The sporting map of the Balkans has changed beyond recognition in the past 25 years, with first the fall of communism and then the many conflicts in the region seeing the geopolitical map of the area repeatedly redrawn.
The Yugoslavia national football team was still in existence in the 1990s, before Croatia, Albania and other constituent nations sought political as well as sporting independence. Serbia-Montenegro competed at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, before Montenegro followed suit and broke away from Serbia later that year. From 2016 onwards, UEFA now has a new member in the region: Kosovo.
Kosovo came to the world’s attention in 1998-99 when a war was fought between the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Kosovar-Albanian rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), a paramilitary organisation seeking independence for Kosovo to follow that of Albania, itself independent since 1991. In 1999, NATO sent armed forces into the region to help the KLA in their fight against Yugoslav control. Still, it was not until 2008 that independence was declared, and Kosovo’s independence was quickly recognised by states including the US, the UK, Australia, France, Germany, Italy and Albania. More than half of the UN’s member states, and the vast majority of EU members, now recognise Kosovo as a nation.
With political independence achieved and largely recognised, Kosovo has turned its attentions to the world of sport. The nation participated in the European Games in Azerbaijan in 2015 in athletics, and plans to send athletes to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August. Football, though, is one of the most popular sports in the country, and joining UEFA and FIFA became a key priority. In May 2016, UEFA’s existing 54 members voted on the issue of Kosovo’s membership, with the country joining UEFA after a successful 28-24 vote despite opposition from Serbia, which still officially considers Kosovo to be an autonomous region within its territory. The repercussions of this vote could go beyond the Balkan region, with Spain in particular voicing opposition to Kosovo’s UEFA membership, uneasy about a possible precedent with several autonomous regions within Spain.
Kosovo has now also been granted FIFA membership and is able to play in official UEFA tournaments, starting with the qualifying tournament for the 2018 World Cup, where Kosovo’s first match will be against the Faroe Islands. But how soon we will see them in a major tournament may depend on the ruling of FIFA, and the intentions of ethnic Kosovars who moved elsewhere and took on different nationalities. The wars in the Balkans created a huge diaspora across Europe and like many other nations in the region, Kosovo has a significant number of eligible players who have represented other nations, notably Switzerland and Albania. Albania’s captain, Lorik Cana, who has played for Sunderland, Lazio, Galatasaray and Paris Saint-Germain, would be eligible, as would Swiss internationals Granit Xhaka, Xherdan Shaqiri, Admir Mehmedi and Valon Behrami. Norway, Sweden and Finland have also fielded ethnic Kosovars in their national teams.
It is still to be decided if FIFA will allow players who have represented other countries to make a one-time switch of allegiance to start representing Kosovo. It is also unclear how many of these players would wish to make the switch. National identity is a complicated issue in the Balkans and those of KosovarAlbanian descent representing Albania are perhaps unlikely to want to change, happy to represent an Albanian side who have qualified for the European Championships for the first time. As for those representing Switzerland, Xhaka was born in Basel and Shaqiri’s family moved to Switzerland in the first year of his life. Quite how players like these feel about their individual national identity remains to be seen.
Albania’s football authorities are more concerned about future talent; the Albanian side has traditionally been made up of both Albanians and players who would now be able to play for Kosovo. In the future, it is likely that the two nations will be competing for players from an early age, which may weaken the squads of both nations.
For now though, the mood in Kosovo is positive, with the country finally gaining acceptance on the world footballing stage seventeen years after the UN intervened to help the country’s fight against the then-Yugoslav forces, and over eight years after Kosovo declared its independence.