'Did you tell your family that you’ve come to Iraq?"
These were the first words that Dr. Abdulla Agha said to me.
The month before I arrived was the deadliest in two years; 683 people injured and 365 killed in a wave of car bombs, kidnappings and targeted assassinations.
Much of Iraq is still a dangerous no-go zone yet in the north things are much calmer. Sure, the streets are full of soldiers and security personnel with guns slung over their shoulders, but there hasn’t been a major terrorist attack for several years.
Politics is deeply wound up in football as it is throughout much of the Middle East. For the club at which Dr. Agha is the President, Erbil FC, this more so than any other in the country. This is the reason why I’ve come to one of the most dangerous nations on earth.
Kurdistan and the fight for independence
Erbil is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, an area first settled in 9000BC and home to a fiercely independent people who were at the heart of the struggle to bring down Saddam Hussein.
The former Iraqi President was still on trial for genocide committed in the region when he was executed in 2006. In the years since the downfall of his regime, Iraqi Kurdistan has undergone a rapid transformation.
Containing almost 15 per cent of the nation’s oil reserves, it has its own regional government and security force. A property boom has seen much of the cities of Erbil, Duhok and Sulaymaniya boast glittering new shopping malls and apartment complexes.
Political autonomy has coincided with a rise in the fortunes of Erbil FC.
Founded in 1968, the club didn’t reach the Iraqi Premier League until the 1987-88 season and was in and out of the upper tier until the beginning of the last decade.
When the 2003-04 season was abandoned due to the American invasion the club had recorded its best season to date - top of its division after 10 matches.
In 2004 Erbil quickly emerged as the nation’s new powerhouse, sweeping to three consecutive titles from 2006-09, reaching the semifinals the two years after that and last year winning another trophy as the competition moved to a single-season format.
The reason for the club’s success is simple: the north of the country is the most stable and Erbil is able to attract the cream of Iraqi talent.
The club has a well-run front office, players are well-paid - the average salary is around $120,000 - the playing and training facilities are good and the club is the only one in Iraq to have a foreign coach and players.
Erbil has become so strong that of the national squad named by Zico for the World Cup qualifier with Australia, no fewer than seven members were from the club.That includes goalkeeper Jalal Hassan, who isn’t even first-choice at the yellows.
There is, however, a pressing concern.
Erbil is a club with a clear Kurdish identity. The locals know it as 'Hawler,’ the Kurdish name for Erbil. It uses Kurdish script on its team badge and it plays at the Franso Hariri Stadium, named after a former governor of the city who was assassinated in 2001.
Yet of the side that turned out in last week’s AFC Cup semifinal against Thai club Chonburi, there were only three Kurdish players in the starting eleven.
This doesn’t sit well with many of the locals – the vast majority of whom are Kurds, proudly waving the Kurdish flag, chanting in Kurdish and clad in the red, white and green of their 'informal’ national side.
The identity crisis
The mood was clear immediately. When the team lineup was announced most names were met with an approving murmur but when Miran Khesro, Sarhang Mohsen and Halgurd Mulla Mohammed - the three Kurds - were called, that became a roar.
I got talking with Dastan at the halftime break.
'Look, we don’t like the Arabs and they don’t like us," he said.
'You know what they say to us when we go to Baghdad to play their teams? They call us the Jews of Iraq, they chant and sing that Erbil is the Israel of Iraq.
'If that means we are fighting for our own state, then we don’t mind it."
Neither, it seems, does the club.
Ideally, it would love to be dominated by Kurdish players but for now there are more pressing aims.
The only way it can raise its international profile is through recruiting the best players – whether Kurd or Arab – and by winning the Iraqi league.
Sport as a gun
Later in the week I visited the offices of the Kurdistan Football Association and met with their General-Secretary, Salam Hussein who, when asked why a region that is fighting for independence would play in the Iraqi league, said:
'We’re trying to use sport as the 'gun’ to help us become an independent country," he said. 'We know sport can help our cause for independence, to try and achieve political aims."
'FIFA though says we are a federal region and we must play in Iraq so this is our only open door.
'If we don’t participate in the Iraqi league then we can’t participate in the Champions League or the AFC Cup - this is the first way to help us develop."
The development is being accelerated at a regional level. While the senior side at Erbil is dominating the Iraqi Premier League, the reserve side plays in the Kurdistan Super League – a four-tier competition for clubs within Iraqi Kurdistan.
During my stay in the country, I got the chance to watch a Kurdish Cup match where the 'second’ Erbil was surprisingly defeated in the Round of 16 by Ala.
The standard was good, with both teams comfortable in possession, eager to play out from the back and looking to close down their opponent quickly.
There were two red cards, plenty of chances and some animated characters both on the pitch and the sidelines but ultimately the match was a demonstration of what the Kurdistan FA is looking to achieve: raising the standard of coaching by bringing in outside trainers (from Chile, Serbia and Poland) as well as focusing on tactical organisation. One official told me: 'we have the talent, all these kids can play but when it comes to organisation, they’re a total mess."
Later I spoke with Erbil’s midfield creator, known as Shwan Mamo - a former Kurdistan international and veteran of the local club who is regarded as one of the finest Kurds to have played for Erbil.
'It’s every Kurdish boy’s dream to play for the Kurdistan national team because even if you start from nothing then everyone will know you and you become part of the fight for Kurdistan," he said. 'For me, this is much more important than the Iraqi national team."
'Iraq, they called me many times to try and play. For youth teams, for the Olympic team and once I went but I decided I didn’t want to play for them.
'I am Kurdish. I don’t want to go to the Iraqi national team and sit on the bench. For us Kurdish people we don’t want to go to Baghdad and join this team."
An ever-present danger
Travelling to Baghdad is just one of the problems Erbil’s senior team faces, as Shwan Mamo explained.
'We don’t have many problems here in Kurdistan, things are OK. But the problem is when we must play matches in places like Basra and Baghdad.
'After 2003 when we went to Baghdad we always had a security team at training or matches or when we went outside but now when we go no-one will come and protect us.
'We can only hope that God will help us when we go and play football with those clubs. It’s all up to God. We are scared that there will be bombs, or suicide guys or some kind of explosion."
The mission to raise the club’s profile is also going to plan. A rampant 4-1 first leg semifinal win in the AFC Cup has put Erbil within touching distance of a major Asian final that will focus more attention on the fight for an independent Kurdistan.
Not that all the players at Erbil FC share that ambition though.
Scorer of two goals in the semifinal, 22 year-old Amjad Radhi is not only one of the most exciting young players in the country but he’s a former Baghdad resident who now calls Erbil home.
'There is no difference between the regions of this country," he said. 'Iraq is one Iraq and it’s not a problem that I see both Iraqi and Kurdish flags at the match, the people here are very good and a lot of players are my friends.
'Even we have Kurdish players in the national team and they are my friends. Before I played at a club in Baghdad, Al Quwa Al-Juwiya and it’s the same here, it’s all Iraq. Dohuk, Erbil, Sulaymaniya – it’s all Iraq."
The day before I was scheduled to leave the country came another reminder of the troubles facing this ancient land.
In a single day a roadside bomb, near women selling vegetables in Baghdad, killed four. Three policemen were wounded by an explosive device in in Mosul. A man was arrested planting an IED in Falluja. Prisoners broke out of a jail in Tikrit and a suicide bomber was arrested in Wasit just as he was about to get into his loaded car.
These cities will field local clubs when the new season gets underway this month. The country has a hell of a challenge ahead of it.