More than eight years after its declaration of independence, Kosovo has earned full recognition by European football’s governing body.
Yesterday there were 54 members of Europe’s international football family. By the time the lights go out tonight in Priština, there will be 55.
“What message does it send to the international sports community to say that Kosovo can play in all sports, just not football?” Football Federation of Kosovo (FFK) Secretary General Eroll Salihu demanded from behind his desk at federation headquarters. “We are recognised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), by the United Nations; there is no logic. It has been a political decision [to exclude Kosovo]. It shouldn’t have been, but it has.”
That political situation is partly fuelled by the objections of Serbia, which still claims sovereignty over Kosovo eight years after the former autonomous province declared independence, but Serbia’s obstinacy is softening. In 2013, an agreement was signed between the governments in Priština and Belgrade that dictated that neither republic would attempt to block the other in their respective relationships with the EU. A copy of the signed document was included in Kosovo’s formal application to UEFA, and Salihu’s interpretation is that it constitutes a formal waver of Serbia’s objections to Kosovo’s place in the international arena.
At last count, 108 of the UN’s 193 member states had acknowledged Kosovar independence, while the republic is also recognised by the International Court of Justice. In December 2014, a giant step forward was taken when the IOC moved to allow athletes to compete for the first time under the Kosovar flag. Football has been one of the last few institutions still lagging.
“The UN has decided that the Kosovar state conforms with and is in harmony with international law,” Salihu reiterated. “This amounts to recognition from a legal point of view.”
At the same time, football in Kosovo is broke. No other country in Europe is forced to survive on such meagre resources, and UEFA membership couldn’t have come soon enough. At present, the FFK survives almost entirely on investment from private donors, with little to no money coming from the government in Priština or from the European governing body. Access to European competition will go a long way towards transforming the coffers and the image of the country’s domestic league.
Private investment in clubs, which for most outfits in the Super League makes up around 80 percent of total revenue, is minimal, with backers reluctant to sink their money into outfits that for all intents and purposes are part of a rebel organisation. This leaves clubs surviving on scraps, their stadiums little more than a few banks of concrete flanking pitches trodden to shreds by overuse and underinvestment.
Fisnik Isufi is vice-president of FK Drita in the city of Gjilan. He explained that he sees UEFA membership as a path towards renewal for the domestic game.
“There is no hope here at the moment,” Isufi said. “People don’t want to invest in football because Kosovo is isolated. But attitudes will change after this I think. People will want to invest in us when we are in UEFA.”
Some problems have already been conquered. Until 2009, players’ contracts weren’t recognised by FIFA, meaning players could be poached by teams in Serbia and the rest of the Balkans without the say-so of the clubs paying their wages. An agreement was eventually reached with the governing body to give Kosovar clubs protection in the transfer market, but even this is a far cry from the ruinous conditions that prevailed here prior to the war.
That football survived at all in Kosovo during the period 1991-1999 is remarkable. With the country’s sports facilities under the control of local Serb-led municipalities, clubs across the country were forced out of their grounds and onto scrap land, seeking out whatever playable surfaces they could find in order to continue their fledging league out of sight of the authorities.
“95% of Kosovan players played for seven years in improvised conditions because we had no stadiums,” Salihu said. “We played under terror and under the pressure that we would be [physically] beaten. The other 5%, the Serbs and Bosnians, they played in our stadiums.”
The ghosts of the war that laid waste to Kosovo in 1999, in which hundreds of thousands of residents were either killed or displaced, are everywhere in this country, nowhere more than on the road from Priština to the northern city of Skenderaj. Here, crumbling villages form a backdrop to the ‘Martyrs’ Cemeteries,’ which animate the roadside with memories of the dead.
Daut Geci, once of local side KF Drenica, tells a harrowing story of the day he and his teammates were chased from the pitch during a game in the province of Mitrovica by a Serb militia.
“But we carried on playing, just on different ground,” Geci insisted from the freezing bunker that constitutes Drenica’s clubhouse, “Whenever we were chased from a field, we could never go back there. But always we played on the next week.”
His tone of defiance is a common feature among those who survived to rebuild the game here.
Back in Priština, one floor down from Salihu’s office, life hurries by along Rruga Agim Ramadani, the street named in honour of the Kosovo Liberation Army leader who helped lead the Albanian resistance. Kosovo is a country determined to remember its divisive past, but a bright future is still being forged. Acceptance into UEFA has come at just the right moment to help haul football here into the 21st century.
Full membership will give Kosovo the chance to reclaim a lost generation of players; Xherdan Shaqiri, Valon Behrami, Lorik Cana and Adnan Januzaj are just the most well-known of the internationals who will have the opportunity to reconsider their allegiance.
“We’ll give these players three months to declare themselves” Salihu said. “After that, we will close the window for them. But we have a very talented young generation coming out of this country. We have coaches who we have trained with the German association, the Swiss association and the Albanian association. We have about 15 professional coaches now, and we have some private football schools. I wouldn’t call them academies, but we have private football schools.”
It’s a far cry from the days when football here was still stalked by war.
Cover photo credit: ESPNFC.com