The football club that’s also a ‘country’
In a plot that even Swedish writer Henning Mankell might have thought too far fetched, a small football club based in the county of Dalarna — a three-hour drive northwest of Stockholm — has become a "national team" for millions of Kurdish people around the world. It's a club that's given the Kurdish diaspora plenty to cheer about.Set up by Kurdish immigrants in 2004, Dalkurd FF has been so successful that it's on the verge of reaching Sweden's premier division after five successive promotions. Such is the global interest in the club's fortunes that one Facebook page devoted to the team has grown to more than 1.5 million followers."What the team has managed to create is both a team that has its ties very much to the locality but also allows supporters from the entire Kurdish diaspora to support it," Iraqi-Kurdish author Agri Ismail, who is based in Sweden, told CNN Sport."Rather than support a Stockholm team, I can support Dalkurd because they are 'my' team, even if I've never been to Dalarna."It allows for a communal space, away from the traditional spheres where minority identities are upheld such as politics or religion, a new way to celebrate Kurdishness."This is different from the usual reasons behind supporting a team, which is either based on locality or the team's success. Most Kurds in the Kurdish region are either Barcelona or Real Madrid fans, and El Clasico games are massive in Kurdistan."
Quest for a Kurdish homeland
Now co-owned by two Kurdish millionaires, Dalkurd play in the colors of the Kurdish flag and three of the current squad are Kurdish, including the captain, Peshraw Azizi, whose father was a Peshmerga fighter. The Peshmerga are the Iraqi-Kurdish militia that have fought ISIS for the last three years. But their history goes back to resisting the rule of Saddam Hussein in the quest for a Kurdish homeland.There are Kurdish minorities in northern Iraq, eastern Turkey, western Iran and northern Syria.In both Iraq and Syria, the Kurdish populations have achieved significant autonomy, but they are vulnerable to more powerful forces both within and beyond those countries. There are between 25 and 30 million Kurds spread across four countries. But they've never had a state of their own.In September, Iraqi Kurds voted overwhelmingly for independence in a controversial referendum, as tensions between Iraq's largest ethnic minority and the central government in Baghdad intensified.Because Kurdistan is not a country, it is not recognized by soccer's world governing body, FIFA, and therefore has no official national team for its people to support. However teams made up of Kurds have participated in tournaments for non-FIFA affiliated teams such as the VIVA World Cup and the Confederation of Independent Football World Cup.
Founded in 2004 by nine Kurdish migrants in the county of Dalarna, which is best known for its fishing and camping, Dalkurd was initially designed as a social project to keep troubled local youngsters off the street.That sense of social responsibility is still alive and kicking and is very much at the heart of the club's ethos. Dalkurd's website talks of the importance it places on being a club "born with a social responsibility" and their efforts to aid Kurdish integration within Swedish society. Kurdish people have been arriving in Sweden as political refugees since the 1970s and the community has traditionally had difficulties "fitting in" — something that continues to this day. A 2014 study by The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that it is statistically harder for people with Middle Eastern names to get a job in Sweden."To have Dalkurd exist and be so successful in Swedish football is quite important," Ismail says. "You can make it in Sweden, and you can do it while being proudly Kurdish."It provides young Kurds not only with a team to support if they feel their local team is not for them for whatever reason, but also a success story to aspire to."Dalkurd has built academies in both Sweden and the Iraqi Kurdistan region. Club captain Azizi has made several trips to the region, including visits to refugee camps and the frontline in the war against ISIS. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Azizi, who regularly tweets about the Kurds' plight, told a story of how he was recognized on one of his trips by a Peshmerga fighter who told him to "go home and make us happy through football." "My father fought for a long time in the war and now I'm continuing his fight, this time through football and not in war," Azizi told the Guardian. "For me this is an equally important fight for the Kurdish issue."
Dalkurd's co-founder and chairman, Ramazan Kizil, says his ultimate goal is for his team, which plays at a tiny 6,500-capacity stadium, to face one of the major Turkish sides like Fenerbahce or Galatasaray. They can take inspiration from one of their former players, Brwa Nouri, a player of Kurdish descent, who now plays for Swedish team Ostersunds.Led by English manager Graham Potter, Ostersunds, like Dalkurd, experienced a similar surge through the Swedish leagues, finished eighth in the top division, won the Swedish Cup and then produced a shock two-leg victory over Galatasaray to reach the Europa League. Nouri, who plays for Iraq's national team and received several threats online before the second leg, scored a penalty in Istanbul to secure Ostersunds place in the group stage. They are currently top of their group and unbeaten.READ: Meet soccer's Chief Tattoo OfficerGo to CNN.com/sport for more stories & featuresDalkurd is second in the table with three games remaining in the season but victory against leaders Brommapojkarna Tuesday would secure promotion to the premier division, the Allsvenskan, just 13 years after the club was formed."There are plenty of people who feel a great responsibility towards a lot of people out in the world," coach, Andreas Brännström told the Dalkurd website."We have talked a bit about this and told them that they should not forget to enjoy their football either."