurdistan football takes the international stage

SUN, 10 JUN 2012 13:39 | Rudaw

The Kurdistan team before their 2-1 victory against Northern Cyprus
By Hermione Gee

Erbil, Kurdistan Region - They might support different teams, but one thing Nawzad Hadi, Governor of Erbil, and Turkish Consul General to Erbil Aydın Selcem can agree on is that last night’s VIVA World Cup final was more than just a football match.

“The important thing is that the game is in Kurdistan,” Hadi told Rudaw during half-time at Erbil’s Franso Hariri Stadium. “It’s the first time we’ve received international teams here. We are happy because we are part of Iraq but at the same time you can see the football is going well, with the people, the security, the media – you can see how Kurdistan has developed; it’s a normal place like everywhere else.”

The tournament is also the first time Northern Cyprus has been able to play at the international level. “Football has no boundaries, football should not be political," says Aydın Selcen who joined Hadi and other officials in the stadium’s VIP box, "[but] the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is denied the right to play any games outside their country; so it’s a good opportunity for them.”

And that’s the idea behind the VIVA league, according to Christian Michels, President and Founding Member of the Nouvelle Federation Board, which organizes the biennial VIVA World Cup.

“VIVA is a tournament for football associations which are not members of [football’s international governing body] FIFA. So it’s for nations, territories, peoples, islands – it’s open to all these territories which are not able to play in FIFA. [It’s driven by] passion, passion for football – to allow these people to play at the international level.”

Judging by the size and enthusiasm of last night’s 10,000-strong crowd, Kurdistan’s soccer fans are delighted to be on the world stage. Chants, horns, drums, and applause rang through the stadium almost continuously from the moment the game kicked off, all accompanied by thousands of waving Kurdish flags, the colors of which adorn the national team’s uniforms.

But nationalist fervor didn’t stop the fans from politely applauding the Turkish national anthem when it was played at the opening of the game, despite the ongoing conflict between Turkey’s government and the country’s Kurdish minority.

“That was fantastic for us,” says Michels. “It’s incredible to be in Kurdistan and hear the Turkish national anthem. We want people to know each other and we want friendship between people; we try to give them the opportunity to play football without politics in football, so that was a great moment for us.”

It was a great moment for the whole country when Kurdistan took the win 2-1, Aziz Hussein Sozdan, an elderly man wearing full Kurdish dress, told Rudaw:

“All the people of Iraq won this match – the Kurds and Arabs and Turkmen. We need Kurdistan to rise up because Saddam crushed us.”

For the younger generation, last night’s victory might not be as resonant, but it’s no less sweet. “I am happy,” said one teenage boy squashed up against the fence to get a better view of the medal ceremony, “very happy.”

And so is Governor Hadi. “Of course! Of course,” he said after the game. “The important thing is that it’s sport, but every team plays to win.”