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Assyrian Football Clubs in the Diaspora

Perspective: Guest-Editorial

by Paul Antonopoulos

Posted: Tuesday, December 15, 2015 at 06:11 AM UT

It has been revealed that in Iraq, under pressure from Kurdish and Arab elements, Assyrian identity and culture is being undermined by simply being labelled as Christians. Although it may seem irrelevant or even trivial, this is an attack on a stateless people with a 4500 year old history, language, culture and identity.

However, in the very large Assyrian diaspora where their culture, identity and language are not under threat of extinction, it seems it is thriving. This is most reflected with its community football clubs.

The football clubs are found all over the world with some including;

  • 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.
  • Then of course there are the juggernauts of Assyriska FF and Syrianska FC from Sweden.

Football clubs have always provided a basis for immigrant communities in a foreign country. 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.

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 their footballing 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 centre piece of the Assyrian and Syriac community in Europe. The Assyriska cultural association were the first to form a football club with the Syriac’s following suit a couple years later. Although disappointingly embroiled in the name issue, both clubs came as a central focal point for their communities.

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 Örgryte 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 on Turkish television announced that: “They are called Assyriska. They will spread that name all over the world!” This threatened to unravel and bring questions to whom and where the Assyrians are from.

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 Assyrian genocide where up to 300,000 were purged and exterminated by the Young Turks.

This is a demonstration of Assyrian self-identity being expressed in a football context allowing Assyrians to display their history, plight and political astuteness. Reverend Ashur D. Elkhoury of St. Paul the Apostle in California stated in an interview with that: “no other organized non-political 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 and Syriac 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 such example. He began his career with Syrianska before 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.”

This demonstrates the very importance the football clubs have played in integrating their communities to broader Swedish society.

Opposite to these powerhouses of Assyrian and Syriac football 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 teams in the past 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.

So although the Assyrian peoples and histories are threatened to the point of extinction in Iraq, in the diaspora communities, it is in safe hands. 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 and identity, and serve as a conduit to Assyrian political expression.

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