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UPPSALA, Sweden – It began as a project in a Swedish town to get misbehaving kids off the street. Now, it has grown into a top-flight soccer team that has given the Kurdish minority — scattered and ravaged by war for decades — something to cherish as its own.
The 14-year journey of the team known as Dalkurd is an unlikely story of second chances, cultural integration and using the world's most popular sport as a force for good.
"We are like the big symbol for the Kurdish people," said Peshraw Azizi, who fled northern Iraq for Sweden with his family in 2000 and has played for Dalkurd for much of the club's astonishing rise. "We are their national team."
At a time when immigration is at the top of the political agenda in Sweden, Dalkurd's status in the country's leading soccer league, Allsvenskan, is striking. It is a notion that would have been scoffed at when the team was founded in 2004.
That's the year that 15 youngsters — a mix of nationalities and backgrounds including Kurds, Africans and Arabs — were released because of disciplinary reasons from IK Brage, the main soccer team in Borlange, a town in the county of Dalarna. They were friends from a rough area of the rural town and soccer was the main thing in their lives.
A group of Kurdish migrants living in Borlange decided to start a new club, using the 15 ousted players as the nucleus of the squad. They saw it as a way to give something back to a community that had welcomed them as refugees.
They called the team Dalkurd — a fusion of the name of the locality, Dalarna, and the founders' Kurdish roots. It adopted the colors of the Kurdish flag: red, white and green, with a golden sun at the center.
"We took away their free time, made them believe they could achieve something good with either their football or their lives," said Adil Kizil, who was a member of that initial Dalkurd squad because his father, Ramazan, was one of the founders. "Nobody believed in us. They thought, 'It's a club founded by friends: They'll play one year and then collapse.'"
Dalkurd started in the eighth and lowest tier of Swedish soccer — sort of like a community league where the teams are made up of amateurs mostly playing for fun.
The co-founders went into troubled local schools and met with parents, encouraging them to allow their children on the team. They also recruited players who were kicked off other clubs. Dalkurd's coaches and administrators worked for no pay in their spare time.
In that lowest tier, Dalkurd trained for 2½ hours every night, taking a much more serious approach than their rivals. Over five years, it lost only four games and was promoted every season to make it into the third-highest tier.
Before long, Dalkurd was promoted to the Superettan, Sweden's second-highest tier and a level where teams turn professional. And last year, it made it to Allsvenskan — a feat that really got the team attention outside Sweden, in particular in predominantly Kurdish areas.
Most of the world's 40 million Kurds live in a region spanning the frontiers of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Although they speak different languages and answer to different authorities, they share traditions and ties across the greater region they call Kurdistan.
For decades, they have been persecuted by their governments and pushed to the margins of society. More recently, after battles with Islamic extremists, the Kurds of Syria and Iraq have won autonomous rule within the borders of their respective countries.
There is no Kurdish national soccer team recognized by soccer's world organizing body, FIFA.
That's where Dalkurd comes in.
"When I go back (to Iraq), I see the kids out playing football and a lot of them say, 'I'm a Barcelona fan, I'm a Real Madrid fan,'" Azizi said. "Now they say, 'I'm a Dalkurd fan.' That's how big we are."
Azizi is one of three Kurdish players on the Dalkurd roster. He is a colorful and popular figure on the club, educating newer players about its history and identity. He also is in regular contact with Kurds back home, going there as often as possible with money and uniforms, mingling with refugees and helping with projects in displacement camps.
"Once I was in the front line of the war against IS and met the Peshmergas and guerrillas who fight against them," Azizi said, his face lighting up. "They knew who I was. They said, 'We follow you, keep going, keep fighting, we are proud.'
"Imagine that! They are in the war, the front line, they are fighting against the terrorists, and they are talking about us. I was totally in shock."
Kizil spent the early part of his childhood in Turkish Kurdistan.
"In the living rooms, the talk was about negative stuff," he recounted in the foyer of a hotel in Uppsala. "Always struggling. Always war. People getting killed. But I know now when we win a game, we give them a smile over there. We can change the mentality, the talk in the living room. That is bigger than anything, even if we win Allsvenskan."
That won't happen this season. Its promotion to Allsvenskan means the team faces tougher opponents, and it is struggling to avoid relegation — being sent down to a lower tier — with four matches left in the season.
Kizil, formerly Dalkurd's goalkeeper, is now its sporting director. He has had the most stressful year of his time with the club.
Feeling it wasn't being supported by the community in Borlange, Dalkurd has moved its operations to Uppsala, north of Stockholm. The players train there but play their matches, for the time being, farther up the east coast in Gavle. That means the team sometimes gets only 400-500 supporters for "home" matches, but often gets 3,000 fans for "away" games in and around Stockholm, where there's a larger Kurdish community.
In addition, Dalkurd's main financial backer has pulled out, forcing it to sell some of its best players. Kizil is looking for new sponsors and is thinking of creative ways to find new players.
He believes that the team's newfound success and status means Dalkurd has lost some of its underdog identity.
"We used to find players who were a perfect match — people who had a bad reputation and needed a second chance. We went away from that," Kizil said. "We want players with revenge inside them."
With 14 different nationalities on the squad, keeping its Kurdish players seems vital.
"Maybe they don't play so much," said Alex DeJohn, an American defender at Dalkurd, "but they are here, great for the locker room, great for motivation, as captains and leaders. We need a balance."
There's reason for hope. From next year, Dalkurd will have six affiliated youth teams in Uppsala, covering ages 6-16. Kurds from all over the world are contacting Azizi, seeking tryouts. The club's Facebook page has nearly 1.5 million followers.
"Dalkurd is the only place where people from all four parts of Kurdistan can enjoy something together," Kizil said. "And that, to me, is beautiful."
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Associated Press writer Philip Issa in Baghdad contributed to this report.