Steve Menary reports on how football has become part of a wider struggle for recognition of Kosovo.
The recent meeting of FIFA’s executive committee focused mainly on how Sepp Blatter planned to reinvigorate his tattered world body and leave a legacy untainted by corruption and governance problems.
Down among the footnotes was another decision taken by FIFA’s ExCo that yet again crushed Kosovo’s nascent hopes of joining the game’s international ranks. The Football Federation of Kosovo (FFK) has been unable to join FIFA as their country has not been allowed into the United Nations (UN).
The FFK did persuade FIFA to include Kosovars in the new Transfer Matching System (TMS) that regulates international transfers. Aimed at clamping down on money laundering, TMS started last season and extending the system to include the FFK meant that Kosovan clubs would no longer lose players to foreign clubs without receiving a transfer fee.
That is the upside. The downside is that since Kosovo was included in TMS, no Kosovan players have been transferred overseas. That may change, but FIFA’s refusal to extend its de facto recognition of the FFK past the TMS system looks unlikely to change with UEFA doing nothing to help the isolated Kosovans. Serbia opposes any recognition of Kosovo and their representatives did not even turn up at 2009 talks aimed at breaking the impasse, organised not by UEFA – seemingly the obvious mediators – but by FIFA.
At least the world body was trying to find a solution. UEFA president Michel Platini chose a visit to Belgrade to re-iterate his stance that only when Kosovo is recognised by the UN will acceptance into the European elite be allowed. Platini is simply delaying the inevitable and showing little sympathy for the FFK, which gets by on not much more than £300,000 a year.
This season for the first time the FFK managed to sell TV rights to matches in the Kosovan Superliga, providing a small fillip for the fledgling body and its members. A more substantial bonus would come from joining FIFA, which would provide additional funding of U$D 250,000 a year through its financial assistance programme.
The FFK know that getting into FIFA is a longer game and had not even asked for membership but instead asked the recent ExCo meeting in Zurich to let Kosovo play international friendlies.
The answer was ‘no’. A more positive response would have put players like Lazio’s Lorik Cana and former West Ham midfielder Valon Behrami – now Also in Serie A with Fiorentina – in a difficult position.
Denied a chance to play at international level for their homeland, Kosovans have to find a new home. Cana and Behrami moved to Albania and Switzerland as children as their parents fled the war back home. FIFA have decreed that if Kosovo win recognition, Kosovars can abandon their adopted countries and turn out for the land of their birth. Albania and Switzerland, whose teenage prodigy Xherdan Shaqiri is also a Kosovar, could suffer badly from Kosovan recognition by FIFA.
Playing friendlies for Kosovo may have even proved preferable for older players such as Cana or Behrami, who - with neither Albania nor Switzerland going to Euro 2012 – now have no competitive internationals for nearly a year.
As UEFA and FIFA sit Canute-like in their Zurich thrones, a solution may come from the former Yugoslav republic’s politicians. Once more than half of the UN’s 192 members have recognised Kosovo, the country’s application can go to a vote that, for all the lobbying of Serbia and its influential ally Russia, simply requires a majority to be passed.
Most of Western Europe and the United States have long recognised Kosovo. Kuwait and Ivory Coast recently swelled those ranks and 85 countries have formal relations with Kosovo. Once that number reaches 96, the intransigence of FIFA and UEFA may be overcome. In the meantime, Kosovo’s footballers will stay in limbo.
Steve is a freelance journalist and author of 'Outcasts: The Lands that FIFA Forgot.'