During FIFA’s 66th congress in Mexico City on 13th May, 2016, member nations voted overwhelmingly (141 for, 23 against) to induct Kosovo as the 210th member of world football’s governing body. Kosovo’s recognition by FIFA last week was preceded by its induction into UEFA, European football’s governing body, as its 55th member in early May.
As expected, Kosovo’s recognition by FIFA and UEFA sent the Kosovar faithful into raptures. “Best news! Kosovo is the newest member of UEFA,” wrote Kosovo President Hashim Thaci on his Twitter page after induction into UEFA. “Thank you all those who voted ‘yes’ for our children and youth to compete in football.”
Serbia, which stalwartly refuses to recognize Kosovo a sovereign nation, came out and lambasted FIFA’s decision, saying that it “reflects inconsistency and a complete loss of fundamental sporting values and principles”. The Serbian Football Association has filed a lawsuit with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) challenging FIFA’s decision to induct Kosovo as an independent member.
Given the palpable tension between the two members, FIFA and UEFA would do well to separate Kosovo and Serbia in all future competitions, both at the European and the World stage. But why is Serbia hell bent on blocking Kosovo’s path towards International legitimacy? The roots of the present lie deep in the past.
History of conflict
FIFA's recognition of Kosovo has exposed the region's ethnic fault lines. Kosovo is an autonomous region sandwiched between Albania, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia in the Balkan Peninsula. Kosovo is predominantly occupied by ethnic Albanians who constitute more than 90% of its population. The Serbian population is mainly settled in the restive northern reaches of the partially recognized Balkan state.
Despite forming a minority in the autonomous region, Serbia considers Kosovo as an integral component of its national sovereign space. Albania, on the other hand, strongly supports the idea of an independent Kosovo nation state.
Kosovo took its first step towards statehood in 1974 when it was granted major autonomy under the new constitution of communist Yugoslavia. In 1981, thousands of Kosovar Albanians organized protests in the capital Pristina demanding the establishment of an independent Kosovo Republic within the borders of Yugoslavia. Ethnic tensions escalated in Kosovo after Serbian President Slobodan Miloševi launched a covert campaign in the late 1980s that aimed at suppressing the rights of ethnic Albanians living in the region and rescinding Kosovo’s autonomous status.
The breakup of Yugoslavia and the subsequent signing of the Dayton Agreement in 1995 largely ignored the tension simmering inside the Kosovar melting pot. Smarting from its defeat in the Bosnian war, Serbia stepped up its offensive against the Albanian population in Kosovo. In response, the Albanian backed Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and declared war against the Serbian military forces. Hundreds of people in Kosovo were killed and thousands displaced as a result of the fighting that ensued between the two warring factions over the next 3 years.
As the conflict caught the world’s attention, NATO launched an aerial offensive against Serbia in 1999 which ultimately forced Milosevic to withdraw his forces from Kosovo. In June 1999, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution which placed Kosovo under the control of a transitional UN body called the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).
On 17th February, 2008, Kosovo officially declared its independence from Serbia. In the immediate aftermath of Kosovo’s declaration of independence, more than 100 countries (including the United States, United Kingdom and Albania) announced their recognition of Kosovo as a sovereign republic. As expected, Serbia vehemently refused to recognize Kosovo as a legitimate state.
However, Kosovo has been unable to become a full-fledged member of the United Nations. Russia, which is an ally of Serbia, has constantly vetoed Kosovo’s bid to become a UN member and it considers its declaration of independence as “illegal”. In 2013, Serbia finally agreed to recognize Kosovo’s government (but not the country as an independent state) as part of a European Union (EU) brokered deal.
What the future holds for Kosovar football
Kosovo’s induction into FIFA means that it is now eligible to take part in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. It would also allow the FKK (Football Federation of Kosova) clubs to participate in European club competitions such as the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League.
Then there is the question of the composition of Kosovo’s national squad. UEFA generally doesn’t allow players to switch allegiances once they have made an appearance for a particular national team. However, in the case of Kosovo, UEFA is likely to make an exception in this regard. Players such as Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland), Adnan Januzaj (Belgium), Granit Xhaka (Switzerland) and Valon Behrami (Switzerland) were all born to Kosovar-Albanian parents. They, along with many others, will get an option to switch their national football allegiance in case they wish to do so.
However, it is very clear that the Serbian government will continue to oppose Kosovo’s dreams of thriving in the football arena. Even now, Kosovo lies at the center of brewing ethnic tensions between the Serbs and the Albanians.
In October 2014, Serbia’s Euro 2016 qualifier with Albania in Belgrade’s Partizan Stadium was abandoned after a mass brawl broke out between players, officials and fans of both teams. Fighting erupted after Serbian player Stefan Mitrovic pulled down a flag, which bore the insignia of Greater Albania (including Kosovo), which was lowered by a drone flying over the field of play.
According to Nick Ames of the Guardian, “The Greater Albania insignia referred to the notion of an extended area in which all ethnic Albanians reside – one that would include Kosovo.” It later emerged that the drone was controlled and operated by the brother of the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama from the confines of the VIP box in the stadium. This incident laid bare the ethnic fault lines that still exist in the region.
Since declaring independence in 2008, Kosovo has managed to gain membership of prominent international institutions such as the World Bank, International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Kosovo’s recent induction into UEFA and FIFA has pushed it another step closer towards gaining international legitimacy as an independent sovereign nation.