THE VIVA World Cup, one of the most important sporting events for nations unaffiliated with FIFA, kicked off for the first time in Kurdistan Region, and promised to be a momentous spectacle.
The Kurds, losing finalists at the previous two tournaments, host the competition for footballing-sides that for whatever reason are not recognized by FIFA, with the local government generously covering all accommodation expenses.
The teams competing in the tournament are Kurdistan Region as hosts, Zanzibar, Provence, Occitania, Darfur, Raetia, North Cyprus, Western Sahara and Tamil Eelam.
In a press conference attended by the Kurdistan Football Federation (KFF) president, Safin Kanaby and the NF Board general Jean Luc Kit, the draw for the event was announced on May 27th at the Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil.
Kurdistan, which plays against Western Sahara in the opening match, is placed alongside Occitania in Group A.
Meanwhile, Group B consists of three newcomers, with relatively experienced Zanzibar taking on Raetia, a provincial segment within Switzerland and Tamil Eelam, an area within Sri Lanka who has never played an international match.
Group C sees two more debutants, with the non-FIFA high-flyers Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus facing Darfur, a charity-funded venture with the new international side from Africa playing their first match at the tournament, while the French region of Provence rounds up the tournament line-up.
On the surprisingly quick route to the Final on June 9th, the teams will be battling to come top of their Groups, with the 3 winners and best runner-up progressing to the Semi-finals.
NF Board general Jean Luc Kit said "Persuading the teams to participate in the tournament was not an easy task at all, but it took a lot of time. We were finally able to bring nine teams to Kurdistan. I am sure Kurdistan will be successful in hosting the events as everything is set up and it looks like things will go smoothly. Kurdish football is growing just like how the economy is growing,"
According to Kit, NF Board sent an invitation letter to FIFA president Joseph Platter to attend the opening match, but he apologized due to being busy with European Cup matches which are going to take place this month. "Platter hopes success for the tournament responding to our invitation letter," Kit said
When asked why the draw was announced in the absence of the teams' representatives, Kit said "It would cost a lot of money for the teams' delegates to attend the draw ceremony,"
Concerning the preparations for the tournament, KFF president, Safin Kanaby, said "so far everything is going well. We will do our best in order for the tournament to run prosperously. We are going to be known by outside world countries and I am sure if we succeed in our job, better sporting opportunities will be created for us,"
Kurdistan recently participated in Nakba Cup, a FIFA recognized tournament in Palestine last month, and won third place and the Fair Play Award.
Kanaby asked the media to pay great attention to the VIVA World Cup and try to show the good images of Kurdistan to the outside world. He also asked the people to attend all the matches and show their respect to the guests.
If VIVA World Cup is important for Kurdistan, it may be a dream coming true for Darfur. Until a few months ago, Darfur didn't have a football team or perhaps even dreamed of one. Now after weeks of try-outs and training, Darfur United, a team comprised solely of Darfur refugees, will compete at the 2012 VIVA World Cup in Kurdistan.
Many of the young men on Darfur United have only played on the desert sand, with bare feet and makeshift balls. Today they will compete on a real field for the first time.
"The Darfur United players have had nothing positive to celebrate and have been losing hope of any future beyond the confines of the refugee camp," says Gabriel Stauring, Director of iACT, which is partnering with Aid Still Required to bring the team to Iraq.
"This team means so much more to them than just a game of football. It gives all refugees something to celebrate, and it gives them a connection to the outside world." Added Stauring
Sponsors and donors of Darfur include Adidas, UNHCR, David Beckman, Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS Works (Major League Soccer Foundation), EVO Soccer Programs and many individuals.
The VIVA World Cup is an international football tournament organized by the NF Board, an umbrella association for nations unaffiliated with FIFA. Competitions are held every two years. Kurdistan Region has taken part in this tournament three times. In 2008, Kurdistan secured fourth place, but went on to become runners-up in 2009 and 2010. Observers think Kurdistan has the best chance to win the title this time around playing in front of their home crowd.