Jul 1 11:20 AM

Absent Kosovo makes its presence felt at the World Cup

Kosovo's Albert Bunjaku plays the ball in front of Haiti's Kevin La France during a friendly on March 5, 2014 in Mitrovica.
Armend Nimani / AFP / Getty Images

The Kosovan club Hajvalia wasted little time in offering Luis Suárez a haven from FIFA’s four-month ban from all football activities. A club director, Xhavit Pocolli, helpfully pointed out that as Kosovo is not a member of FIFA the ban did not apply there, even if the club could only offer a monthly salary of 1,500 euros.

Do not expect the Uruguayan striker to be turning out in Pristina any time soon. But as an exercise in self-promotion it was in keeping with the recent efforts of this ambitious football territory.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and almost immediately applied for membership of the international football organizations. Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovan independence, has opposed this at every turn. Kosovo is not a member of the United Nations although it has been recognized by 106 UN member states.

Despite its official non-existence Kosovo does have a presence at this World Cup. The Swiss team that faces Argentina in their second-round match in São Paulo will probably include Valon Behrami, Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, all born in Kosovo. Later the same day, Manchester United’s teenage sensation Adnan Januzaj, born in Brussels but with Kosovar parents, will hope to make his second World Cup appearance for Belgium against the USA in Salvador.

They are just part of a wider footballing diaspora scattered around Europe as a result of the breakup of Yugoslavia, a country with a fine football heritage, in the 1990s. The most famous player with Yugoslav roots is Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but his parents left Bosnia earlier, in the 1970s. Even in its current, dismembered form, the former Yugoslavia provided two of this World Cup’s 32 finalists (Croatia, Bosnia), just as it did in South Africa (Serbia, Slovenia).

Kosovo broke away after NATO intervened in the territory’s independence war in 1999, including a bombing campaign against Serbia, and the western alliance retains a force of 5,000 troops in the country. The impoverished country has a population of about 2 million, with 90 percent estimated to be ethnic Albanians. Lorik Cana, currently playing his club football in Italy with Lazio, is one of many Kosovar footballers to represent neighboring Albania.

The Swiss-Kosovan players, part of a team dominated by those with immigrant backgrounds, have been open about their sympathies for their country of origin. Shaqiri, who plays his club football for Bayern Munich, has sported boots featuring the flags of Switzerland, Albania and Kosovo while playing for the Swiss national team, something that has attracted the ire of anti-immigrant politicians

After a number of false starts FIFA finally granted Kosovo permission to play friendly internationals against FIFA-affiliated countries and clubs – although not with former Yugoslav republics – provided that no anthems, flags or other national symbols were displayed. On March 5 this year, Kosovo faced Haiti in Mitrovica in a match less remarkable for its result, 0-0, than for the fact that it was the territory’s first official international. Before the game officials had spoken of calling up the likes of Januzaj but afterwards claimed they had decided not to include any of the big names among expatriate Kosovans in order to protect their careers.

The match took place in Mitrovica, a town with the largest concentration of ethnic Serbs, although the Kosovo FA explained it had the only stadium to meet FIFA requirements. Belgrade protested after some fans burned a Serbian flag before the game. Kosovo has since played two more official fixtures, against Turkey and Senegal.

Although Serbia and Kosovo signed an agreement to normalize relations in 2013, Belgrade remains resolutely opposed to independence; UN membership is unlikely as long as countries such as Russia and China withhold recognition.

Footballing acceptance may be closer at hand. In addition to the friendlies against FIFA members, the recent example of another territory at the heart of an intractable sovereignty dispute offers some hope.

Gibraltar has long been claimed by Spain but despite Madrid’s vociferous opposition the British-controlled Iberian enclave was admitted to UEFA (although not FIFA) last year and will take part in the qualification campaign for the 2016 European Championship, starting with a “home” game against Poland, to be played in Faro, Portugal on September 7.

Unless or until a similar breakthrough, Kosovan supporters will continue to cheer their footballers on in other countries’ colors. But they would be well-advised not to hold their breath about an appearance from Luis Suárez.


Kosovo, Switzerland
World Cup

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