IRBIL, Iraq – Despite bad blood between the Kurdish-run northern Iraq and the larger chunk of the country ruled by Saddam Hussein, soccer teams from the two areas regularly compete, trade players and even steal each other's coaches.
Those ties, which have survived years of war and the virtual partition of the country, offer hope of reconciliation between Iraq's Arabs and Kurds if Saddam's regime is ousted.
"Sports is the first step for peace, calm and cooperation among the Iraqi people," said Nowzad Hossein, a professor at Salahaddin University in Irbil, a major city in the Kurdish-run north. "Sports has always been something that has brought people together, and here it gives people who don't have much else something to do to enjoy themselves."
Soccer matches between Kurdish and Iraqi Arab teams were suspended in the turmoil that followed the 1991 Gulf War, when Kurdish fighters rose up against Saddam. The Iraqi president sent troops into the north and drove thousands of Kurds into Turkey and Iran.
However, Saddam's forces withdrew after threats from the United States and its allies, and in 1993, soccer matches between teams from the two parts of the country resumed.
Nearly 10 years later, soccer competition is flourishing, and matches between Iraqi Kurdish and Iraqi Arab teams represent one of the few remaining ties between Saddam's Iraq and the autonomous, Western-protected Kurdish area.
Some Kurdish clubs continued to play teams from Saddam's Iraq during the Kurdish civil war from 1994 to 1998, even as they refused to compete against those from areas controlled by rival Kurdish factions.
"In the sports arena, as opposed to politics, you have rivals, not enemies," said Latif Jawber, a 21-year-old university student. "I guess sports-wise, we're one people. And I recognize the Iraqis as my countrymen."
Every year, teams from Arab parts of Iraq play about 100 matches a year against Kurdish clubs, and some players have even crossed the line to play for the other side.
For example, Kurdish forward Mohammad Nasser plays for a team in the southern, Saddam-run city of Basra. Howar Muhammad, a Kurd, is a midfielder on the roster of a team in Baghdad.
Kurdish fans idolize stars of Baghdad's main team, Al Zawraa, along with top players from Italy, Iran, Brazil and Germany.
"There's no difference for us at all," says Hakim Ali Aziz, a 33-year-old baker. "Soccer is a global sport. It's not a political thing."
Two weeks ago, a team in Irbil lured away a coach from Baghdad, Hakim Shaqer, for an undisclosed package of cash and perks. The deal was unusual since Saddam refuses to allow most Arabs to enter Kurdish Iraq. The Kurds, meanwhile, view most Iraqi Arabs as possible spies.
"Yes, I guess the Shaqer hire is strange if you look at it from the point of view of politics," said Zeerak Abdullah, a sportswriter at Hawolati, a Kurdish weekly newspaper. "But if you look at it from the point of view of sports, you look at his wins, losses and salary requirements, not where he's from."
Kurdish fans don't seem to mind matches with their "enemies" to the south. In fact, crowds at Irbil's matches seem more riled up when their archrivals and fellow Kurds from Dohuk come to town.
Competing against teams from Saddam's Iraq gives Kurdish players the chance to test their skills against a wider range of clubs. Since the Kurdish areas are not internationally recognized as a separate country, the Kurds cannot invite foreign clubs to come and play without permission from the Iraqi Football Association, headed by Saddam's son, Odai.
"We're not a real government or a real country," said Hossein, the professor. "We can't play with teams in other countries."