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article imageIraq dispute kicks off crisis for Kurdish sports

By Khalil Jalil (AFP)     Nov 4, 2017 in Sports

Sports clubs and players in Iraqi Kurdistan are facing the threat of a spell on the sidelines as the crisis between the region and Baghdad sees matches suspended and away trips cancelled.

For the first time ever, two basketball teams from the region will miss the start of the Iraqi league season, after Kurdish authorities and the central government went from a war of words about a vote for independence in September to armed clashes over disputed territories.

Because of security fears, Iraq's basketball federation suspended matches for a team from the town of Zakho, in a volatile border area with Turkey, and another from the Kirkuk province, which was recently retaken by Baghdad.

Football fans wave the flags of Iraq and the Kurdistan region as they support the national team in h...
Football fans wave the flags of Iraq and the Kurdistan region as they support the national team in happier times, a far cry from the situation now as Kurdish clubs risk being sidelined after a political crisis spilt over into sport
Safin HAMED, AFP/File

Secretary General Khaled Najm told AFP that the games had been called off indefinitely as "it isn't in the interest of the teams or players to travel outside Kurdistan".

"We're following how things play out and the teams will return if the situation gets better," he said.

To avoid any potential combustible clashes, Iraq's volleyball federation has come up with a novel solution -- putting all the Kurdish clubs in the league in a sub-division of their own.

"The players won't need to go to other towns in Iraq," said sports boss Manaf Fadel.

How that pans out in the longer term remains to be seen.

Last year Kurdish team Peshmerga -- named after the region's famed security force -- won the league. Just a week ago, their namesake fighters were exchanging mortar fire with Iraqi troops.

- 'Ready for all outcomes' -

Football coach Sakfan Said is currently gearing up for a crack at the Iraqi championship with his team Zakho, but now he fears that he may not get the chance.

In 2015, the Iraqi national team inaugurated his club's new stadium in their home town near the frontier with Turkey. After the latest tensions that seems like a long time ago.

"We don't know if we will take part in the championship," the manager said.

"It is very important for us to play in the league, but we are ready for all outcomes."

Club president Abdullah Majid's beloved Arbil -- the team from the Kurdish capital city -- are no strangers to the antagonisms that still run deep in Iraq.

Last season, the squad withdrew after facing anti-Kurdish chants in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

Players from Arbil football club celebrate winning the Iraqi league in 2012  but now the team could ...
Players from Arbil football club celebrate winning the Iraqi league in 2012, but now the team could be sidelined as the crisis between Baghdad and Kurdistan spills over into sports
Safin HAMED, AFP/File

This time the fallout seems like it might be more serious -- although he hopes the situation can be resolved by the time the season starts later this month.

"We want to take part and we have prepared our players, but I cannot guarantee anything," he said.

Ironically, the team's stadium is one of only three across Iraq where world governing body FIFA says the country's national team can play owing to security worries in the conflict-wracked country.

For Arbil's goalkeeper Serhank Mohsen, whatever happens he is determined that the feud between the central authorities and Kurdistan will not keep him out of action.

"We want to play in the Iraqi league," he said.

"But if we are not allowed to then we will just play in Kurdistan."

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