[email protected]

September 23, 2012, Sunday

In the making: the Kosovar national football team

Most of the time, Kosovo makes it to the news when there is a problem with Serbia or with the Kosovar Serbs living in the practically autonomous north of the country.

Belgrade has no intention to recognize Kosovo’s independence and officially considers it to still be an integral part of Serbia. The ethnic Serbs that make up the majority of the population north of the river Ibar show no sign of giving up their resistance to the efforts of the authorities in Pristina to establish full sovereignty in that part of Kosovo as well. Nothing seems to be moving and only die-hard Balkan observers are able to detect some minor potential changes to the status quo.

Last week the Kosovars got the opportunity to celebrate their independence for the second time. In February 2008, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. Since then, 89 states, including 22 EU member states, the US and Turkey, have recognized it. One of the conditions set by the EU and the US was the establishment of an International Steering Group (ISG) that would monitor the young republic’s performance, especially in the field of democracy and human rights. It meant that Kosovo got its independence but it was internationally supervised.

That supervision ended last Monday after the 25 states making up the ISG announced that Kosovo had fulfilled all the relevant conditions. The move was enthusiastically welcomed by the government of Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, which organized two days of festivities.

The reaction of Belgrade was predictable. For the Serbs nothing has changed. They accept neither the supervised nor unsupervised independence of Kosovo. Pressure on Serbia to change its obstructionist attitude has been growing, however, since the country has applied for EU membership. Senior EU officials, backed by an outspoken German government, have suggested that recognition of Kosovo’s independence may be a precondition for Serbia joining the EU. In October the European Commission will present its annual report on Serbia’s EU progress and in the Serbian press there is already speculation that the commission is not impressed by Serbia’s integration efforts. Brussels is therefore probably not going to recommend to the EU member states to start the EU accession talks at the end of this year that Belgrade is hoping for. We will see who is going to blink first, but a quick start of the EU negotiations does not seem very likely. This means that hopes for a breakthrough in Serbian-Kosovar relations should be put on the backburner as well.

Are we back to square one again? Not entirely. In a beautiful article in The New York Times a few days ago, James Montague presented a ray of hope by telling the story of the Kosovo Football Federation and their attempts to get support for the formal recognition of a Kosovar national team. The reporter follows two officials in Switzerland, where the home team is preparing for a World Cup qualifying match against Albania. Of the 22 players lined up for the game, nine were born in or had roots in Kosovo. Six of them play for Albania and it does not come as a big surprise that they are quite willing to change the Albanian jersey for a Kosovar one if the opportunity arises. The fascinating part is on the three Swiss-Kosovar players, of whom the most well known is Xherdan Shaqiri, a talented 20-year-old midfielder playing for Bayern Munich. The Kosovar officials are trying to convince Shaqiri and his two colleagues to sign a petition asking UEFA, European football’s governing body, to be more flexible and allow a Kosovar national team to play against other states despite the fact that the country is not a member of the UN yet.

Membership is an official requirement and countries like Spain and Russia that do not recognize Kosovo’s independence have been able to block Kosovo’s football dreams using that argument. But the isolation may not be permanent. In May, Sepp Blatter, the Swiss president of the world football association FIFA, announced that Kosovo would be allowed to play noncompetitive matches against other countries. It is seen by many as the first step toward full membership.

The Kosovar football officials want to use the momentum and push UEFA to follow suit. That might take some time, but it is clear that there could be a light at the end of the tunnel. It may be on the football pitch that Kosovo will first break the deadlock. Shaqiri and his two fellow Swiss-Kosovar internationals got the message and signed the petition.

Previous articles of the columnist