KEIR RADNEDGE in BUDAPEST —- European football has finally fallen into line with most of the rest of world sport and approved Kosovo as a member, with immediate effect.
The decision, on a narrow but sufficient 28-24 vote at the annual congress of European federation UEFA here in Budapest, opens the door for the Kosovars to be welcoming into membership of world federation FIFA next week in Mexico City – and maybe even then into the imminent qualifying competition for the 2018 World Cup.
Fadil Vokrri, the former Yugoslavia striker who is Kosovo federation president, was thrilled and relieved at the end of a long struggle on behalf of football in a state whose sporting ambitions were fiercely opposed right up until the vote by Serbia.
He told UEFA Congress: “I thank you on behalf of all our staff, our coaches, our referees, our fans and of all young players in my country who have long dedicated their lives to football.
“This is is a historic moment and I make a pledge: I will defend football’s values in a region that not very long ago was still ravaged by the scourge of war. We will work to to bring people together on the pitch and around the pitch. This is our vision for the future as the 55th member association of UEFA.”
The two federations who stand to lose the most in terms of their Kosovar-adopted players took opposing standpoints. The Albanian federation supported the Kosovo application while Switzerland opposed it.
The need for a football judgment of Solomon awaits around the corner for the game’s lawyers if Kosovar players from both countries now want to play for Kosovo since international regulations forbid senior competitive players from changing alliegiance.
Last autumn UEFA’s executive had decided to put Kosovo’s membership application to congress but without making any recommendation for or against. It was no secret that the issue had caused serious division with Serbia, Russia and Spain all worried that admitting Kosovo would serve as a predecent for other breakaway territories.
Vokrri, asked to put his case to congress, noted that all Kosovo main sports federations had been accepted by their international federations – as well as by the Olympic movement – with the notable exception of football.
He said: “What message are we sending to athletes in Kosovo? The International Court of Justice has stated stated that Kosovo did not breach international law and an agreement was signed with Serbia saying the acceptance of Kosovo within European structures would not constitute any obstacle and this should apply to UEFA.”
Tomislav Karadzic, president of the Serbian federation, did not agree, pulling no punches in setting out his opposition to any slighty generosity of sporting spirit.
He said he had hoped Serbia “would be successful in keeping politics out of football,” and referred sneeringly to the “self-proclaimed football federation of Kosovo” whose ambitions threatened to create a precedent which would “knock on the doors of other UEFA members.”
His Serbian federation was not opposed to footballers playing “in all parts of the continents [but] against a federation which does not meet the requirements of becoming a member of UEFA.”
In any case – and despite more than two decades of separation – Karadzic considered Kosovo as still “an integral part of Serbia.”
In the past UEFA has relied on a clause in its statutes barring states which were not member of the United Nations. However, legal director Alasdair Bell quashed that excuse by stating that UN membership did not confer such status – “states can only be recognised by other states.”
This was despite an earlier vote in which a congress vote to re-word that clause had failed to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority.
Karadzic concluded with a doomsday scenario, saying: “We face a stern test. We must say no to politics, no to divsions which may be detrimental if this precedent were to be set; a division which would create tumult in the region and open a Pandora’s box throughout Europe.”
The Serbs were supported by Swiss federation general Alex Miescher who complained that not enough was known about the adiministration and conditions of organise football on Kosovo.
Then he added, in a telling and disreputable give-away: “There’s an issue for us in Switzerland about the status of the players. We don’t know whether they will be able to choose who to play for.
“It’s unfair to give these players a choice because it will be a choice for a nation or against a nation.”
The opposing view was put, with much greater fair play, by Albanian FA president Armand Duka.
He said: “We are a sporting organisation. I believe we have to think about football only, not about other agendas and motives, Kosovo has become a reality. They are not a part of the Seb federation so we should give them the green light.
“We might be said we could be losing some players but this is not the issue. We have to think about football and football only.”
By 45-4, with four abstentions, congress decided to hold a secret ballot and then, by 28-24 with two spoiled papers, to bring Kosovo in from the cold. A simple majority was enough.
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