Kosovo's UEFA membership is a step towards recognition on the global stage

©Getty Images – Attila Kisbenedek

©Getty Images – Attila Kisbenedek

A couple of years back I travelled to Mitrovica’s Adem Jashari Stadium to watch Kosovo play their second-only sanctioned international football match, against Turkey. The result: 6-1 to the away side. But that barely mattered. When Albert Bunjaku stabbed home a scruffy first goal for his young country, the ground erupted. Royal blue Kosovar standards were pulled from coat pockets and bumbags and held aloft to a roar that far outstripped the Jashari’s 18,000 seats.

Then, the Kosovo flag was officially banned by FIFA. Captain Anel Raskaj, who I’d met the night before at a big, gaudy hotel on the outskirts of Pristina, was himself stowed away of sorts – defying the wishes of board members and coaching staff at his club, Norwegian side Sandnes Ulf, to travel to Kosovo. The game was sanctioned but not as a full international, hence Raskaj’s predicament. “For two months I’ve talked to them saying I can’t miss this game,” he told me nervously (he’s still playing for them).

Kosovo is barely eight years old as a state. Contention about its entry on the global stage, as it was that sunny day in Mitrovica, remains loud. Serbia still protests its legitimacy and EU accession talks between the two and Brussels are painstaking. The debacle that overshadowed Serbia’s 2014 European Championship qualifier against Albania was sparked when a drone carrying a map of ‘Greater Albania’, which includes Kosovo (the two states share culture and language, if not a twentieth century statehood), flew overhead. 

Neither has the country been without its share of domestic teething problems. Widespread corruption, economic failure and protests have marred the last year. Many blame a government packed with those who fought the long and bloody Kosovo War. A proficiency for death, they argue, does not confer fiscal adroitness.

Which makes it all the more celebratory, perhaps, that last week Kosovo was officially elected to UEFA – becoming its 55th member and most recent since Gibraltar in 2013. The country’s footballing hierarchy will now turn its sights to FIFA, and could even compete for a place at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. That would ignite plenty of controversy, with the hosts having traditionally sided with Serbia against Kosovo’s existence.

Kosovo, with a population of just 1.9m to draw from, have long been considered the ‘Brazilians of the Balkans’ – and with a squad that might have included Xherdan Shaqiri, Valon Behrami, Granit Xhaka and Lorik Cana, it’s a label that’s at least regionally deserved. FIFA has even suggested that it will give Kosovar players currently representing other nations the chance to switch allegiances, which would be unprecedented. 

One drawback might be the emergence of Albania, many of whose own players have roots in Kosovo but whose successes will likely persuade them to stay. But footballing recognition is a big step in the country’s progress, and one which could galvanise its sometimes precarious society.

Don’t expect the controversy to end there, though. Just a few days ago Ultras at a Red Star Belgrade friendly held up placards that read ‘UEFA Supports Terrorism’. Serbia, Kosovo’s former hegemon, has continued to lobby and complain about Kosovar statehood – and that won’t stop when a Kosovo team steps out onto the pitch. 

But as Enver Hoxhaj, Kosovo’s then-foreign minister, told me as we sped away from Mitrovica that day two years back, football is a great way to build bridges. “It’s a way for us to promote tolerance,” he said as the city’s beautiful, Ottoman-styled Bayram Pasha Mosque disappeared behind us. UEFA and FIFA will certainly be hoping so.

– Sean Williams.

Sean Williams is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The New Yorker. You can see more of his work at www.seanwilliamswords.com and www.newyorker.com/contributors/sean-williams