Kosovo’s Footballing Allegiances

A recent match between Switzerland and Albania included players whose home nation is not yet recognised by FIFA

With less than a quarter of an hour to go in Switzerland’s recent World Cup qualifier against Albania in Lucerne, Granit Xhaka was presented with a glorious chance to put the home side 3-0 up. With the goal at his mercy, the usually clinical Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder shot tamely at the keeper. ‘Shqipëria! Shqipëria!’ (Albania! Albania!) sang thousands of flag-waving Albanian fans behind the goal.

After the match, which finished 2-0, Xhaka, who was born in eastern Kosovo, was asked live on Albanian television if his miss was intentional. Xhaka demurred, offering only ‘no comment’, but the player was less circumspect on the demands of playing against a nation most ethnic Albanian Kosovans identify so strongly with. ‘It is not easy,’ the 20-year-old who left Kosovo for Switzerland as a youngster said, ‘we have the same blood. My father and mother are Albanian and all the other Albanians that know us here know what we are.’

A former province of Serbia, Kosovo does not have a fully-fledged national team of its own. Despite the 2008 declaration of independence being recognised by over 90 countries, Kosovo is not been allowed to apply for membership of FIFA or UEFA. For Kosovan players and fans alike, the makeshift Kosovo national side that has played a handful of low-key matches against the likes of Monaco and Saudi Arabia is no substitute for competitive international football.

The Switzerland clash was probably the most eagerly anticipated game in Kosovo’s history. In the run-up to the match, Kosovan state television incessantly ran adverts for ‘Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia against Switzerland’, a reflection of the number, and diversity, of ethnic Albanians in both line-ups.

No fewer than nine players of Kosovan extraction played in Lucerne, including Albanian captain Lorik Cana – once of Sunderland and now with Lazio – and, for Switzerland, Bayern Munich hitman Xherdan Shaqiri and ex-West Ham midfielder Valon Behrami. The Swiss also boasted two Albanians born in Macedonia, Admir Mehmedi and Blerim Xhemajli.

Switzerland’s Kosovan players have made no secret of their allegiance to both their homeland and Albania. Shaqiri plays with three flags sewn onto his boots: Switzerland, Albania, and Kosovo. Behrami has said previously that he would like to play for an independent Kosovo national team. In the build-up to the game the head of the Albanian FA Armand Duka described ethnic Albanians playing for Switzerland as ‘traitors’ for not opting to play for Albania. Gianni De Biasi, Albania’s Italian coach, concurred

If Duka’s comments were intended to provoke the Albanian fans, which made up around two-thirds of the 15,000-strong crowd in Lausanne, they had the desired effect. Missiles, including coins, rained down from the stands, with Shaqiri, Xhaka and Behrami singled out for special abuse.

After the game Shaqiri, who pointedly did not celebrate after opening the scoring, said fans that called him a traitor ‘do not know the reality’. The statement was widely interpreted as a reference to long-standing allegations that Duka demanded bribes from the families of expatriate Kosovan players that wanted to be considered for the Albanian national team.

Albanian football is already benefitting from Kosovan footballing prowess. As well as Cana, Vorskla Poltava’s Armend Dallku and onetime Burnley signing Besart Berisha are among a number of Kosovans that regularly turn out for the Albanian national side. Attendances at Albania games have been buoyed by coach loads of Kosovan fans coming down the newly-minted $1billion ‘patriotic highway’ connecting Pristina and Tirana. Upwards of 5,000 Kosovans regularly make the four-hour journey for internationals, often outnumbering local Albanians inside the moth-eaten Qemal Stafa stadium.

The qualifier in Lucerne took place on the same day as a high-level conference in Pristina to mark the end of the international community’s supervision of Kosovan independence. Under the banner of ‘Chapter Closed in the Balkans’, a host of politicians and diplomats discussed Kosovo’s future. Football is, belatedly, being recongised as an important part of integrating Kosovo internationally. Without United Nations recognition, Kosovo cannot apply for FIFA or EUFA membership. In May, Sepp Blatter announced that Kosovo would be allowed to play non-competitive games against FIFIA members (much to the chagrin of Serbia, the antagonist in the 1999 war).

As Pristina’s relations with Belgrade slowly improve so too do the prospects of a Kosovan national side. Ahead of a FIFA executive committee meeting in Zurich in September, all nine Kosovans that appeared in Lausanne signed an open letter to Blatter in support of Kosovo playing full internationals. Kosovo certainly has the talent, as the young Kosovans making names for themselves across Europe attests. Whether Europe’s newest state gets the opportunity remains to be seen.

This piece originally appeared in When Saturday Comes magazine www.wsc.co.uk

Sting of economic reality fails to mute Kosovo’s independence joy

THE conference that took place recently in the Kosovan capital Pristina to mark the end of the country’s supervised independence was billed as “chapter closed in the Balkans”.

But away from the panel discussions and the diplomatic soirees, the atmosphere on Pristina’s streets was more subdued than celebratory.

The end of the supervision of Kosovo’s independence is not purely symbolic: the office of International Civilian Representative has been abolished. For the past four years, the representative, in the shape of Dutch diplomat Pieter Feith, has had the power to strike down legislation passed by the elected assembly.

But, unlike the declaration of independence in 2008, the conferring of executive powers on Kosovo was not met with flag-waving crowds or blaring car horns. “We’ve been having historic moments like this for so long, it’s ridiculous,” Dren Pozhegu, a young policy analyst, said. “Independence is nice but if it doesn’t come with economic progress, it won’t change anything.”

Dren is one of the lucky ones – he has a job. Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe and almost certainly the highest rate of unemployment – unofficial estimates suggest that as many of 40 per cent of the population are out of work. Kosovo needs to create around 25,000 new jobs every year just to maintain employment at its current level.

Despite annual average GDP growth of over 4 per cent, Kosovo’s economy is struggling to make the transition from Yugoslav communism to independent free-market. Last year, Kosovan exports totalled just €300 million. Without remittances the situation would be even worse. “There are two long-term threats to this country – the economy and corruption,’ said a British official in the International Civilian Office, which is also being disbanded as part of the ending of supervision.

Privatisation is one of the government’s main economic strategies. The World Bank and the European Union are strongly in favour of privatising Kosovan state companies but internal opposition to the sales are mounting.

The end of supervised independence came in the wake of a July announcement by International Steering Group, which includes the UK and the US among its 25 members, that Kosovo has largely implemented the Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement, better known as the Ahtissari Plan. Nevertheless, the issue of Kosovan sovereignty remains a live one. The new state is still not recognised by the UN, or its neighbour and antagonist in the 1999 war, Serbia.

These political tensions are all too evident in the northern city of Mitrovica. The bridge dividing Serb-dominated north Mitrovica from the Albanian south has been blockaded for over a year. On the northern bank, rows of Serbian flags hang limply from lampposts outside Communist-era flat blocks.

Pristina’s control does not extend into north Mitrovica and the other Serb municipalities in the north. As elsewhere in Kosovo, the problems in the north will require economic as well as well as political solutions, says Brikenda Rexhepi, a journalist at Kosovan newspaper Koha Ditore.

Despite the infant state’s teething problems, she is confident about the future. “However the situation is now, we are never going back to Serbia. People would rather starve than go back to Serbia.”

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, 24 September. 

The World’s Last Colonial Museum

The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels has been called ‘the last colonial museum in the world’. It’s not hard to see why: in the marble lobby a statue celebrates ‘Belgium bringing civilisation to the Congo’; the Memorial Room lists the names of the 1508 Belgians who died in Africa between 1876 and 1908 but doesn’t mention the millions of Africans who perished during King Leopold II’s brutal reign in the Congo Free State; the painted wooden carvings from Tintin in the Congo that decorate the restaurant are in dubious taste, to put it mildly.

The first Congo Museum opened in 1898, replacing the temporary Palace of the Colonies constructed on the same site for the previous year’s World’s Fair. (During the fair around 260 Congolese were forced to live in three temporary villages on the palace grounds. Seven died of exposure.) Almost as soon as it opened, the Congo Museum was thought too small for all the ethnographic, zoological and geological artefacts being shipped back from the Congo Free State. Leopold commissioned Charles Girault to design a much grander monument to his colonial exploits. In 1910, the new Museum of the Belgian Congo opened its doors. The slight name change is significant: two years earlier, Leopold, in the face of one of the first major international human rights campaigns, and mounting debts, had been forced to hand over the Congo to the Belgian government.

The Africa Museum was last renovated in 1958, again for a World’s Fair. Two years later the Congo gained independence; the museum changed its name to the Royal Museum for Central Africa. Since then it has remained largely untouched, seemingly oblivious to shifts in attitudes, or in museology. The rows of dusty glass cases carry very little explanation, although in the section entitled ‘Congo: The Colonial Era’, Patrice Lumumba is described as a ‘destabilising element’.

‘Our museum went through a bit of a crisis after 1960 because no one wanted to be associated with the colonial project,’ says Guido Gryseels, the museum’s director. An agricultural economist who worked in Ethiopia for almost a decade, Gryseels is overseeing a complete overhaul of the museum, which was due to begin this month but has now been postponed until the middle of next year. The new museum will apparently have a greater focus on contemporary Africa, and take a more critical approach to Belgium’s colonial past.

The €80 million renovation project has not been straightforward. Girault’s building and its contents are protected, including around thirty depictions of Leopold in various media. ‘Some will stay, some will go, but they will certainly be put in perspective,’ Gryseels says. There have also been calls for the place to be left as a ‘museum of a museum’, as a reminder to future generations of the way colonial subjects were perceived. For others, mainly older Belgians, the museum is a source of pride that should remain as it is. ‘If someone is prepared to give me the money to build a new museum alongside,’ Gryseels says, ‘I’d be happy to keep it as a memory of the past. But where am I going to find €120 million to build a new museum like that?’

Neal Ascherson writes in The King Incorporated that in November 1908, as ‘the starred flag of the Free State was hauled down in the Congo for the last time,’ Leopold published a document claiming that he had tried to ‘open the darkness of Africa to a ray of light’ and that he had never profited from his colonial holdings. In fact he made vast sums from his private fiefdom, though he never went to the Congo, or even to the Palace of the Colonies during the 1897 Brussels World’s Fair.

Each year, around 150 Congolese scientists and curators are trained at the Royal Museum for Central Africa, but for now there are no plans to repatriate any artefacts to the DRC. ‘At the moment there are no calls for the return of any heritage,’ says Gryseels. During the 1970s, around 200 objects were returned to the regime of Mobuto Sese Seko. Many eventually reappeared on the black market in Brussels.

This piece originally appeared on the London Review of books blog.

Occupy Edinburgh

The nascent ‘occupy’ movement currently spreading around the Western world is often traduced for lacking a clear, identifiable goal or a soundbite-sized rallying point. Indeed at one point during the Occupy Edinburgh demo in St Andrew’s Square Saturday afternoon – while a Mohawked punk in leathers was excoriating the coalition government in London – I overheard two policemen chatting. ‘What are they protesting about?’ asked one. ‘Life in general, I think,’ replied his colleague.

I spent around three and a half hours on St Andrew’s Square, Edinburgh yesterday and what follows is a (very) brief reflection on what I saw, the people I met, and the things I heard on the square. It’s all rather inchoate but one thing, to me, seems certain: the occupy protest is much more than a vacuous rejection of politics and political life.

A large number of the 200-odd people on St Andrew’s Square were old stagers from the trade union movement or leftist political parties, but just as many were unaffiliated, concerned citizens angry at an economic system that seems to benefit the status quo and a party political structure is aloof, unresponsive and in hock to big business. I met a university Maths lecturer who spoke of his anger that government is doing little to address falling living standards (since the mid-1970s there has been no increase in real term income for most in the West). Elsewhere a Spanish student living in Edinburgh came because she is worried about her own future, both in Spain and in the UK.

‘We are the 99%’ has become the tagline of the occupy protests and, on everything from t-shirts to banners, it was out in force on St Andrew’s Square. A Canadian couple, their young child in tow, explained that they decided to join the protest because of the widening gap between rich and poor, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Vast swathes of the working population have seen their incomes and opportunities shrink – and their quality of life decrease markedly – the occupy protests c be a vehicle for real change. Last night a number of hardy souls are camped out on St Andrew’s Square after a peaceful day’s protest (I left the square in the afternoon, before a march through the city, but from what I saw protesters were good natured and decidedly peaceful).

The evidence from New York and elsewhere is that creating a peaceful physical space in which everyone has a right to voice an opinion is key. There were signs of this on St Andrew’s Square, although hopefully the ideological spiels from the microphone will be replaced with logistics in time. Also, organisers might consider removing political slogans and party paraphernalia – as has been done in Dublin and elsewhere. The copies of left-wing newspapers and party flags alienate more of the 99% than they attract. Homemade banners and humorous slogans are a much more effective tactic.

Far from being a flaw, however, the lack of an easily articulated goal looks like a necessary first step in building a broader movement. As the growing numbers protesting around the world attests, anger at the economic status quo and rising inequality is anything but a minority concern.

I'm off to Zambia

A couple of months back I was short-listed for the Guardian’s International Development Competition for a feature I wrote on attempts to improve farming practices in Malawi. As a consequence of this, I’m heading to Zambia on Sunday for a week to research a piece on youth unemployment for the paper. I’m going with an NGO called Plan International and will be dividing my time between Lusaka and Chibombo, a rural area about 90km outside the capital.

I’m going to try and blog as much as I can while I’m in Zambia but for now just wanted to flag the trip up. It should be a fascinating country and with an election due on September 20 as well as lots of really big issues I’m sure there’ll be no shortage of stories while I’m out there. Tune into the blog in the coming days for more info.

Antony and the Johnsons, Waterfront Belfast

Review originally appeared in The Sunday Business Post:

‘The only time I’ve ever played here,” Antony Hegarty’s sonorous voice intoned from behind his grand piano, ‘‘a lady gave me a packet of magic Rolos and said they’d bring good fortune.”

Touted by Lou Reed since their early days, Antony and hi s band, the Johnsons, have never wanted for luck, but perhaps it was the ersatz confectionery that gave them that crucial final push – a couple of months after their 2005 gig in Belfast , they s cooped the Mercury Music Prize.

Fans of Hegarty’s stark, plaintive songs had to wait almost four years between the breakthrough record, I Am A Bird Now, and his third album, The Crying Light. Released earlier this year, it is a dark, moody opus often drenched in despondency. But when performed live, many of these same tracks exhibited an unexpectedly warm, even soulful character.

In his distinct, throaty singing voice – a curious hybrid of Boy George, Nina Simone and David Tibet – the cherubic Englishman delivered heartfelt songs of sadness, anomie and, as on I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy and For Today I Am A Boy, androgynity.

The Johnsons provided the perfect foil. Their guitar, drums, wind and string accompaniment – Rob Moose’s exquisite guitar tone was particularly impressive – complemented, but never drowned out, Hegarty’s magnificent falsetto vocals.

Mirroring the joyous sunshine outside, Hegarty quickly warmed to the generous crowd: bantering happily, introducing new songs with anecdotes, taking requests and – on The Crying Light – cutting the most animated figure behind a piano this side of Elton John, fingers clicking to the beat as his sizeable frame swayed in his makeshift brown robe.

An audience-assisted version of Dust and Water was followed by a majestic, uplifting Fistful of Love which, unlike other old favourites, was indulged, rather than truncated.

Two thoroughly deserved Standing ovations were book-ended by the fragile Cripple and the Starfish before an almost uplifting Hope There’s Someone brought the concert to a fitting close.

Soaringly beautiful, yet surprisingly grounded, Antony and the Johnsons clearly don’t need to rely on supernatural sweets any more.