The Social Project
The accidental success of the Swedish side that was never meant to be about winning
Dalkurd Fotbollsförening were not supposed to be a serious football club at all. They were founded as a social project in the small town of Borlänge in late 2004, but not 14 years later they find themselves playing in Allsvenskan, the top division in Sweden – and they don't intend to stop there.
They are on a mission to represent all the Kurdish people around the globe, yet are diverse and multicultural at the same time. Their success seems to prove that good intentions can at times be rewarded in a special way, beyond the wildest dreams of those who set the wheels in motion. In the case of Dalkurd, the initial goal was to prevent a few local youngsters from developing drug problems.
The founder of Dalkurd is Ramazan Kizil, affectionately known within the club as Mukhtar, Arabic for "chosen" and used to mean a village leader. One of his sons had a significant drug problem in 2004, while the other, Adil, was one of a number of players thrown out of the local club IK Brage, for disciplinary reasons. Ramazan wanted to save them from the streets and thought that football would be the best cure.
He didn't know a lot about the game himself. "My father wasn't even interested in football, but he thought that establishing a team would be a great idea,” said Adil Kizil. “He wanted to allow the youngsters to do something and save them from drugs, which was a widespread problem in the area.”
The Kizil family are immigrants from the Turkish part of Kurdistan. They arrived in Borlänge in 1989 as refugees and made it their home, although life wasn't easy at the beginning. "Sweden gave us so much and we wanted to give something back," Adil said. Setting up the club was also a way to help themselves become more integrated.
But what should such a club be called? The solution was quite original and aesthetically beautiful – Dalkurd. "Dal" stands for Dalarna, the county where Borlänge is situated. "Kurd" stands for Kurdistan. There is a place for both the present and the past of the Kizil family. That was also the idea behind the club crest. It features the colours of the Kurdish flag – red, white and green – and the Kurdish sun, but also two small horses that have nothing to do with Kurdistan. They are the traditional symbol of Dalarna, because it was very important for Kizil to send the right message to all the people of the county.
"We accepted youngsters from all origins – Swedish, Somalian, Arab, Albanian and so on. The average age of the squad was 17 when we started in the eighth division. I was the goalkeeper, the captain and oldest player at 20," Kizil said. Dalkurd won their first trophy in a local futsal tournament. However, they proved to be very good on the big pitch too.
One of the secrets behind their success is the training regime. While amateur teams usually train a couple of times weekly, Dalkurd had two-hour sessions every day. That was the main idea behind the project, and the results were sensational. Dalkurd won five promotions in a row, jumping from the eighth division to the third by 2010 and losing just four matches during those five seasons. Remarkably, they kept the backbone of the squad during that rise, but naturally new players were attracted – especially those of Kurdish origin.
One of them is Amir Azrafshan, who joined the club in 2006. His remarkable story fits the Dalkurd ethos perfectly from every possible angle. "I was born on the border of Iraq and Iran during the war,” he said, “and my father was a Peshmerga soldier, fighting for the independence of Kurdistan. My childhood was tough, but my family moved to Sweden when I was 10, and settled in Falun near Borlänge. In 2004, when Dalkurd were established, I played for the local club Falu FK in the third division. They contacted me, but I didn't think that was a good idea. However, when Adil Kizil was loaned to Falu, he told me everything about the project and said that they needed me. In 2006, when Dalkurd were promoted to the sixth division, I decided to move.
"My father was initially against the decision. He said that I was a good player and shouldn't waste my talent in the lower divisions. And yet I was adamant. I wanted to represent the Kurdish people. 'Your parents were not happy when you fought in the war and risked your life, right? Now let me do something for Kurdistan and hold our flag high,' I told my father. Eventually, he understood me.
"I think there was a Kurdish majority at the club before we were promoted to the fourth division, but I’m not sure. The most important thing was our style. We played possession football, tiki-taka, o jogo bonito. It was very special, because teams in lower Swedish divisions tend to play in the old British style with a lot of long balls and physical contact. We were different, and I enjoyed that very much. Finally, I found the club where I could express myself.”
Adil Kizil and Azrafshan continued playing together until the team was promoted to the third division, but then decided to retire and help the club in different capacities. Kizil became a very successful sporting director, able to unearth talents in Sweden and abroad and find the type of players who suited the Dalkurd mentality. Azrafshan stopped playing at the age of 23 and became a youth coach. In 2016, he was promoted to head the newly established Dalkurd academy and a year later became the assistant coach for the senior team as well.
"During my playing days,” Azrafshan said, “I studied philosophy and neuropsychology at Uppsala University and that helped me to understand my problems. I was usually good in training sessions, but didn't perform in the matches themselves and apparently it was due to pressure. My state of mind wasn't right. I moved into coaching in order to help young talents to express themselves without psychological limits. That was my mission.”
And while some of the players who helped to establish the club moved upstairs, others – more naturally talented – came in. The most important of them was Peshraw Azizi, a promising midfielder who played for Syrianska, a club sensationally promoted to Allsvenskan in 2011. Instead of trying his luck at the top, Azizi chose to join Dalkurd and pursue a much more sacred dream.
"I was born in Iraq to a family of Kurdish freedom fighters,” he said. “We were never safe there and never lived in the same place. As a Kurdish person, you don't have equal rights in Iraq and our people suffer all the time. We were fortunate to move to Sweden when I was 12, but the desire to help the national course had always been strong. I didn't want to enter politics, though, and war is not for me either. I want to promote peace and football is the right way to do it.
"I lived in Stockholm and followed the progress of Dalkurd. You might say that I was a fan and I went to watch their away games in the Stockholm area. When they contacted me, it was an easy decision. That was a rare opportunity to play for my colours and my flag. This is much more than just a game for me. It is about passion and dreams. I knew immediately that we could be successful. We just had to be patient enough.”
Patience was needed indeed. After five successive promotions, Dalkurd stayed in the third division for six years from 2010 to 2015. They failed in the promotion play-offs in 2013 and coaches were changed frequently. The belief was always there, though, and Azizi said, "I never wanted to leave. There were good offers from the first two divisions, but I decided to stay at Dalkurd and make history with them. That was especially important because we became famous in my homeland."
Kurdistan gradually became emotionally involved with Dalkurd. People in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran watched their matches on the internet, and so did members of Kurdish diaspora in Germany, the United States and other countries. In Sweden, Kurdish immigrants came to watch Dalkurd when the team visited their region and so they had much more support for away games. In Borlänge, average attendances in the third division were mere hundreds, but in the Stockholm area thousands supported the club with the Kurdish heart.
Azizi, who became club captain in 2013, did everything in his power to promote the club and make the Kurdish players happy. "I went to Kurdistan every year during my vacations,” he said. “At times it was dangerous, but I thought that it was my duty to visit the refugee camps. There is no difference between the Kurdish soldiers and myself. We are all fighting for the same cause. In 2014, we organised a Dalkurd training camp in Kurdistan and played friendly matches – one in Turkey and one in Iraq. It was an emotional experience for everyone.”
By that time, however, the majority of the players were not Kurdish. The unique mix became even more diverse, but players from different origins always felt part of one big family. In fact, "family" is the word everybody associated with Dalkurd mentions very frequently when talking about the club. That is what makes it so special, and players are picked not only based on their talent, but also – even more importantly – on their character and mentality. Only those who are suited to the family environment are allowed to join.
"We are one family,” said the former board director Cego Heskali. “Every player who comes here feels that way. Players care about each other, always ready to help.”
"We are all very close to each other, like family members," Azizi claimed.
"There are no conflicts in the dressing room, and all the nationalities get on excellently together,” said Adil Kizil. “We have a long-serving striker Ahmed Awad who plays for the Palestine national team, and people said there would be trouble when we signed the American Jewish defender David Abidor. Some said they were bound to fight, but that is impossible at Dalkurd. We are always united.
"Since the club was established, I learned a lot of different cultures. Our family had problems integrating in Sweden, but Dalkurd helped us, and now we speak perfect Swedish. This project has an important political message. We never segregate from anyone. We see Dalkurd as a Swedish club with Kurdish founders, and we take the best of all sides. That is why we are so successful.”
As the veteran goalkeeper Frank Pettersson, who played for Dalkurd between 2010 and 2017, put it: "The only time we differentiate between colours is when we do laundry."
That doesn't mean, though, that Dalkurd are looking for perfect characters. On the contrary, they are more than willing to give chances to those who have experienced significant problems in the past. The promising midfielder Brwa Nouri, who used to represent Sweden at youth level, was thrown out of AIK in 2009. He was a drug addict at the time, but found a home at Dalkurd and managed to get his career back on track. In 2013, he moved on to Östersunds FK, helped them get promoted to Allsvenskan, became their captain and started playing for the Iraq national team.
Even more remarkable is the story of the former Nazi player, who changed his political views and was accepted at Dalkurd with open arms. As Rawez Lawan said, "Everyone here is a bit special. We are a family of very different people, because you can always be yourself at Dalkurd. You can express yourself freely."
Lawan, the industrious 30-year-old midfielder, joined the club at the beginning of 2016 after they finally won the promotion to Superettan, the Swedish second division. Born in the Rosengård district of Malmö, like Zlatan Ibrahimović, he had an eventful and successful career, winning the championship in Denmark with Nordsjælland in 2012 and in Sweden with IFK Norrköping in 2015 – albeit without playing regularly. Then, instead of taking part in the Champions League qualifiers, he chose to move to Dalkurd.
"My parents came to Sweden in 1982,” he said, “and we always spoke Kurdish at home. I visited Kurdistan myself five times and we still have a lot of relatives there. Naturally, hearing about a club established by Kurdish people in Sweden was interesting for me. I didn't know about Dalkurd when they were founded, but started reading about them in 2011, when they reached the promotion play-offs in the third division and lost. For a while, I was just a fan, but things changed rapidly when they were promoted to Superettan.
"Adil Kizil got in touch with me in late 2015 and asked me to join them. I had some interesting offers from top clubs in Sweden and Denmark, but I listened to my heart. You don't only play football for money, because there are more important things than that. I wanted to be part of a special project, and the feeling was that this is exactly the right step to take. I dropped down to a lower division in order to help and fulfil a very unique dream.”
That dream was to win another promotion to Allsvenskan and Dalkurd were serious about it. New investments most definitely helped. Two Kurdish millionaires from Iraq who mostly live in Britain, Sarkat and Kawa Junad Rekani, acquired 49% of the club and the annual budget grew to €2million. It was still lower than most of the clubs in the division, but hopes were extremely high. "It was obvious that we had a good chance of going up again," Lawan said.
That feeling was correct. In the 2016 season, Dalkurd finished fourth and just missed out on the promotion play-offs. In 2017, they improved, led the table for most of the campaign and were promoted in second place. The football was attractive, with 57 goals scored and just 26 conceded in 30 matches, and a lot of neutral fans fell for the unusual club that made all sorts of positive headlines. Take the captain's armband, for example: Azrafshan suggested that it should be in the LGBT colours for the entirety of 2017. The captain Azizi and his deputy Lawan were enthused by the idea and implemented it.
They are much more famous now, but Dalkurd never forget that they were first and foremost a social project. That is why their vision didn't change. "Studying at a football academy can be expensive in Sweden, but we know that the kids in our area simply cannot afford that,” Azrafshan said. “That is why they have to work instead of paying money at Dalkurd. There are many youngsters who come from difficult backgrounds and simply don't know what work is. We teach them about responsibility and help them grow as people. We never throw out kids who misbehave and always give them a second chance. They don't just learn football at our academy, but are prepared for life in general.
"It is important that the kids learn to think. We don't give them answers, but rather ask them questions. We don't show them how to cross the ball, but rather ask how to cross it properly in different situations. On a certain day, we had a lively discussion on whether lying is always wrong. That kind of philosophical debate can be very enriching.”
First-team players and club officials are involved in various social projects. Stars visit schools and meet local children on regular basis as part of their contracts. Board members frequently patrol troubled neighbourhoods at night to help the fight against crime. They take their mission very seriously and were disappointed at what they saw as a lack of support from the town of Borlänge.
"The municipality didn't approve our plans to build a bigger stadium,” Lawan said, “and eventually we had to take a decision to move the club to another town.” Dalkurd are building the stadium in Gävle and it should be ready in 2019. In the meantime, the club has moved to Uppsala, about 170km south-east of Borlänge, and all the players had to leave their homes. "It was sad, especially for the veterans who are used to living in Borlänge, but the club has to continue growing," Lawan admitted
The move was traumatic and yet symbolic, because Dalkurd are now a global brand. Attendances were low at Borlänge, because it is a remote and small town. "When were won the promotion to Allsvenskan, soldiers who are fighting Isis sent me messages and congratulated us,” aid Lawan. “They were following our games during the war and our good results serves as an additional inspiration to them. It is quite incredible.”
For those fighters, Dalkurd represent the national team of Kurdistan. That is how they feel, partly because the Kurdish flag is flying at the stadium, and the impression is shared by Kurdish players themselves. Not for nothing was Rewan Amin delighted to join the project in 2017.
The Iraqi-born Kurdish midfielder emigrated to the Netherlands with his parents at the age of three, and was once considered a top prospect in his age group. Amin played for the Netherlands Under-17 team in 2012, alongside the current Crystal Palace defender Jaïro Riedewald, but was unable to break into the first squad at Heerenveen. It was obvious that a new direction was needed and an offer from Dalkurd came at the right time.
"My father immediately told me that I must go there,” Amin said. “It is a Kurdish team and the family wanted me to represent it, because it is a source of national pride. I immediately felt at home, because it is possible to speak Kurdish with some players and managers.” His purchase was a result of smart scouting by Adil Kizil, but his acumen is not limited to Kurdish players. Quite the reverse: he is looking for players from different nationalities and backgrounds, because diversity is one of the most important values of Dalkurd.
The Japanese winger Yukiya Sugita definitely was a very unexpected addition in 2017, but proved to be extremely valuable to the team. "I was playing in Thailand and wanted to return to Europe when my agent told me of Dalkurd's interest,” Sugita said. “He told me that they are a very special club and I liked the idea from the beginning. I came for a trial in Sweden and signed after just two weeks. It was clear that we were going to fight for promotion and by the end of the season the goal had been achieved. This is the best period of my career.
"It is quite interesting to play in such surroundings. There are players of different backgrounds, but the Kurdish character can be felt. I learned a lot about Kurdistan during my time at Dalkurd. My teammates tell me about their culture and heritage, and I know quite a few words in Kurdish now. Watching the Kurdish fans is remarkable. After our game at Malmö at the beginning of June, for example, I witnessed Kurdish fans crying with joy in the stands, because we managed to draw the game 1-1 against superior opposition. It was a very emotional moment.”
The positive result against Malmö was achieved despite the coach Azrudin Valentić resigning after just ten matches, leaving Adil Kizil to take over on a temporary basis. The Bosnian arrived at Dalkurd in the beginning of the season, because the promotion-winning boss Andreas Brännström left the club, believing that he was on the verge of joining IFK Göteborg. In fact, Dalkurd have never found stability as far as coaches are concerned and finding the right person to guide this special team in Allsvenskan is the most important task.
The start in the top flight wasn't easy, with just five points won in the first eleven matches, but all the players were adamant that it was possible to turn things around, and the results did improve after the World Cup. "We are here to stay” Lawan said, “even though we are going to fight against relegation for a couple of seasons. Things take time, but eventually we will be a major force in Swedish football. Our goal is to play in Europe and maybe even fly the Kurdish flag in the Champions League.”
That is quite ambitious for a social project that started out in the eighth division just fourteen years ago, but Dalkurd have proved that the most incredible dreams can come true. "We combine Swedish discipline with Kurdish courage," Kizil says, and this mix is exciting and inspiring. If they manage to stay in the Allsvenskan by the end of the 2018 season, everything will seem possible.