KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTS —- Kosovo 0, Haiti 0 sounds bizarre. An odd matchup generated by a football computer game with more glitches than sense. But that was the score for real today in Mitrovica, deep in the Balkans.
Officially this was a friendly match. But there was nothing friendly about the wider context.
Kosovo’s national team had played friendly matches before. This writer attended a game against a club from neighbouring Macedonia in Pristina. But this one against Haiti is the first home game Kosovo have played since winning the right from FIFA to do so in the teeth of vain, seething opposition from Serbia supported by Russia and UEFA president Michel Platini.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter may attract a barrage of criticism for everything short of a third world war. But Kosovo’s step forward is down to his personal will to support the simple right to play football against a political cabal.
Not that Blatter would have been pressed into proactive measures without the stubborn, determined commitment of Fadil Vokrri, president of the Kosovar federation, and its general secretary Eroll Salihu. FIFA presidential candidate Jerome Champagne has also assisted in oiling the wheels of football diplomacy along the way.
The story so far is that Kosovo was once a southern province of the former Yugoslavia which, as the demographics changed, grew ever more ‘Albanian’.
When Yugoslavia imploded in the early 1990s into the civil strife marked by a vengeful, medieval butchery so Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina all staggered free into independence.
Not so Kosovo in whose lands Serbs invest historical significance. It took NATO intervention to halt a bloody war of ethnic cleansing and effect a separation which Serbia denies to this day.
Sport is one of the most visible elements of any state’s pursuit of independent identity. Hence the push by the long-established Kosovar Football Federation to join the party which local fans could witness being enjoyed by their neighbours in World Cups, European championships and European club competitions.
Serbia, intent on denying Kosovo recognition of any sort, put up obstacles in every facet of international life. Russia, similarly intent for domestic reasons on killing off any secessionist notions anywhere within its sphere of influence, backed Serbia.
UEFA president Michel Platini, not wishing to antagonise old friends or powerful supporters, stood four-square behind a regulation insisting that membership be open only to states recognised by the United Nations (This statute had been introduced in an ultimately vain attempt to keep Spain sweet by prohibiting membership to Gibraltar).
At the court of international relations Kosovo now claims 106 friends but this is not enough to open the UN door.
The statutory snag was that, without acceptance into the UN Kosovo could not seek UEFA membership and without UEFA inclusion it could not attain membership of FIFA. Lacking either or both it could not play official matches against any FIFA/UEFA member nations.
A handful of sympathetic foreign clubs did sneak teams occasionally into war-battered Pristina but few dared risk the possible wrath of UEFA. Simultaneously, any players of Kosovar birth or origin – thousands of families had fled to Switzerland and Scandinavia to escape the war – had already committed themselves to their adoptive new homelands.
Vokrri knew all about the lure of elite football. A sharp, dangerous striker in his playing days he had been the only Kosovar to play for Yugoslavia and had been a favourite with the passionate fans of no less a Serb power – in the comparatively old days – than Partizan of Belgrade.
He wanted all that for a new generation of Kosovar players but found himself trapped in a web of political antagonism.
Ironically events on the greater political stage offered a glimmer of light. Serbia wanted to join the European Union . . . which insisted that was impossible while Belgrade refused to concede the independent status of Kosovo.
Delicate, snail’s-pace diplomacy eventually brought Serb and Kosovar leaders to the same negotiating table under what is known as the ‘asterisk system.’ This means Kosovo does not flaunt its own national symbols, anthems and nomenclature (In the way that Macedonia remains, officially, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia so as not to upset Greek sensitivities).
In the meantime Vokrri submitted a series of applications for the right to play unofficial football against teams from FIFA members. FIFA passed his letters to UEFA which rejected them and threw them back to FIFA. By the spring of 2012 Blatter – ever a passionate advocate of football development – lost patience and ambushed his own executive committee into pushing the Kosovo case.
Last year FIFA authorised junior Kosovar teams to play friendly matches against foreign opposition but only with the permission of the Serbs. The Kosovars rejected that compromise. It was all or nothing.
Hence in January – smuggled through virtually unnoticed on the day of the FIFA Gala – the world federation’s emergency committee cleared Kosovo to play friendly matches on home soil. The only remaining proviso was that the KFF gave FIFA due notice so that the world federation, out of diplomatic good manners, could tell the Serbs. The Serb veto was dead.
Hence Kosovo kicked off a new era today against Haiti.
Kosovo’s progress prompted unnecessary panic in Switzerland whose national team will lean heavily at the World Cup in Brazil on the talents of Kosovar connections such as Xherdan Shaqiri (Bayern Munich), Valon Behrami (Napoli) and Granit Xhaka (Borussia Monchengladbach). Last year half a dozen members of the Swedish squad who finished third at the World Under-17 Cup claimed Kosovo connections and Shaqiri sported Swiss, Albanian and Kosovo flag patches on his boots when Switzerland played Albania.
Blatter has reassured the Swiss they worry unnecessarily. International statutes bar players already capped within the FIFA family from switching football nationality to Kosovo. In any case it will be many years before Kosovo has surmounted the hurdles of Serb and Russian antagonism and attained even UN membership, never mind that of UEFA and FIFA.
If Manchester United’s Adnan Januzaj, for example, opted to represent Kosovo – out of all the teenager’s many options – his prospects of playing international football at senior competitive level would be faint. By opting to play for Kosovo his prospects of ever appearing in the finals of a World Cup or even an expanded European Championship are virtually non-existent.
Januzaj, like all the Swiss, Swedish and Albanian Kosovar internationals, could play today without technically jeopardising their official status because Kosovo, of course, is outside FIFA. But even Vokrri, Salihu and Swedish-based national coach Albert Bunjaki accept that such a step would be too provocative, too soon.
Even so, only one member of the squad plays in Kosovo. All the rest are foreign-based including Norwegian-born Bersant Celina of Manchester City and former Swiss striker Albert Bunjaku (Kaiserslautern). Veteran Banjaku, who went with Switzerland to the 2010 World Cup finals, feels free to double up because, his mainstream international days are over.
Nothing is easy for Kosovo. Even Haiti were substitutes because the original opponents, Jamaica, took fright at reports of trouble up in Bosnia.
This was not all. The match was a 17,000 sell-out but tickets are selling at 10 times their face value on the black market.
Kosovo also has a delicate stadium issue. The reconstructed venue in Pristina is not up to minimum international standards. Hence Kosovo had to play Haiti in Mitrovica . . . which is in northern Kosovo, the state’s flashpoint region, where NATO peacekeepers keep a wary eye on the local concentration of ethnic Serbs.
Hence one friendly football match with an awful lot at stake.