Game on for Kosovo?

On March 5, Kosovo played its first international – a friendly against Haiti. Here’s my When Saturday Comes piece on Kosovan national football. 

England? Belgium? Albania? Which international side Adnan Januzaj will declare for has become a minor back page obsession this season. Last month (Note to Ed: January), a new name was added to the list: Kosovo.

On January 13, FIFA announced that Kosovo – the country the Manchester United winger’s parents fled in 1992 – will be allowed to play international matches after years in the footballing wilderness. FIFA had earlier given the go ahead for Kosovo to participate in friendlies in 2012, but reversed the decision under pressure from the Serbian football association.

This time around Kosovo seems certain to finally field an international side, almost six years since declaring independence from Serbia. A fixture has been pencilled in for March, with opponents to be confirmed. Kosovan prime minister Hashim Thaci hailed the FIFA decision as, ‘the first step in creation of a superb national team that could potentially be one of the strongest in Balkans.’

Kosovo teamBut the FIFA ruling places significant limitations on the new outfit: National symbols and anthems will be banned at Kosovo games. The team will take the field in jerseys bearing only the word ‘Kosovo’ and a star. Kosovo can only play friendlies and will not be allowed to face club sides or states from the former Yugoslavia until further notice. Footballing authorities in Serbia will have to be given 21 days advance notice of any Kosovo home matches.

International stars such as Januzaj, Bayern Munich striker Xherdan Shaqiri and ex-West Ham midfielder Valon Behrami are unlikely to switch allegiance to a national team that cannot participate competitively, but the Kosovan FA hopes that situation will change.

‘We will be careful not to call players involved with other national teams at the moment,’ said Eroll Salihu, general secretary of Kosovo’s Football Association. ‘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.’

FIFA’s decision follows the most significant rapprochement between Kosovo and Serbia since the war ended in 1999. The Brussels Agreement, signed last April, was widely hailed as a breakthrough in relations between Pristina and Belgrade, granting the Kosovan government more control over the restive, Serb-dominated north in exchange for more autonomy for ethnic Serbs across Kosovo.

Although Serbia still refuses to recognise its former province’s independence, Kosovan officials are hopeful that international friendlies could mark the first step on the road to membership of UEFA and FIFA. (Kosovo is recognised by over a hundred states but does not have a seat at the UN.)

‘FIFA recognizing the right of Kosovo to play international friendly matches is the very first step towards full inclusion of Kosovo in the global football family, 23 years after dictator Milosevic annulled Kosovo’s native football league and closed the stadiums for Albanians,’ said Petrit Selimi, deputy foreign minister.

Not everyone inside Kosovo is happy with the decision. Around 90 per cent of Kosovans are ethnic Albanians, and Kosovo provides the backbone of the both the Albania national team’s players and support.

Some Kosovans cleave to the belief that there should only be a pan-Albanian national team (‘One Nation – One National Team’), not separate Kosovan and Albanian sides. Already supporters groups from FC Pristina and Vllaznimi (from the western Kosovan city of Gjakova) have announced that they will not recognize the Kosovo national team and will only support Albania. The Albania FA has said it does not believe Kosovo-born players, such as current captain Lazio’s Lorik Cana, will switch allegiance.

Others have questioned whether playing international friendlies is the best way to develop football in Kosovo. The country is woefully short of infrastructure, something the current government has failed to redress.

The City Stadium in Pristina, the main ground in Kosovo, needs major renovation work. Recently it was reported that Rasunda stadium in Stockholm had donated second-hand seating and lighting, but these have yet to be installed.

Despite a wealth of Kosovan talent in leagues and national teams across Europe, local football in Kosovo struggles, in part because of a lack of external competition. FIFA’s decision will not change the fact that Kosovan teams are not allowed to play in qualification rounds for the Europa League and the Champion’s League.

As for Adnan Januzaj, there ‘a slim chance’ he will choose to play for Kosovo, says Pristina-based journalist Xhemajl Rexha, ‘but people here would be very happy to see him play for England’.

This piece originally appeared in the February 2014 edition of When Saturday Comes