Miscellaneous — VIVA World Cup: Playing for nationhood

Kur­dis­tan beat North­ern Cyprus this week to win the 5th VIVA world cup but both nations secured a far greater vic­to­ry than emerg­ing at the top of an obscure soc­cer tour­na­ment designed for often even more obscure nation­al, eth­nic and cul­tur­al enti­ties.

In com­pet­ing in the world cup for nations that world soc­cer body FIFA refus­es to rec­og­nize Kur­dis­tan and North­ern Cyprus along­side the Tamils; West­ern Sahara; Dar­fur; Provence; the for­mer Roman province of Rae­tia; Zanz­ibar; and Occ­i­ta­nia, a strip of France, Italy and Spain where Occ­i­tan is spo­ken pro­ject­ed them­selves as nation­al and cul­tur­al enti­ties.

The tour­na­ment orga­nized by the New Fed­er­a­tion or Non-FIFA Board under­lines the role soc­cer plays in fur­ther­ing nation­al dreams. Like reli­gion, soc­cer is a tool for social­iza­tion that gen­er­ates a sense of belong­ing, rep­re­sen­ta­tion and recog­ni­tion. For nations like Pales­tine that thanks to Arab pres­sure is FIFA’s only mem­ber with­out a state and Iraqi Kur­dis­tan, an autonomous part of Iraq, soc­cer is a key pil­lar of their strat­e­gy to achieve inde­pen­dence.

A state­ment by Iraqi Kur­dish pres­i­dent Mas­soud Barzani equat­ing sports to pol­i­tics as a way of achiev­ing recog­ni­tion adorns the Kur­dish state-in-waiting’s three major sta­di­ums and vir­tu­al­ly all of its sports cen­ters and insti­tu­tions. “We want to serve our nation and use sports to get every­thing for our nation. We all believe in what the pres­i­dent said,” said Safin Kan­abi, head of the Kur­dish Foot­ball Asso­ci­a­tion, which co-orga­nized the VIVA tour­na­ment with finan­cial sup­port of the Iraqi Kur­dish gov­ern­ment, and scion of a leg­endary sup­port­er of soc­cer who led anti-regime protests in Kur­dish sta­di­ums dur­ing Sad­dam Hussein’s rule.

“Like any nation, we want to open the door through foot­ball. Take Brazil. Peo­ple know Brazil first and fore­most through foot­ball. We want to do the same. We want to have a strong team by the time we have a coun­try. We do our job, politi­cians do theirs. Inshal­lah (if God wills), we will have a coun­try and a flag” adds Kur­dis­tan nation­al coach Abdul­lah Mah­moud Muhied­din.

Sit­ting on the floor of a hotel room in the Kur­dish cap­i­tal of Erbil, Sheikh Sidi Tigani, pres­i­dent of the West­ern Sahara Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion said the Sahrawi gov­ern­ment-in-exile formed by lib­er­a­tion move­ment Frente Polis­ario saw soc­cer as a way of keep­ing youth away from vio­lence and drugs. It also allows the guer­ril­la move­ment to chan­nel dis­con­tent with the fact that 37 years after the ter­ri­to­ry was occu­pied by Moroc­co, Saha­rans are no clos­er to a state of their own.

“Our exter­nal objec­tive is pri­mar­i­ly to project our iden­ti­ty through sports. Many peo­ple don’t know our prob­lem or would not be able to find us on a map. Soc­cer can change that. We had a French woman vis­it our refugee camps. When she told chil­dren that she was from France, they all replied say­ing Zidan” – a ref­er­ence to retired star soc­cer play­er Zine­dine Zidan, a French­man of Alger­ian ori­gin, Sheikh Sidi said. “We’ve replace the gun with a soc­cer ball,” adds West Saha­ran nation­al sports direc­tor Mohammed Bouglei­da.

West­ern Sahara’s pres­ence at the Kur­dis­tan tour­na­ment con­sti­tut­ed a vic­to­ry not only for the African desert region but also for Kur­dis­tan itself even if the Sahraw­is were forced to make con­ces­sions. It allowed Kur­dis­tan to demon­strate its abil­i­ty and inten­tion to con­duct a for­eign pol­i­cy at odds with that of Bagh­dad by host­ing a World Cup for nations that world soc­cer body FIFA refus­es to rec­og­nize. The fact that Moroc­co protest­ed against the inclu­sion of the dis­put­ed Saha­ran ter­ri­to­ry to the Kur­dish depart­ment of for­eign rela­tions rather than the Iraqi for­eign min­istry, and nego­ti­at­ed a deal with the Kurds under which the Saha­rans were not allowed to fly their flag dur­ing cer­e­monies and match­es added to Kurdistan’s sense of recog­ni­tion.

For the var­i­ous nations par­tic­i­pat­ing in the VIVA World Cup, recog­ni­tion means dif­fer­ing things. For a major­i­ty includ­ing Kur­dis­tan, North­ern Cyprus, Dar­fur, West­ern Sahara and the Tamils it is about achiev­ing rec­og­nized nation­hood. For Rae­tia and Occ­i­ta­nia it is a plat­form to assert cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty while for Zanz­ibar it’s a tool to per­suade FIFA to pres­sure the Tan­zan­ian foot­ball asso­ci­a­tion to include the island as part of its respon­si­bil­i­ty.

Build­ing and main­tain­ing an Iraqi Kur­dish nation­al team remains a polit­i­cal bal­anc­ing act. Recruit­ment of Dias­po­ra play­ers is sen­si­tive. Turk­ish Kurds are off lim­its. A nation whose Kur­dish play­ers and coach helped it in recent years reach the semi-finals of both the World Cup and the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships, Turkey fears los­ing some of its best play­ers and encour­ag­ing nation­al aspi­ra­tions among its esti­mat­ed 15 mil­lion Kurds who account for one fifth of the pop­u­la­tion.

“When we trav­el through Turkey we can’t wear our Kur­dis­tan out­fits because it is too sen­si­tive. The Turks remove all our T‑shirts and tags from our bags. It’s just too risky,” said Mr. Kan­abi. Iraq too is afraid that the Kur­dish team will lure some of its best play­ers. Lack of FIFA recog­ni­tion means Mr. Kan­abi can­not demand that Iraqi Kurds choose between the Iraqi and the Kur­dish squad.

In using soc­cer as a tool to fur­ther nation and state­hood, Pales­tini­ans and Kurds are main­tain­ing a tra­di­tion estab­lished at the time that soc­cer was intro­duced in the region by the British. “Sport was then used as a means of resist­ing, to dif­fer­ent degrees, to French and British colo­nial pres­ence, and of defend­ing the Arab cause in the inter­na­tion­al are­na,” writes Alger­ian sports researcher Mah­foud Ama­ra in a book pub­lished last year.

Algeria’s nation­al team, for exam­ple, traces its roots to the Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion Front (FLN) dur­ing the war of inde­pen­dence which formed the team in 1957 from Alger­ian play­ers in France who clan­des­tine­ly left their colo­nial moth­er­land to forge clos­er ties with its social­ist sup­port­ers. The FLN move came on the heels of the first sport demon­stra­tion involv­ing sev­er­al Arab nations dur­ing the 1956 Olympic Games in Mel­bourne, which Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq boy­cotted in protest against the inva­sion of Egypt by British, French and Israeli troops.

The crowds in Kur­dish sta­di­ums stood erect each time the Kur­dish anthem was played at the begin­ning of a VIVA match. “Kur­dis­tan, Kur­dis­tan,” they shout­ed with one voice when­ev­er their nation­al team went of the offen­sive.

Says Mr. Kan­abi: “Our suc­cess with VIVA demon­strates our abil­i­ty to gov­ern our­selves. Our goal for now is to be part of FIFA. All lan­guages are rep­re­sent­ed in FIFA, only Kur­dish isn’t while (FIFA pres­i­dent Sepp) Blat­ter claims that foot­ball is for every­one. We are human. We want the world to under­stand Kurdistan’s con­tri­bu­tion.”

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.