In the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan there will often be silence on the streets if major European football clubs are playing. If there is a match between, say, Barcelona and Real Madrid – two of Iraqis’ favourite teams – the celebrations or commiseration afterwards will be dramatic, with guns fired into the sky in joy, or even fights breaking out between fans.
Up until now local football teams did not get much share of this passionate action. Until now. Over the past months there has been more focus on local sportspeople and their teams.
In the recent past, it was mostly the larger local football teams that attracted attention, teams like Erbil or Sulaymaniyah. But today smaller teams are becoming more attractive to football fans. For example, late last year, two smaller clubs – Kifri and Sayed Sadiq – played a match east of the city of Sulaymaniyah. The clubs are well known in their own districts but this was just a second division match. However 15,000 spectators showed up. There wasn’t enough seating so fans watched the game from the roofs of buildings and seated on bulldozers and trucks, so they could get a good view.
The increase in spectators has more to do with the numbers of unemployed, especially among the young.
In the 1980s, local shops and markets used to close when his team played, recalls Salar Mahmoud, a former player from Sayed Sadiq and a long-time fan. But then there was a long drought in terms of fans and attention. “This revival of interest over the past two years and the increase in fan numbers has been a big surprise to us,” Mahmoud notes.
It is not just the fans and players noticing the difference. Local businesspeople have recognized the potential too. Two weeks ago local business man, Shaswar Abdul Wahid, who is also the founder of the local Kurdish media organisation, NRT, was chosen as the head of the Sulaymaniyah Sports Club, home to one of the best known football teams in the Kurdish region. Shortly afterwards Wahid announced that he was putting $3 million into reconstructing the club’s main stadium.
The stadium’s renovations will meet the international standards set by the Asian Football Confederation, the international group to which Iraq belongs, and the Iraqi Football Association. In the past the Asian Football confederation have refused to approve the local stadium for international games because of certain shortcomings.
After the reconstruction, capacity will be increased from 10,000 to 15,000 and an existing racetrack will be removed. There will be a new system for lighting, a roof, a media centre, better parking and large electronic screens.
Locals suggest a number of reasons for the increase in interest in football. Sayed Sadiq fan, Mahmoud, believes the number of smaller football fields in different parts of Iraqi Kurdistan has encouraged people to form teams of their own. “That in turn encourages more engagement and it increases the number of people watching and playing the game,” Mahmoud explains.
“People want an escape from disturbing topics,” suggests local sociologist Taher Saleh. “Life in Iraq is very complicated and they are searching for some sort of tranquillity and relief.”
Additionally Saleh believes the higher levels of emotion that fans demonstrate when celebrating or mourning football results can be contagious, also attracting attention and thereby more fans.
“There are no other activities for local young people, where they can realize their potential,” explains Darya Abdul-Wahid, the head of Sulaymaniyah’s provincial department for youth and sports. “That’s why they are so enthusiastic about football.”
Meanwhile Dana Mirza, a local sports journalist who attends and covers most of the football matches here, believes it has something less savoury to do with the region’s current economic crisis. “The increase in spectators has more to do with the numbers of unemployed, especially among the young,” he explains. “People are not coming to watch the footballers play because they are more professional. They are coming because they have nothing better to do.”
Mirza points out other important considerations when discussing the increase in football’s popularity in Iraqi Kurdistan, that back his argument. “Most of the people who support their local teams never travel when the team plays elsewhere,” he notes. “That indicates that people are not only driven to watch a game by their love for the team, but also by the time and date and place the game is being played. That plays an important role, as does the cost of attending a game.”