Who Needs FIFA?
International Soccer Outcasts Face Off in Kurdistan
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.
Kurdistan, 2012 VIVA World Cup champions. Nice ring to it, huh?
Thank you, thank you. It was unreal. We weren’t paying attention to the Euro and World Cup qualifying matches going on at the same time, just these finals. Honestly, going in, most Kurds were convinced that we’d beat Northern Cyprus. But it was closer than we thought. Still, we had the biggest balls, and won it all.
I think we’re ready to take on bigger teams, like Mexico and shit. We have guys in Europe on some junior teams in Sweden and the Netherlands. I think FIFA has to step up and let Kurdistan join as an independent team out of Iraq. Though, to be honest, a lot depends on the soccer federation in Iraq and on the politics of the international soccer community.
A traditional Kurdish dance served as the opening-ceremony entertainment.
Mark Hodson is a British soccer coach living in California who coached the Darfur United team.
How’d you end up with this gig?
Mark Hodson: I grew up in England, near Manchester, so I’ve always been into soccer. I was in California on a coach-exchange program with the MLS and met Gabriel Stauring. He’s a cofounder of i-ACT, the NGO in charge of the whole project. I train his kids at my soccer school, and, long story short, that’s how I got the Darfur coaching gig.
Did you think twice about taking the job?
At first I was really excited at the thought of traveling all over, but I did eventually get to thinking about the danger there—Darfur, Iraq, refugee camps, you know? I was a bit scared, especially since I had a business in California and my family, who I’d be away from for a while. But in the end, I said yes and I don’t regret it.
I’m guessing it was probably pretty tough getting to the refugee camp.
Yep. We went to Paris, then Chad, where we had to wait two weeks for our transit permits to be approved. After those two weeks it was another flight to the camp, Djabal, where we’d be working. It was in the middle of nowhere; the runway was dirt and the airport was this small hut.
What was your strategy for building the team?
It wasn’t easy, that’s the truth. Our plan was to bring in 60 players from the 12 camps east of Chad. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) helped fly in the five best guys from each camp, and they set them up with tents once they got to Djabal, too.
Were there problems getting everyone on the same page, soccerwise?
Well, think about how important just talking is in sports, and then consider that there were communication issues not only between the coaches and the players but between the players themselves. The refugees in Darfur are from a bunch of different tribes, and they don’t all get along with each other.
How did you facilitate team bonding? How did you get them to work together?
The first night, the UNHCR and our staff had the idea to get everyone together and have them hang out in each other’s tents. One of the camps didn’t want to take part. We basically told them if they didn’t get with the program, they wouldn’t have the chance to play. It helped create some unity within the team, I think.
How did you whittle your selections down? I imagine it wasn’t purely based on skill.
I’d tell the guys, “You’re here for the team, not for yourselves.” We began with 60 players and let them play for a couple days, but we also paid attention to how they interacted, how they got along on and off the pitch. But you know, when we picked the final 15, we chose one guy on the basis of his leadership, how he got along with everybody, how he inspired his teammates. He was a real uniter—he wasn’t even the best player or anything. We definitely didn’t go off only soccer skills when we picked the team.
A fan of the Tamil Eelam team holds up the flag of the Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan separatist group.
I can only imagine the joy among the guys who made the team and got to represent Darfur.
And to have these experiences! For many of these guys, it wasn’t just the first time they played soccer on grass—a lot of them hadn’t even worn shoes before. We had to teach them the rules; since most Africans don’t have regulated fields, the ball never goes out of bounds, and play doesn’t stop. So it was a huge experience for them, to play internationally and to learn the international game.
Were fans able to follow the games closely?
Well, it’s tough. There’s no internet in Darfur, or there’s not a very good connection. We’d tell some political and community leaders whether we’d won or not, and they’d spread the word. But it’s amazing, it didn’t really matter whether we won or not; it was more that guys from the camps were playing soccer internationally and representing Darfur as a nation.
I’m sure it did wonders for national unity.
On a massive scale. We had thousands of people watching us practice, from day one when we were making our first cuts until we flew out to Kurdistan. Early in the morning, I’m talking 5 AM, kids surrounded the field, women would be there dressed up, looking all colorful and pretty for the players. It united Darfur, definitely.
A major milestone for sure. What’s next?
I’m going back, and we’re continuing on what we’ve done. The 15 guys who made up the team are now back at their refugee camps to train kids between five and 12. We’re also working with the Muslim authorities to develop women’s soccer in Darfur. We don’t have too many resources, but soccer doesn’t really need a lot. It’s the perfect tool for fostering teamwork and unity, hard work, and motivation. And making guys feel proud, whether they play or not.
How was your operation funded?
That’s all i-Act and Gabriel Stauring, its president and cofounder, out of LA. We don’t have any big sponsors or corporate sponsors, just friends, family, and nice folks who believe in what we’re doing.
It seems like soccer can build some real connections.
Yep. It’s a global language. You know, I think about having been in Africa, with 60 unknown players, everyone speaking a different language, and it only took a ball to bring everyone together.
More soccer? Check these out:
Unlicensed orphanages are stealing donations and trafficking children.
A truly bizarre and tragic twist to the "homefree" tale.
Jipson Talmadge is VICE's choice for the next mayor of New York City.
Greece's infamous new drug, sisa, is meth mixed with filler ingredients like battery acid.
"Fitch the Homeless" is a great idea, until you think about it.