Football and Kosovo's Fight for Independence

Kosovo produces great footballers, but an ongoing struggle for independence has left its ambitions hamstrung by global politics.

by Jack Kerr
10 November 2014, 12:00pm

Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer-US

Last month, a Euro qualifier between the Albanian and Serbian national teams came to a messy end after a small drone started flying just above the field, trailing behind it the flag of "Greater Albania"—that is, Albania plus the ethnically Albanian state of Kosovo, which is fighting for independence from Serbia.

The question of Kosovo still inspires violence and rage in a region that has seen plenty of it. Kosovo sits in an international no man's land. It is recognised by more than half of the countries in the United Nations and most of the European Union, but it has not gained membership to either body. It can enter the Eurovision Song Contest, has just been granted a place at the Olympics, and this year began playing FIFA-sanctioned international friendlies. But the body that looks after football in Europe, UEFA, refuses to let it join its confederation, so Kosovo cannot enter tournaments such as the Euros and the World Cup.

Which brings up the question, what would a football team from Kosovo look like? Frighteningly good.

During the conflict of the '90s, Kosovars fled across Europe, and the countries that accepted refugees are winning in football as a result. The diaspora of this tiny, dispersed state has produced so many international players for other nations that the president of Kosovo's football federation described a World Cup qualifier in 2012 between Switzerland and Albania as "like watching Kosovo A team versus Kosovo B."

The Swiss team alone included three Kosovars—Xherden Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, and Valon Behrami—who would all would go on to star in Brazil. One of the Belgium World Cup squad's young guns was the son of Kosovar immigrants, Manchester United's 19-year-old midfielder Adnan Januzaj.

Within Kosovo, some have come to view membership to FIFA as a stepping stone to the full-blooded national recognition that is a seat at the United Nations, and Kosovo is taking some steps in the right direction. This year, with FIFA's approval, it hosted Haiti (a goalless draw), Turkey (a 1-6 drubbing), and Oman (a 1-0 victory). It also played a home game, against Senegal, in Switzerland.

"Football is not about politics, though it can influence politics," Kosovo's Deputy Foreign Minister, Petrit Selimi, told VICE Sports. "Having people get used to the name of Kosovo in sports, music, culture makes it easier to lobby for final recognition of Kosovo by UN.

"Having a national football team, being recognized as a country by Facebook or having a national song at Eurovision Song Contest are very important markers of national identity."

Following last month's decision by the International Olympic Commission (IOC), Selimi says Kosovo will renew its push for membership to football's governing bodies.

"The IOC took a decision that brought joy to thousands of young sportsmen and women of Kosovo by admitting Kosovo to Olympics. It will be impossible for FIFA to remain closed to idea of allowing Kosovo kids compete internationally. It would be a cruel and not a just sporting decision."

When Shaqiri won the Champions League with Bayern Munich in 2013, he draped himself in a combined Swiss-Kosovar flag. Until Kosovo gets full FIFA rights, though, it's hard to imagine players of his calibre ignoring a call-up from national teams as successful as Switzerland and Belgium.

Besart Berisha, one of the many Kosovars capped by Albania, is another example of the issues in play. He was born in Pristina, Kosovo, grew up in eastern Berlin, and, after a promising beginning to his career in the Bundesliga, now dominates Australia's A-League. He has represented Albania a number of times, and while he is open to the idea of playing for Kosovo, he isn't jumping at the chance.

"I am from Kosovo, but I'm choosing the Albanian national team. But we are pretty much the same: we speak the same language; we are the same.

"My thing is, if I'm around Europe, closer to Europe, yes, why not. But I'm so far away from there, so even if they call me for friendlies, I don't think I will be ready for them, because of the 30 hour flight."

For Selimi, there is no pressure on players like Shaqiri and Berisha to switch sides. "Kosovars have a vast diaspora around the world and they should play for whomever they feel comfortable," he says.

"When Xherdan Shaqiri scores a hat-trick for Switzerland in the World Cup or Januzaj becomes a new icon of Belgium, we Kosovars feel proud of each and every one of them, as we are a new country, a true product of 21st century with globalised population and globalized world outlook."