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

St Mirren CIC'ing the Habit

Is there an alternative to robber baron chairman asset stripping your club? I spoke to an innovative new venture through in Paisley, to turn local club St Mirren into a Community Interest Company. This feature originally appeared in February 2012 edition of the excellent When Saturday Comes:

Billed as a ‘national day of action’, November 30 witnessed the largest strike in Britain in a generation. That evening, 70 supporters gathered at St Mirren Park not to protest changes to public sector pensions or Tory cutbacks but in a bid to resuscitate an innovative community-led takeover of the Paisley club.

At first glance, St Mirren seems an unlikely candidate for a fan takeover. Solidly established in the lower reaches of the Scottish Premier League since returning to the top-flight in 2006, the club, which has been up for sale since September 2009, is generally regarded as a well-run outfit. Tesco’s purchase of their former Love Street home in 2007, in a deal reportedly worth £15 million, left St Mirren financially secure at a time when many higher profile SPL rivals are feeling the pinch.

Chairman Stewart Gilmour, who saved the Buddies from huckster Reg Bearley’s pernicious grip more than a decade ago (see WSC 153), stated openly that he would prefer to sell the club to a community bid than on the open market. The solution, or so it seemed, was to turn St Mirren into a Community Interest Company (CIC).

The brainchild of New Labour uber-moderniser Alan Milburn, a CIC is essentially a limited company with a social purpose. It attempts to combine the advantages of a company – flexibility in organisation, operation and governance – with the ability to restrict rampant risk taking and to protect assists for the local community. A Community Interest Community can pay dividends and interest, but is restricted in the amounts and is subject to CIC law and a regulator, based in Cardiff.

When it comes to football, one of the most attractive features of a CIC is that it ‘locks-in’ all the club’s assets, ensuring that the assets built up overtime cannot be squandered for profit by the current generation. Instead assets must be used for the stated community purpose. Even if the CIC is wound up, its assets must be transferred to another, similarly asset-locked body. All mightily unattractive for any would-be robber baron chairman.

Ayr businessman Richard Atkinson has spearheaded the move to turn St Mirren into the first professional club run as a Community Interest Company in the UK. (Stenhousemuir and Clyde, in the Scottish Second and Third Divisions respectively, are both CICs). When the Paisley club were put up for sale Atkinson, who has a background in logistics, formed 10000Hours, a social enterprise co-operative with the dedicated purpose of purchasing a 52% majority shareholding in the club.

‘What makes this takeover different is that we are trying to buy the club when it’s just up for sale, not when it’s going out of business. In other cases fans are buying the club off the administrator at a knockdown price – often with an agreement to take on the club’s debts – so they own the whole club. But we’ve had to try and raise the money to buy out the shareholders,’ Atkinson said.

Under the scheme, 10000hours borrows from social enterprise lenders (rather than traditional banks) to buy just over half of St Mirren, with fans subscriptions to the cooperative as well as revenue generated by the CIC after the takeover used to pay off the debt. No debt is loaded onto the club, a la the Glazers at Manchester United.

Until November, 10000 Hours looked odds on to succeed. A broad church of social enterprise backers and charitable bodies had pledged almost £1.3 million, mostly in the form of soft loans and ‘patient capital’ (so called because repayments are delayed by a set number of years). However, after months of negotiations, a decision to sanction the final tranche of funding was reversed. Current director Ken McGeoch has taken advantage of the interstice to announce his intention to pursue a conventional take over of the club.

But Atkinson, who has sat on the board of St Mirren for two years, is determined to fight on. The hope now is that more supporters can be convinced to join 10000 hours, at an individual rate of £10 per month (repaid as equity in the CIC, once the debt is repaid). Since November’s announcement, membership has risen from 800 to over 900.

Retiring football chairmen are wont to declare their desire to safeguard the long-term future of their club (Wigan’s Dave Whelan springs to mind). A Community Interest Company is not foolproof – a board can still over extend itself and get into serious debt – but it does introduce safeguards to protect the club for those who value it most. Whether 10000hours are successful or not, the CIC model is one other clubs, and their supporters, could well profit from.

Football, Football, Football

Last week I played in Amnesty international’s annual Edinburgh critics versus comics football match. Not only was a chance for comics to get their own back for those one-star reviews but it was all for a good cause – to highlight the terrible treatment of Burmese comic Zarganar by his country’s military junta.

The Guardian cameras were there, and even managed to capture a rare goal by yours truly (it’s 3.10 in, but who’s counting…).

We lost 3-2 in the end, we’ll have our revenge next year. Or in print even sooner.