By James M. Dorsey
The Kosovo Football Federation (KFF) and soccer-crazy Kosovars are not the only ones in anxious anticipation of this coming Friday’s executive committee meeting of world soccer body FIFA that is expected to decide the terms on which Kosovo will be allowed to play international friendlies. So will the Kurdistan Football Association and equally soccer-mad Kurds.
Kosovo and Catalonia, which already has been granted permission by FIFA to play international friendlies, are models for Kurdistan to whom soccer is also an important tool in achieving recognition as a nation and statehood.
For Kurdistan, it is an uphill battle. Kosovo and Catalonia have a leg up on Kosovo. Unlike Kurdistan, an autonomous region in Iraq that enjoys no recognition from an international community afraid that its independence would further destabilize the Middle East, Kosovo has been recognized by the United States, 36 European nations including 22 European Union members, and 54 other countries.
Kosovo moreover is a member of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In addition, Kosovo achieved full sovereignty this month with the ending of international supervision imposed after it unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008. For its part, Catalonia’s bid was backed by the Spanish Football Federation.
Kurdistan has none of those assets. The KFF’s relations with the Iraqi soccer body are strained with Iraqis weary of Kurdish efforts to strike out on their own. Unable to breakthrough internationally, Kurdistan organized last June the 5th VIVA world cup for nations that FIFA refuses to recognize. Competing teams included Kurdistan, Northern Cyprus the Tamils, Western Sahara and Darfur.
In a September 14 letter to FIFA, the KFF welcomed FIFA’s decision in May to grant Kosovo the right to play international friendlies and requested that that right be applicable to “football as a whole, national clubs and teams, men’s and women’s, age categories and senior teams.”
The KFF noted that “Kosovo is not a place where football is embryonic and has to be sustained from a low level. The Football Federation of Kosovo became a member of the FA of Yugoslavia in 1946 with equal rights and the pyramid is complete with leagues and competitions from the top down to the bottom totally in line with FIFA and (European soccer body) UEFA requirements.”
That is in many ways true for Kurdistan too, which like Kosovo has Kurds playing in major European clubs. Nonetheless, the hardnosed, realpolitik objections to Kurdistan, for all practical matters a state-in-waiting, following in the shoes of Kosovo and Catalonia outweigh the moral arguments in its favor.
FIFA’s embrace of Kosovo will nevertheless make Kurdistan and others all the more determined to achieve equal soccer status. A statement by Iraqi Kurdish president Massoud Barzani equating sports to politics as a way of achieving recognition adorns Iraqi Kurdistan’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,” says KFF president Safin Kanabi, scion of a legendary supporter of Kurdish 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.
With other words, soccer may not achieve immediate political and diplomatic recognition but it certainly puts nations in the public eye. “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, argues , said Sheikh Sidi Tigani, president of the Western Sahara Football Federation. “We’ve replaced the gun with a soccer ball,” adds West Saharan national sports director Mohammed Bougleida.
In using soccer as a tool to further nation and statehood, Kosovars, Kurds and West Saharan exploit a tradition established at the time that soccer was introduced in the Middle East and North Africa by the British when soccer was a tool to resist European colonialism and assert Arab interests internationally.
“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,” says Mr. Kanabi.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer