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Football: a sporting barometer of European integration policies (ICSS Journal)

James M Dorsey reports on the successes that football teams have had in helping immigrant communities to integrate with wider society, observing that football can be a useful indicator of how well integration policies are working across Europe

The phones ring continuously at Kurdish football club Dalkurd FF, a hot team for agents and players. In 2009, it signed Bosnian international Nedim Halilovic and upcoming Algerian-Swedish star Nadir Benchenaa. More prominent signings are in the works. Started in 2004 with the support of top Swedish football club IK Brage as a project to create jobs for Kurdish youth, Dalkurd’s meteoric rise has put it on the international football map and turned it into a model of how a Middle Eastern immigrant community can address its social and economic problems and project its identity.

Dalkurd, one of three Swedish clubs that have fielded Europe’s most successful immigrant teams, was founded in Borlänge, a small iron and paper mill workers’ town of some 50,000 predominantly ethnically Swedish residents 220 km north of Stockholm. The club was initially launched as a project to create jobs for the youth. Dalkurd’s Swedish identity is clearly identifiable on maps; its minority Kurdish identity is not. That makes Dalkurd as much a product of the social and economic challenges facing immigrants in Sweden and elsewhere in Europe as it is of the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century that turned Kurds into the largest nation without a homeland, and scattered them across the Middle East and the globe. It also highlights Sweden’s relative success in integrating minorities from southern Europe and North Africa who in the 1960s and 70s began immigrating to western and northern Europe, which at the time were encouraging labour migration.

Dalkurd, like other immigrant teams and players, turns football into a prism through which to view how Europe is being shaped by significant Muslim migration and uses the game as a barometer of successes and failures in integration policy. It also spotlights football’s ability to encourage bonding and the development of separate, often multi-layered, identities that help groups to find a common ground and also to differentiate themselves from one another.

National teams, international squads

On a continental scale, a third of all goals in major European competitions in recent years were scored by either foreign-born players or those from immigrant families. These footballers account for almost half of the players in the continent’s national teams. Of the 2,600 professional players in the five top European leagues – England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France – 800 are expatriates born and recruited in an often Muslim country, and another 500 are immigrants or their descendants.

The three Swedish teams formed by Kurds or Assyrians/Syriacs – two groups that faced off with each other in the early 20th century in rugged eastern Turkey – thrive in a country that is the most welcoming in Europe to non-EU immigrants. Sweden stands out at a time of economic crisis as a nation that has been able to maintain a welfare state and pay for it too.1 As a result, Sweden hosts more than 25 Assyrian/Syriac clubs alone2 as well as a score of less-prominent Kurdish ones.

Dalkurd’s initial players were Kurdish migrants and refugees, and their descendants. Kurdish immigrants moved to Europe in search of more fertile economic pastures and to escape the suppression of their cultural identity and political rights in Turkey. Elvan Cicen, Dalkurd’s co-founder and sports director, says that, instinctively, the founders thought of naming the club Kurdistan, but on reflection opted for Dalkurd: Dal for Dalarna, the region where Borlänge is located, and Kurd for Kurdistan.3 Dalarna’s famous wooden horses frame the yellow sun on the red, white and green Kurdish flag that the club adopted as its own

“We are both Kurdish and Swedish. Football is our tool to integrate people. We took kids off the streets and away from the gangs. Everybody blamed the kids. But the real problem was the parents, who often were analphabets. The kids lived in different worlds in school and at home. The parents didn’t see what was happening and the kids weren’t integrated. We started involving the parents,” Cicen says.4 Dalkurd players have become role models in local high schools. They have sparked a cultural revolution, inspiring girls to form their own team with the support of Dalkurd managers who seek to overcome the objections put forward by conservative parents.

Dalkurd’s leadership, much like that of other immigrant communities, draws a distinction between integration and assimilation. “Integration is not assimilation. It’s learning a new culture without losing one’s own. Even if we had Kurdistan, I wouldn’t move there. Sure, my parents didn’t come here to be Swedes. They socialise only with the Kurdish part of Dalkurd. I’m trying to learn from both cultures. Having two cultures is being richer. We would lose if we were only a Kurdish team. They call us the Kurdish national team. That is not a problem but we don’t close the door to other people,” Cicen says.

Cicen’s philosophy is backed up by research that shows that sport serves as an integrative tool, or in the words of sports anthropologist Paul Verweel, an enabler of social participation5 through clubs that have an open culture and ideology6 with football being a sport more obsessed with ethnicity than many others.7 That open culture is further encouraged by the fact that both Dalkurd and the Assyrian teams appeal to a fan base that is not purely local but includes a regional, and even global, diaspora. Their self-image as teams that represent a nation rather than just a local community means they are rooted both in the municipality that hosts them and a more geographically diverse community. The internet allows them to maintain bonds across boundaries by broadcasting their matches live on the web and including far-away supporters in their fan networks.

For Kurds, the dream of nationhood is a more realistic one than it is for Assyrians. While Assyrians acknowledge that their hopes for a home state are likely to remain a dream, Kurds can point to an Iraqi Kurdistan as a state-in-waiting with all the building blocks in place.

Tumultuous events in Syria are likely to result in Kurds gaining more rights and the government in Turkey has been willing to negotiate with guerrillas who fought a war over almost two decades in which at least 40,000 people died. Nonetheless, Dalkurd is making its mark not in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran, Turkey or Syria, but in Sweden, where it has won league after league as a Swedish team with a dual identity. Half of its players are the sons and daughters of parents who sought relief from economic under-development and suppression; the remainder are Swedes and other foreigners. Even so, its fans largely include refugees, and their Swedish-born descendants, who fled religious and ethnic discrimination in Turkey and Iran, and Saddam Hussein’s ethnic cleansing of Kurds in northern Iraq. Dalkurd’s sponsors are predominantly Swedish-Kurdish businessmen.

Kurdish members of Dalkurd’s board do not hide their empathy for the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), the guerrilla group that fought Turkish security forces in south-eastern Turkey. The PKK has, in recent years, dropped its demand for an independent Kurdish state in favour of full cultural and political rights within the framework of the Turkish state. Officials in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the PKK has bases, suggest that the group has helped fund Dalkurd, a claim the club’s executives deny. Nevertheless, Dalkurd chairman Ramazan Kizil, a Kurdish immigrant from Turkey, was sentenced in 2010 in absentia to 10 months in prison in his homeland after giving a speech in his native Kurdish and campaigning on behalf of a pro-Kurdish political party. Kizil’s ambition is to take Dalkurd into the UEFA Europa League, where he dreams of unfurling the Kurdish alongside the Swedish flag. Iraqi Kurdistan has long campaigned unsuccessfully to become a member of FIFA with a status like that of Palestine, the only member without a country, or England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, all of which compete separately rather than as the United Kingdom.

The VIVA World Cup

In doing so, he would put a dent in Kurdistan’s status as a football outcast. Kurdish players are international stars and Kurdish clubs dominate the Iraqi league, but the Kurdish flag flies only at the VIVA World Cup, a tournament that operates by a different set of standards to those of FIFA. VIVA competitors are teams that hail from a tribal area, an agricultural province, an occupied nation, a semi-autonomous region, an ancient city-state, a disenfranchised minority enclave or a nation that is not recognised by football’s international governing body. “The goal is ideological,” says Jean-Luc Kit, vice president of the New Federation Board, VIVA’s organiser. “It’s about allowing peoples to exist through sport.”8 In VIVA, Iraqi Kurds, who are the closest to statehood than Kurds have ever come, and hosted the VIVA tournament in 2012, join fellow aspirant nations, such as Provence, the former Roman province of Raetia in Switzerland, Occitania, the Western Sahara, Darfur, Northern Cyprus, Zanzibar and Greenland – a country that FIFA does not recognise in part because it is too cold to grow adequate grass there.

The goal of integration

If Dalkurd advances into the UEFA Europa League, the club would also achieve another goal: it would symbolise Kurdish integration into Sweden in much the same way that the country’s two other top performing immigrant teams from the industrial town of Södertälje, 35 km south of Stockholm, did for the Assyrian/Syriac community. Ironically, the split among Assyrians in Södertälje, where they account for a quarter of the population, over how to refer to their community in Swedish – depending on whether one emphasises religion and church or the ancient national characteristics of the group – reflects the degree to which they have integrated into their adopted homeland. Assyrians, unlike Kurds, immigrated to Sweden in the knowledge that they were unlikely to ever witness the resurrection of their homeland as a national entity. “We were born here. We don’t know exactly what happened over there.

Sweden is good. It is our country. We have no other country. I would never want to live in Turkey. I go there on vacation and come back. Turkey is not for our people. When we play there, they stamp our passports at the border and throw them at us. They don’t like us,” said Syriac football player Robert Massi.

The split within the community has sparked two rival football teams. Each sees itself as the national squad of a disenfranchised nation. There are also two satellite television stations that broadcast in multiple languages, two churches, and a playground for criminal and foreign interests. The differing interpretations of history and identity are highlighted in symbols and chants during Södertälje’s derby.9 Assyriska FF fans boast tattoos of the Assyrian god Ashur while those of Syrianska FC display Christian symbolism or Syriac script on their bare upper bodies. Assyriska fans rolled out a huge flag portraying a medieval patriarch with a sword in commemoration of the mass killing of Assyrians in 1915 and an image of the Ishtar Gate in ancient Babel during the 2009 derby.10 Similarly, fans of both clubs often lace their debates about their teams with historic and religious references designed to prove their differing perceptions on whether the Assyrian kingdom will ever be resurrected and to what degree Assyrians can be distinguished from their church. The differing expressions of support constitute a continuous negotiation of what it means to be an Assyrian or Syriac.11

The football pitch serves as their platform for becoming part of a new society while at the same time maintaining past cultural identity and resisting efforts to marginalise their national and religious roots. As such, the battles on the pitch are an extension of issues Assyrians and Syriacs confront in their daily lives.

If history and cultural tradition defines the Assyrian/Syriac and Kurdish communities in Södertälje and Borlänge, so does concern about the blood-drenched popular revolt in Syria, intermittent clashes between Turkish security forces and the PKK in predominantly Kurdish south-eastern Turkey, and the spectre of the two meshing with Kurds becoming pawns in the struggle for the survival of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime. Those fears are reinforced by: the influx of Christian refugees from Iraq and, more recently, Syria; concerns about the rise of Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey, Syria and post-revolt Middle Eastern and North African nations; links between some Assyrians and Israel; and the grip of pro-Assad elements on the institutions of one significant faction of Assyrians.

The decision of Ignatius IV Hazim, the late patriarch of Antioch, to back Assad12 highlighted the split in the community and raised concerns that the community might be seen in Sweden as supportive of the Syrian leader’s brutal regime. Football managers fear that such an image could undermine their efforts to project themselves as symbols of integration in a country traditionally sympathetic to their community, which migrated to stay and constitutes an economic success story. The community has produced one former minister and a number of well-known journalists. Yet Assyrians and Syriacs, like the Kurds, feel that no matter how integrated they are and how good their Swedish is they continue to be viewed as outsiders by Swedish society. “I have been here for 40 years but I am still a foreigner. They never make you feel a part of their country. I did my military service here, I play golf and I speak Swedish. But because of my name and hair colour, they treat me differently. I’m still thankful,” says Assyriska executive Aziz Jacob.13

The perception that there is support for Assad from a significant segment of the community strengthens Swedish suspicions of links between the clubs and organised crime. These were reinforced by the recent trial of 17 people, including two Syrian nationals, on murder, blackmail and other charges involving Assyrian football in Södertälje.14 The fears are most prevalent among officials and supporters of Syrianska FC, the team aligned with the church of Ignatius IV Hazim. Ghayath Moro, a former Syrianska board member who now serves as the unelected head of security, fled Syria in the 1970s and arrived in Sweden aboard a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) flight from Lebanon. Moro’s unelected position of power in Syrianska serves as evidence for its Assyriska rivals that theirs is a more forward-looking, professionally run club in which officials are held accountable. To Assyriska officials and supporters, professionalism is a code word for ‘better integrated’ in Sweden. Assyriska officials note that their meetings are conducted in Swedish while those of Syrianska are in Aramaic. Swedish football association officials point out that Syrianska is managed by a small core group that has full control while Assyriska has a more professionally constituted board.15 In many ways, the split in the community that has been formalised in rival football teams has become one about the nature and degree of integration, with football as a manifestation of differing perceptions of history and culture. The differing perceptions are also reflected in the Syrian Orthodox Church’s close-knit ties with Syrianska, which are viewed by Assyriska supporters as a dangerous mingling of national and cultural identity.

Lulu Shanku, a Syrianska star who in 2011 stopped playing for the Syrian national team, freely describes the corruption in Syrian football and the intimidation of players by the Assad regime – until Moro joins the conversation. Replying to a question posed to Shanku about the fate of Mosab Balhous, the Syrian national team’s goalkeeper who initially vanished two years ago after reportedly being accused by the Assad regime of being an Islamist, Moro says: “Mosab disappeared because of one of the gangsters against the regime.” According to a senior Syrian football official, now a refugee in Jordan, Balhous resurfaced in Syria in 2013, though he could not explain his two-year disappearance.

Using terminology employed by the regime, Moro denounces Syrian protesters and rebels as “gangsters” and accuses the United States, Israel and Al Qaeda of waging war against Assad. “It is clear that the people want Assad,” Moro says. “The gangsters bombed our church in Khaldiye [an embattled neighbourhood of the city of Homs where Balhous originates and where another national goalkeeper is an opposition leader]. Too many Christians died.

Christians are 10 per cent of the population. We have two ministers [in Syria]. Christians and Syrians have always lived in peace and had good relations.” He says the siege of Homs has, since the bombing, enabled Assad to “clean” the city.

Younger Assyrians and Syriacs raised in Sweden, with its long history of social democratic government, feel uneasy with Moro’s unabashed support for a regime whose ruthlessness has made it a pariah. They too, however, express concerns about the fate of the Christian minority in a post-Assad era. They feel more comfortable with Moro’s expression of frustration with a perceived lack of acceptance by Swedish society. “The Swedes don’t want us to succeed. We’re ambitious, that is what sets us apart. We try all the time to build bridges. It is not easy because we are a foreign team and always will be a foreign team. They don’t see us as Swedes… and the Swedish media do not show our good side,” Moro says, referring to reports on Södertälje football’s links to criminal groups. Describing Syrianiska as a tool to keep youth from drifting into alcohol and drug abuse, Moro blames the city’s criminality on high unemployment and an influx of refugees from Iraq, many of whom are unregistered. He says an increase in police officers had made streets safe again.

The perception that society is failing to embrace the descendents of immigrants as equals is even stronger on German football pitches. Take the case of Nuri Sahin, for example. He was heralded a future star at age 16. He was the youngest player ever to compete in Germany’s Bundesliga, the country’s premier league. A German-born Turk with an infatuating smile, Sahin had secured his place in Germany’s national football team. The German Football Association did everything to persuade him to grab the opportunity, but to no avail. Sahin, like many top German-Turkish footballers, was determined to play for Turkey, asserting that he may have been born in Germany but that at the bottom line he was Turkish.16 In his first international game, he scored the winning goal – against Germany.

Sahin’s refusal to play for Germany is the product of a country that until recently refused to give citizenship even to those children of immigrants that were born in Germany. Yet, it shocked Germans, who see their national football team as proof that they are successfully integrating their seven million immigrants. With German spoken almost as much in Istanbul clubs as it is in German clubs, Sahin’s decision and the talent drain it represents are a loss and a tell-tale sign of Germany’s struggle with the integration of immigrants.

At the same time, it also tells the story of football’s cross-fertilising effect, not only in Europe but beyond the continent’s borders. The German Turks bring German virtues to Turkey and badly needed talent to European clubs. Football further bridges identities and constitutes a sort of reverse reconciliation, as is the case with France, whose French-born players join teams of their parents’ heritage in Algeria and elsewhere across the Mediterranean.

The cross-fertilisation effect

The cross fertilisation goes a step further. The ultras – militant, highly organised, highly politicised, street-battle hardened football fans in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa – trace their roots and model themselves on similar groups in Italy and Serbia. It was a German-Tunisian football player, Sami Khedira, who sparked the first crisis in post-revolt Tunisia between the media and the Islamist Ennahda-led government. Staff at Attounissia newspaper were arrested in February 2013 for reprinting a revealing cover of GQ Magazine on which Khedira, dressed in a tuxedo, covers with his hands the breasts of his otherwise naked girlfriend, German model Lena Gercke.

If Germany’s struggle with immigration is a story of two steps forward, one step back, across the Rhine in France, home to western Europe’s largest Muslim community, it’s one step forward, two steps back. Germans feted their 2010 multi-cultural World Cup squad as proof of the new Germany, a country where integration of Muslim immigrants is succeeding even if it remains cumbersome 10 years after offering, for the first time, citizenship to the German-born offspring of migrants. Germany’s success, moreover, loomed large against the backdrop of the disintegration in South Africa of the French national squad, a damming condemnation of France’s integration policy.

In fact, when the jet carrying the disgraced French team home landed on the tarmac in Paris it resembled an aircraft being sequestered for security or safety reasons. The plane stood there for an hour with its doors closed as the French media, government ministers and politicians denounced the football team as scum, trouble-makers and ‘guys with peas in their heads instead of brains,’ who were led by a captain who refused to sing the Marseillaise. The team made the kind of football history that Frenchmen would prefer to forget about: they were the first team ever to go on strike during a World Cup tournament and turned France into a global laughing stock.

Right wingers compared the players, many of whom hailed from immigrant suburbs, to hooded youths who set fire to cars on Saturday nights. Centre-right ministers echoed far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen’s denunciation of the team before the World Cup. She said the squad did not represent France and were more interested in commercial endorsements than national pride. Her comments came in response to Zinedine Zidane, the French-born scion of Algerian immigrants. Zidane is married to a Spaniard whose children have Christian names, and who is widely viewed as one of the best players of his generation. He describes himself as “first a Kabyle [Berber] from La Castellane [a neighborhood of Marseille], then an Algerian from Marseille, and then a Frenchman”.

This was all a far cry from the days of glory in 1998, when a victorious black-white-Arab team united the country. The question is: what went wrong? The answer to some degree is former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s focus on money and individualism that reinforced social and urban segregation, hardened the religious and cultural divide and fed post-9/11 prejudice against Muslims. Yet football was an indicator of the disintegration that predated Sarkozy and led to the World Cup disgrace.

The hijab as a cultural symbol

By the same token, Denmark, a country that in recent years has adopted a tougher stance on immigration, emerged as an unlikely catalyst in the acceptance of women who choose to wear the hijab on the football pitch. In 2008 the Danish Football Association backed Zainab al Khatib, a 15-year-old star striker of Palestinian origin who carried the banner in Europe for women demanding the right to play with their heads covered. Its support inspired a campaign to portray the headdress as a cultural rather than a religious symbol. That distinction ultimately persuaded the International Football Association Board, the body that governs the rules of professional football, to rule in 2012 that religiously observant women could wear a headdress that meets their cultural requirements, as well as standards of safety and security. The Danish support for Al Khatib was remarkable as it came at a time that parliaments in France, Belgium and Spain were imposing restrictions on Muslim women’s garb.

Khatib became the first covered national football player in Europe to be successfully fielded by her team. She wears a black scarf tightly wrapped around her head when she unleashes her lightning fast and nimble skills, and extraordinary her ability to score with a header. The Danish association defended the headscarf of its Under-18 national team’s most promising forward as a cultural rather than a religious commitment and compared it to the headband of Brazilian midfielder Ronaldinho Gaucho, which also violates FIFA’s insistence that all players should be dressed identically.

The Danish association’s support of Al Khatib set an example for the coalition of female European and Asian football executives and trainers, and Middle Eastern women players led by FIFA vice president Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan, which successfully campaigned for FIFA and IFAB’s lifting of the ban on women’s headdress.

The football pitch has become an important tool for integration and a measure of the success of European integration policies. As such, it constitutes a barometer that local, regional and national policymakers in Europe cannot afford to ignore.

James M Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, Co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture at the University of Würzburg, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog

  1. Anne Jolis, The Swedish Model for Europe, The Wall Street Journal, 21 May 2012

  2. Swedish Football Association quoted by Carl Rommel, Real Play, Suryoyo identification in Sweden Through the Performative Space of Football, unpublished MA thesis, 15 September 2009, page 25

  3. Interview with Dalkurd Co-founder and Sports Director Elvan Cicen on 12 May 2012

  4. Idem

  5. Paul Verweel, Respect in en Door Sport, Uitgeverij SWP, Amsterdam, 2007, page 30

  6. M Douglas, Essays with Sociology of Perception, Routledge, London, 1982

  7. Verweel, idem, page 19

  8. Interview with the author on 1 June 2012

  9. Carl Rommel, Real Play, Suryoyo identification in Sweden Through the Performative Space of Football, unpublished MA thesis, 15 September 2009

  10. idem

  11. Carl Rommel, Playing with difference: football as a performative space for division among Suryoye migrants in Sweden, Soccer & Society, 2011, page 850, 12:6

  12. David Gardner, Middle East: Febrile and Fragmented, Financial Times, 19 May, 2012

  13. Interview with the author on 12 May, 2012

  14. 17 Charged in Footballer’s ‘Gang-war’ Slaying, The Local, 16 November 2011

  15. Interview with the author on May 16 2011

  16. Markus Flohr and Maximilian Popp, Turkey Recruits Players ‘Made in Germany’, Der Spiegel, 17 September 2010

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