Should Iraq's leaders be more like their football players?

Displaced Iraqis playing football near Erbil Image copyright AFP

One of Iraq's best-known football teams, Kirkuk FC has fallen on hard times. But could the money be found to save the club - a shining example of inter-ethnic harmony - now that Iraqi Kurds have taken control of the city?

With his gleaming smile and fashionable gelled haircut, Ramyar Ahmed is the very picture of an archetypal football captain.

But we are not meeting in an expensive restaurant or paparazzi-stalked bar. Ahmed hasn't been paid since November, so we are eating lunch in a kebab house.

"I've brought you to the best area," he laughs, as gawky young waiters stare at him in amazement.

"This is a famous place for roadside bombs in Kirkuk," he adds.

Ahmed's club - Kirkuk FC - was founded in the best of times, and has survived through the worst.

The walls of the offices are lined with faded photos of teams throughout the decades, and in the dusty trophy cabinet shiny silverware jostles for position.

Its ground used to be the envy of all the other football teams in Iraq.

The elegant old stand looks as though it has been transplanted from a village green in the heart of England. It was built by the British as a cricket pavilion in the 1940s, and the people of Kirkuk kept and treasured it when it was converted into a football terrace.

"It is just the same as the first day, nothing has been renovated." says Serwan Nejim, Kirkuk FC's financial officer, as he shows me around the ground.

"All the other clubs wanted to play here. This club is unique in Iraq," he says.

But today the pitch is bumpy and the grass is yellow, the changing rooms are empty, and the whole club is riddled with an air of forlorn abandonment.

Image copyright Hannah Lucinda Smith

"In 2007 we were raided by rats," exclaims Nejim. "There is a sewer nearby and they came under the field and dug their way out. Our goalkeeper was about to kick the ball and then he jumped back in shock - a rat had popped his head out!"

For the past nine years the ethnically diverse city of Kirkuk has been torn between two would-be masters.

The Kurdistan regional government (KRG) in Irbil say this city should belong to it - it claims it is the Iraqi Kurds' historical capital.

The Iraqi government in Baghdad disagrees - it has always refused to let it go. Kirkuk's vast oil reserves make it too valuable an asset for either side to give away.

While Baghdad and Irbil are both desperate to cling on to the city, neither wants to take responsibility for its football team.

Kirkuk is not part of the KRG, so it cannot get funds from it. Perhaps because of the team's large number of Kurdish players, it does not get funding from Baghdad either.

Kirkuk FC stays out of politics. Its team plays in both national leagues - the Iraqi and the Kurdish - and its players come from all of the city's diverse communities.

Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen - on the pitch, they are all just team-mates.

But as last season swung into action, the money finally ran out.

Kirkuk FC's players were not well paid to begin with - Ahmed's salary was just $350 (£204) a month - but suddenly they were told that they had to play for free.

Image copyright Hannah Lucinda Smith

"I tried to explain to the team that this is about sport and not money," says Ahmed. "But the players were only getting paid just enough to survive anyway. Once they lost that, they lost the motivation."

The team had started the season in pole position in the Kurdish league. Once they heard there was no money left, they slipped down to fifth.

For now, it looks as though the team will not have enough funds to compete in either league next season - and that's if there's even an Iraq left by the time the first game kicks off.

But the outcome of the current crisis in Iraq could decide Kirkuk FC's future - and maybe even save it.

Since the collapse of the Iraqi National Army earlier this month, the peshmerga - the KRG's armed forces - have taken control of Kirkuk.

Image copyright Reuters

The city has become part of a de facto Kurdish state, and with the government in Baghdad on the brink of collapse, Kirkuk looks set to remain in Kurdish hands for a long time to come.

Ahmed is hoping Kirkuk will stay under Kurdish control because he believes if the club is funded by Irbil it can be saved. But he says Iraq's leaders should look to his club as an example of how a peaceful Iraq should look.

"Kirkuk FC is special, this is a fact," says Ahmed. "When one player scores a goal all the other players cheer, whatever ethnicity or religion he is. I hope that some day our politicians will act like our footballers. If they did, Iraq would be a much better place."

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