The Guardian: With no national team to call their own, an oppressed people from the Middle East have placed their trust in a small football club from Sweden’s second division. Representing 40 million Kurds spread across the globe, Dalkurd have made remarkable headway in climbing towards their ultimate goal: to face a Turkish team in Kurdish colours and assert their identity through sport.
In the central province of Dalarna, where Gustav Vasa took the first step towards Swedish independence by revolting against the Danish king in the 16th century, a people without a state of their own are repeating history with a very different kind of conquest. Dalkurd, founded by nine Kurdish migrants in 2004, have made an impressive journey through the Swedish football system and sit joint top of the second-tier Superettan with six games of the season remaining. A first-ever promotion to the country’s top flight, Allsvenskan, is tantalisingly close.
The Gustav Vasa of Dalkurd is Ramazan Kizil. Although he has not beheaded any Danish monarchs there is no escaping the significant part, as co-founder and present-day chairman, he has played in Dalkurd’s fairytale rise to professional football. He still remembers the exact date he came to Sweden: 26 November, 1989.
“My body is in Sweden, but my thoughts and dreams are still in my home country, because I didn’t leave by free will,” Kizil says. “My people are still there and they are in trouble. You can’t just turn your back on them. It’s very personal.”
Fifteen years after his arrival, Dalkurd were founded. “It all started as a social project rather than a football club,” he says. “We talked about us moving to Sweden and living decent lives. We were safe and we could sleep without fear. Before coming here we didn’t know the feeling of a night’s sleep without fear. You could be arrested, shot or tortured at any given minute. We thought: what can we, as Kurds, human beings and parents do for the society that has given us so incredibly much?”
During 2004 a group of young players were kicked out of IK Brage, the biggest club in Borlange. According to Kizil, disciplinary issues were the cause. A seemingly unfortunate turn of events became the spark that set fire to the thought of forming their own football club.
By October of the same year, Dalkurd were up and running. The first squad, competing in the lowest tier of Swedish football, was more or less composed of players that had been left out of Brage’s system.
“We wanted to show our support and faith in them,” Kizil says. “When you show you care about them, they listen. Our principle is that all the people in the club, from a six-year-old player to the chairman should have a dialogue and care about each other. We are creating a family.”
Players in the sixth division of Sweden normally train once or twice a week. Dalkurd more than tripled that, scheduling at least two hours of training seven days a week.
The same group of young players, blended with a couple of experienced additions from higher levels, surged through the divisions. Within five years Dalkurd had won their fifth consecutive promotion, reaching Division One – the third tier. The club was still run by a small group of people and the off-pitch facilities could not match the success on it. This spring, the club moved from having a container and a garage as their official headquarters, to a couple of rooms at Domnarsvallen, their home pitch.
At the age of 12, Peshraw Azizi came from Kurdistan to Sodertalje in Sweden. His father was a Peshmerga soldier who had been fighting for Kurdish independence. Soon after his arrival Peshraw started playing football for the local side Syrianska, but after struggling to get into the squad he signed for Dalkurd. That was in 2011; since then, Peshraw has been made captain and has spoken on national television about the sudden rise of his team, as well as the issues the club tries to address. “With the Kurdish flag on our chest it became more and more like a national team,” he says. ”When I first came here the club wasn’t as big as it is today. We have fought together to make it grow.”
The club’s growth has been rapid. In the opening game of last season, 5,550 people saw Dalkurd play against Assyriska. The Kurdish flag was, just as it had when they secured promotion to the Superettan, waving in the stands.
This season’s league position is less of a surprise. Dalkurd are expected to go up and that was evident in pre-season when, in a poll of players, coaches and journalists, 65.5% predicted they would win the Superettan. Signings such as the ex-Celtic forward Mohamed Bangura and the Gambia international Kebba Ceesay have added quality but there is a core of – if not homegrown – home-loving players.
“We aren’t finished here. Each time you see more Kurdish flags you want to achieve more,” Azizi says. “We have proved that everything is possible. Fighting for the Kurdish flag is a simple choice for me, since my family has been fighting for the Kurds all their lives. My father fought for a long time in the war and now I’m continuing his fight, this time through football and not in war. For me, this is an equally important fight for the Kurdish issue.”
Azizi has some authority in the matter. He is one of three players with Kurdish descent in this year’s squad. He has travelled to his home country a number of times in recent years, looking to use football as a means of helping his countrymen fight the ravages of poverty and war. He has set up summer camps and teams, and this summer visited several refugee camps to get things up and running. One team, consisting of refugees from the war in Syria and Iraq, was given a complete set of Dalkurd jerseys as well as boots worn by the players earlier this season.
Although the club’s average attendance last year was only 1,119, their support is widespread. Azizi remembers one visit to the war front in Kurdistan, where the battles between the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Islamic State were raging. He had entered a military camp close to the Iraqi city of Mosul, when one of the soldiers struck up a conversation.
“He recognised me and asked: ‘What are you doing here?’,” Azizi says. “I was shocked. Do I know him? Is he a friend of my dad’s? ‘What are you doing here, Pasha? I’ve been following you for three years. You play for our team and you are the best football player. You shouldn’t be here. Go home and make us happy through football’.
“Then I realised that people there love and follow us. Today, people in Kurdistan support Real Madrid, Barcelona or Dalkurd. I have people to run and fight for on the pitch, which gives me energy in every game. I want to make even better results thanks to them.”
Azizi has been dedicated in providing aid for the Kurdish people, and he believes those efforts have helped him raise the team’s popularity in Kurdistan.
“The trips have played a part in making this team their club. To hear these words from them, like the story with the soldier who recognised me, makes you stronger. Everyone is speaking about us there. It’s important that they don’t feel forgotten. Even though I’m living here and they are down there, they are a part of us.”
The club can count on support from Kurds all over the world. Keya Izol, chairman of the Kurdish national association in Sweden, Kurdiska Riksforbundet, is among those who watch Dalkurd’s games.
“It’s our national team,” he says. “The team’s success is of major importance for Kurds in Sweden and in Europe. All Kurds sympathise with Dalkurd. I usually go to watch them when they are playing close to Stockholm.
“I was doing an interview at one of the biggest TV channels in Kurdistan last week. They told me they gather and watch Dalkurd’s matches every week.”
In 2015, a total of 162,877 people applied for asylum in Sweden. The issue of migration is, according to the SOM-institute at the university of Gothenburg, the most important political question for a majority of Swedish voters. It makes Dalkurd’s position as a social project, never mind a football club, even more noteworthy. Sports associations play an important role in integrating new inhabitants and, all over the country, teams created for immigrants have started to flourish. Dalkurd see their success as proof that integration is not mission impossible.
“Dialogue is the best way to integrate; you should try to understand each other. When I founded Dalkurd I couldn’t speak Swedish especially well,” says Kizil, who is now fluent in the language. “Through football you can integrate immigrants into society, we have experience of that. We struggled to get Swedes as coaches and board members at first, but now half of our board are Swedes.”
A couple of years back, the squad contained as many as 14 different nationalities. “Football doesn’t have a language,” Azizi says. “When you are out there on the pitch, you don’t need Swedish to pass or shoot. The words you need, you learn in a minute.”
In February last year, two Kurdish brothers bought 49% of the club in what Swedish media termed a multi-billion sponsorship deal. Sarkat Junad and Kawad Junad are entrepreneurs from Kurdistan, active in the telecom and media business, and they have high expectations of the club they now part-own.
“My brother and I have been following Dalkurd the last couple of years and think it is an amazing club,” Sarkat told the local newspaper, Dalarnas Tidningar, when the takeover was announced. “We are hoping that Dalkurd can become a bridge between Sweden and Kurdistan.”
The new investors see a bright future and have already made their mark. A limited company has been formed, with the football club owning 51% and the Junad brothers 49%. Academies have recently been launched in both Borlange and Erbil, the capital in the Kurdish part of Iraq, with the latter hosting 150 youngsters.
On top of this collaboration between Kurdistan and Sweden, the new owners want the club to make their way to the very top of European football. “I would love to see Dalkurd in the Champions League,” Sarkat told Dalarnas Tidningar. “If we can help with the funding, the club will become even better and advance faster.”
The money came in the nick of time. Last year several reports claimed Dalkurd were struggling to pay their taxes. Despite the fact their Facebook page has more than 1.5 million likes – far more than any other Swedish side – the club is still one of the league’s smallest in terms of infrastructure.
“They got rid of almost 40% of our expenses,” Kizil says of the takeover’s impact. “But they aren’t just handing over a bag of money. We have thoughts, plans and goals with everything we do. The first-team is not their main goal – they want to exchange knowledge. We will teach them the Swedish system, with football not merely as a tool to get money, which is the common way in the Middle East, but as a way to help people.”
With the help of its Kurdish sponsors the club could compete with Allsvenskan sides for high-quality signings this winter. In a short time Dalkurd have grown from being outsiders in Sweden’s football family to a potential major power, settling for nothing but the top. Ostersund, led by the Englishman Graham Potter, have already proved that you can compete with established clubs in Allsvenskan as a smaller fish. OFK finished eighth last season, their first in the highest division and won the Swedish cup in April. When they surprisingly defeated Turkish giants Galatasaray in the Europa League qualifiers earlier this summer, Azizi watched the first leg from the stands. Ostersund’s captain, Brwa Nouri, is of Kurdish origin and represented Dalkurd for several years; his nationality became a major issue in the tie. After Ostersund won 2–0 at home, Nouri received several threats on social media before the second leg in Istanbul. Nouri, now a Iraq international, answered by converting a penalty on the hour as his team progressed with a 1-1 draw.
“As his friend I was very happy,” Azizi says. “He got his revenge and also we, as Kurds, did. Their supporters didn’t sing about anything else but us being Kurds. Brwa silenced them.”
Dalkurd are, just like the Peshmerga soldiers in Kurdistan, fighting on several fronts. While the team, currently leading Superettan, nine points ahead of third-placed Trelleborg with two teams going up, contest promotion from Superettan the whole club might need to find a new home. Disappointed with the lack of political interest and investment in a new stadium, Dalkurd have threatened to move the entire club.
“They force us to do this,” Kizil told Dalarnas Tidningar. “We will look for other municipalities that are suited to us and can give us the opportunity to play our games.”
At the time of writing no final decision on Dalkurd’s future home had been announced and Kizil declined to comment on the location of any future move. Whether they play their games in Borlange, Uppsala or Stockholm in the future, their fight will continue to be about more than 11 young men chasing a ball.
“Everything you do with our name is politics. It creates enthusiasm for the people that have sacrificed their lives for this name,” Kizil says.
“When we started the club, we had short-term goals and long-term goals. The long term goal was more like a dream: to face a Turkish team with our Kurdish colours and show them that the sky won’t fall down just because we have Kurdish names. “It would be the largest news story in the world. How could the Turks let us play Fenerbahce or Galatasaray with our name and our flag? As long as I haven’t experienced that, I won’t give up.”