Football, Politics and Assyrian National Identity

A large Assyrian flag is displayed by Assyrian fans at a game played by Assyriska, an Assyrian football club in Sweden.

A large Assyrian flag is displayed by Assyrian fans at a game played by Assyriska, an Assyrian football club in Sweden.

By Paul Antonopoulos – 22/12/15

(AINA) — In Iraq, Syria and Turkey, Assyrian identity and culture is being undermined by simply being labelled as Christian. Although it may seem irrelevant or even trivial, this is an attack on a stateless people with a 6700 year history, language, culture and identity.

But in the very large Assyrian diaspora where their culture, identity and language are not under threat of extinction, Assyrian culture is thriving. One aspect of this is community football clubs, which have provided a basis for immigrant communities in foreign countries. Some of these immigrant clubs have become the biggest teams in their respect countries. Palmeiras in Brazil, which was formed by Italian immigrants; PAOK, which was formed by Greek immigrants leaving Turkey for Thessaloniki; and Sydney Olympic FC, created by Greek immigrants to Sydney.

Justin Civitillo, PhD in Geography, Environment and Population, explains that immigrants found their involvement with a football club assisted in their integration into a new country as well as a mechanism in building new relationships and social networks. It also provides a safe space where immigrants can intermingle with those in their community. This has been no different in the vast Assyrian diaspora.

The following are some of Assyrian football clubs are found all over the world:

  • Fairfield Bulls in the western suburbs of Sydney
  • Moreland United FC in Melbourne
  • Assyrian Star Football Club in Auckland
  • FC Assyria in West London.
  • Assyrian FC in Chicago
  • Assyriska FF and Syrianska FC in Sweden

Fairfield Bulls was formed in 1971 and fell under the umbrella of the Assyrian Australian Association and later with the Nineveh Club. Although mostly an amateur club for most of its history, in 2001 it was promoted to the semi-professional NSW’s Premier League. As it fell under the umbrella of the Assyrian Australian Association, it provided an avenue for Assyrian football lovers to congregate, intermingle or play. Hosting teams in the local amateur district competition, it also has the semi-professional team that provides an avenue for potential Assyrian-Australians football stars to progress in their careers. This is not an uncommon story across the Assyrian diaspora.

Assyriska FF and Syrianska FC are another example of this. They were established in 1974 and 1977 respectively in Sodertalje, Sweden, the center-piece of the Assyrian communities in Europe. The Assyriska cultural association were the first to form a football club with the Syriac’s following suit a couple years later.

Assyriska FF, which is by far the more popular and successful team in Sweden between the two, has especially been the main community point for Assyrians in Sweden. It is not uncommon to hear of Assyrians from Australia, the United States, Canada and elsewhere in Europe making an almost pilgrimage like visit to see the club dubbed as ‘the unofficial Assyrian National team.’ Assyriska has become so important to Assyrian identity that in 2004, a second match play off against Orgryte IS in Gothenburg was broadcasted across 84 countries which had an Assyrian diaspora.

Both clubs have reached the pinnacle of Swedish football, the Allsvenskan. This brought great awareness to the plight of the stateless Assyrians around the world, so much so that Dr Mehmet Celik announced on Turkish television “They are called Assyriska. They will spread that name all over the world!”

The first game for the club in the Allsvenskan was politically driven, with players wearing a black armband in commemoration on the 90th anniversary of the Turkish genocide of Assyrians in World War One, when 750,000 Assyrians were killed.

This is a demonstration of Assyrian self-identity being expressed in a football context, allowing Assyrians to display their history, plight and political astuteness. Reverand Ashur D. Elkhoury of St. Paul the Apostle church in California stated in an interview with that: “no other organized movement with political ambitions has reached such high level of innovative recognition for our Assyrian people internationally as this club has. Assyriska fights for our awareness worldwide as the indigenous people of Mesopotamia and battles for the knowledge of our people’s recognition by the international community on their Football Arenas.”

Although Assyriska and Syrianska are hailed as brilliant examples of Assyrian culture and identity in Sweden, they have also been praised for their effectiveness in helping their communities integrate into the broader Swedish society. Kennedy Bakircioglu is an example of this integration. He began his career at Assyriska, before a move to Hammarby. He then expanded his career to Greece, the Netherlands and Spain. Sharbel Touma is another example. He began his career with Syrianska, moving to Djurgarden, AIK, and Halmstad in Sweden before making the jump to the Netherlands, Germany and Greece.

These football clubs in Sweden have not only provided an avenue for cultural expression and assimilation, but they have also provided a pathway for young Assyrian-Swedes to begin a football career before moving onto the traditionally bigger Swedish clubs or abroad.

Afram Yakoub, Chairman of the Assyrian Federation of Sweden, speaking with me said: “I believe the football clubs help maintain Assyrian identity and make it a natural part of Swedish society. They are a source of pride for the community.”

Opposite to these powerhouses of Assyrian football in Sweden is the Australian Assyrian Cup. It has been running since 1980 and is one of Australia’s longest running football cup competitions. It attracts amateur and semi-professional clubs mostly from Sydney and Melbourne but has brought in the past teams from New Zealand and other cities in Australia.

It serves as a social gathering for the Assyrian community, where they can get together in a communal manner. These interactions during the tournament are the very element of keeping Assyrian identity, culture and language flourishing in Australia.

A spokesperson for Moreland United FC, an amateur Assyrian football club from Melbourne established in 1989, emphasised the importance of the Assyrian Cup: “The Melbourne Assyria Cup is a chance for the Assyrian community not just in Melbourne, but around Australia (in particular Sydney) and on occasion New Zealand to come together and play football. Beyond that, it is an opportunity for Assyrians and even non-Assyrians to mingle and get to know each other better, in the hopes of building a stronger understanding amongst each other and increase relations and friendship.”

As with the examples seen in Sweden and Australia, these football clubs play a pivotal role in the community. This is replicated across the world where Assyrian communities live, in New Zealand, Denmark, England, Canada and the United States.

So although the Assyrian people and their history are threatened to the point of extinction in Iraq, in the diaspora there is security. This cannot be seen better then through the football clubs established by Assyrian immigrants, which has helped forge the career of professional Assyrian footballers, served as a meeting point to the community where they can demonstrate their culture, language and identity, and also serve as a conduit to Assyrian political and religious expressions.

Paul Antonopoulos is currently a Candidate for an MA Degree, writing his dissertation on the Saudi-Iranian Geopolitical Rivalry in the Syrian War. He is an analyst for Al-Masdar News.

© 2015 Assyrian International News Agency.