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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 December 2006, 11:33 GMT
Kurdish football prospers in new Iraq

By Yo Takatsuki
BBC World Service reporter, Iraqi Kurdistan

With a backdrop of the dusty red mountains that were once the hiding place of Kurdish guerrillas fighting for freedom, the players of Suleimaniya Sports Club train in preparation for the new season.

Kurdish player going for a header
Suleimaniya's players train for the start of the season

It is a sign of how far Kurds have come that this team and its players can even contemplate competing in Iraq's top league.

For decades, the region of Northern Iraq known as Iraqi Kurdistan was neglected not just in sports but in every aspect of life.

However, since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, Kurdish soccer has blossomed.

Bloody past

It is estimated that more than over 100,000 Kurds were killed under Saddam Hussein's orders during the 1980s. The former Iraqi leader is currently facing trial for these atrocities on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Only miles from where the players train is the site of a chemical weapons attack, where thousands of Kurds died in the space of a few hours.

Iraqi Kurdistan has been self-governed since 1991 after the first Gulf War.

It is little known to outsiders that while much of the country is engulfed in violence and is close to civil war, Iraqi Kurdistan is enjoying relative peace and stability.

Kurdistan Football
Kurdish football has blossomed since the fall of Saddam's regime

It is the same with the football. In the rest of the country football is at a standstill, it is now the Kurdish clubs and players which are leading the way in Iraq.

The irony of this is not lost on the general manager of Suleimaniya Sports Club, Hiwa Masuf.

"During the rule of Saddam Hussein we lived constantly in fear. There was no freedom for the Kurds, in all walks of life. It was extremely difficult for Kurdish football players," says Masuf.

"They were marginalised. No-one received regular training and of course there were no successful Kurdish footballers or clubs. They were not allowed to play for the Iraq national side.

"But that has all changed. Clubs in Kurdistan are thriving. We have many sides in Iraq's top league. We can play football here in peace but it's extremely difficult for teams in other parts of Iraq," he says.

Good days

Alongside the national championship, Kurdistan has its own league and cup competitions which are popular with local supporters.

There is now also an Iraqi Kurdistan team. Although it is not formally recognised and can not compete in international tournaments like the World Cup, the team is hoping to participate in an event in 2007 to play against other non-FIFA affiliated teams such as Greenland, Tibet and Northern Cyprus.

Karwan Salih
The day Iraqi Kurdistan is playing in an Asian Cup or a World Cup would be a day of real pride for all Kurds. After all we've been through, I hope that dream is realised some day soon
Karwan Salih, Kurdish footballer

The captain of Suleimaniya, Karwan Salih plays for both Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. He says that it would be a dream come true if a Kurdish team could one day play on the global stage.

"It was my ambition to play for Iraq but that does not compare with how strongly I feel for Iraqi Kurdistan. When I play for Kurdistan, I am not just playing for a country but for a whole race," says Salih.

"I hope one day we can be recognised as a footballing country of our own so that we can play in international tournaments around the world.

"The day Iraqi Kurdistan is playing in an Asian Cup or a World Cup would be a day of real pride for all Kurds. After all we've been through, I hope that dream is realised some day soon."

Outside help

In the region's capital Irbil, moves are being made to push Kurdish football further ahead.

The Kurdistan Football Association (KFA) may only be a few years old but they are courting the assistance of the outside world to develop its game.

Fans watching a game
Watching football is a popular pastime in Iraqi Kurdistan

The Kurdistan Cup final was held in the city's stadium in late November between two local sides Ararat and Handren. It was sponsored by the South Korean military which are stationed nearby.

The Koreans helped with the organisation and also provided prizes - a mountain of electronic appliances such as flat screen TVs and digital cameras - for the winners.

Ararat won the match thanks to a penalty shoot-out after a scoreless draw.

The head of the KFA, Safin Kanabi, says that what they need above all was foreign expertise.

"What we really need is information from the outside world. By that I mean the knowledge of football people from places like Europe, where the game and its skills are developed," Kanabi says.

"We need training for our coaches, referees, doctors and administrators. Our players need interaction with players from abroad, so that they can see how better footballers play.

"We ask other countries to take an interest in football in Iraqi Kurdistan, to come here and give us the help we need."

You can hear our special report from Iraqi Kurdistan on World Football on the BBC World Service in early Janurary. Check local listings for broadcast times.

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