Even though it plays in the lower division, Turkish team Kahramanmaraşspor will be on the national stage next week when it welcomes northern Iraq’s Zakho FC. The match will be the first ever Turkish and Kurdish teams, only adding to the political drama of the Kurdish initiative

A football match next week is about to prove again that the impact of the beautiful game often goes beyond the boundaries of the pitch.

League Two team Kahramanmaraşspor will welcome Zakho FC of northern Iraq on Wednesday in a friendly game, which will be the first football match between Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish teams.

The match will no doubt bring memories of football being a diplomatic instrument between politically troubled sides, such as 1998’s World Cup tie between the United States and Iran, or more recently the Turkish-Armenian game last year.

The Turkish military has many times made cross border operations into northern Iraq to fight the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has used Iraqi territory to launch attacks against Turkey. The leaders of Iraqi Kurds have been the target of critisim for not doing enough to fight the PKK. Even though at times there has been resistence in Turkey to recognize the Kurdish administration in the north as a separate entity, still relations with the Iraqi Kurdish authorities have been improving lately.

Kahramanmaraşspor’s chairman admits that the match will be a positive step for building a liaison of friendship between Turkey and northern Iraq, but does not want to see this game as an out-there political statement.

“We see this game as an opportunity for friendship matters, we focus on friendship,” Muhammed Günkut told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in a telephone interview. “But we don’t see just the political aspect.”

It should be noted that it was Zakho FC that made the first proposal of a friendly game, when the chairmen of the two clubs met in Ankara. Günkut had to turn down an offer to hold training camp and play an exhibition game in northern Iraq due to a schedule conflict, but invited the club, which plays in Iraq’s Division One, to Kahramanmaraş instead.

The fixture received positive reviews from the government, with Interior Minister Beşir Atalay hailing the match.

“Sports has always been an important factor in improving relations and fraternity,” Atalay said last week. “I hope this game contributes in that manner. We will only be happy with that.”

Günkut carefully explained that the process was definitely not part of the government's Kurdish initiative, but admitted that suits the current political atmosphere very well.

“Our purpose was not to be a part of the Kurdish initiative,” the chairman said. “But it just clicked there.”
Although some right-wing Kahramanmaraş fans are opposed to the idea of their team welcoming a Kurdish team and have voiced their reaction on Internet forums, the general feeling in the southern city is positive.

“There should be no doubt that our guests from Iraq will be welcomed in the best possible way,” said Mehmet İmamoğlu, the head of the Web-based fan organization Kahramanmarasspor.org. “We may even go to Trabzon Square with Zakho FC players and eat Kahramanmaraş’s famous ice cream together.

Football diplomacy reaches a new pitch - Hürriyet Daily News and Economic Review