On January 13th this year, FIFA granted permission to the Republic of Kosovo to play international friendly matches against other FIFA member associations. The permission was not granted without stipulations however and Kosovo will have to play their inaugural international football match in kits without national symbols, nor will they be permitted to air the Kosovo national anthem during the traditional pre-game ceremonies.
Those pre-game preconditions may seem harsh, but as a nation, Kosovo is yet to be fully recognized as a sovereign state. Despite them achieving full “official” sovereignty in September 2010 at the conclusion of a five-year period of “supervised independence”, just 108 of the 193 UN nations recognize the independence of the land locked Balkan country. Their struggle for recognition and sovereignty is something that must resonate with the people of Ireland.
Once a southern province of Serbia, the Republic of Kosovo declared its independence on 17th February 2008. The predominantly ethnic Albanian population broke away from Serbia in 1999 when NATO intervened to drive out Serbian forces, halting a devastating ethnic cleansing attempt during a counter-insurgency war.
Europe’s newest nation has a population of just over 2 million of which around 90% are Kosovo-Albanian. Most Kosovo-Serbs boycotted the 2011 census making analysis of their demographic difficult.
The Football Federation of Kosovo’s (FFK) campaign for recognition as an official football nation is purely a sporting endeavour, but they must feel that their acceptance and admission to the international football community is another step towards complete world-wide recognition as a sovereign state. Football has that kind of wonderful power when put to this sort of use.
Jerome Champagne, who has declared his intention to run for the FIFA presidency this year, has been advising the FFK as an independent consultant in their attempts to bring the country back into the international soccer fold and was delighted with FIFA’s friendlies thumbs up:
“For the last 15 years they have felt isolated, not wanted and forgotten, but that is changing. They feel as though they belong again,” Champagne said.
“Kosovo has a long soccer history and many players in and around Europe are proud of their roots back to the country.
“Of course Januzaj could play for them and it was noticeable that when Bayern Munich won the Champions League last May Shaqiri held two flags tied together: Switzerland, who he plays for – and Kosovo where he comes from.”
Adnan Januzaj’s emergence at Manchester United this season thrust Kosovo into the spotlight as a footballing nation, when the youngster refused call ups from Belgium and Albania, with those close to him saying he favoured Kosovo as the country he would most like to represent. Januzaj’s parents are both proud Kosovo-Albanians. The fleet footed youngster is the most high profile player eligible for selection for the emerging nation.
There has been a lost generation of sorts for Kosovo, with players like Zherdan Shaqiri, Valon Behrami and Granit Xhaka, who although have Kosovan roots, have all long since declared for other nations. The FFK face a delicate task in their attempts to build a team. Eroll Salihu, the general secretary of Kosovo’s Football Association said:
“We will be careful not to call players involved with other national teams at the moment” ,
“We don’t want to get in the way because they are busy with the World Cup and other international competitions.
“But once Kosovo becomes a full UEFA and FIFA member, it will be our moral obligation to open the doors to players who were either born here or have Kosovo origins.”
Finding enough eligible players isn’t the only obstacle facing the FFK. The only soccer stadium in the capital, Pristina, has a capacity of just 16,000 and the structure is in dire need of rejuvenation with water leaks in the corridors and many of the plastic seats broken.
Second hand seating and lighting was generously donated by The Rasunda Stadium in Sweden, host of the 1958 World Cup Final, when Brazil beat Sweden 5-2, but they have yet to be installed. Re-developing football stadiums is understandably not high on the list of priorities for a poor country with more pressing infrastructural needs elsewhere.
The lack of facilities and players hasn’t shaken optimism though and National coach Albert Bunjaku said the country’s first major goal was to play in the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
“I am focused on having good players but I am aware that the first game will be one to break the isolation,” he said.
“The team will be based mainly on new players as well as some experienced exiles ready to join us instantly, while our objective is the 2018 World Cup.”
In a country still haunted by the ghosts of an all too recent bloody conflict, football can play a massive part in helping Kosovo establish themselves as a world wide recognized, peaceful sovereign state. The beautiful game indeed.
by Simon Winter