Kosovo’s battle for an identity in football

Xhedran Shaqiri shows (all of) his colours

Xhedran Shaqiri shows (all of) his colours

Sport and Politics: they just don’t mix.  Everyone knows the old adage – the two should be kept at arm’s length… but the truth is that to attempt to do so is an exercise in futility.  Lazio’s poorly-reputed and politically-influenced fans did themselves no favours when they visited Tottenham last week, and ‘right-wing’ is becoming more than a flank of the Westfalenstadion pitch for some Dortmund fans.

But if domestic football suffers from occasional flirtations with partisanship and political allegiance, international football is wedded to it.  When tied to notions of nationhood, how could it be any other way?  A case in point has been the ongoing saga of Fifa’s non-recognition of the Kosovo national team, which took a new twist when Xherdan Shaqiri and some of his Swiss international teammates took the bold move of sending an open letter to the game’s governing body last week ahead of their fixture against Albania.

“We commit our support to the Football Federation of Kosovo in this common fight for the implementation of the principles contained in the Fifa statutes: justice, respect, non-discrimination, refusal of political interference and universality of football,” read the letter.  Like Shaqiri, Swiss internationals Granit Xhaka and Valon Behrami are also Kosovan-born, as is Albania’s captain Lorik Cana.  All four were happy to sign their names under their protestation to Fifa.  In addition, Shaqiri’s boots bore three flags – Switzerland, Albania and Kosovo.

By its nature, Switzerland is something of a melting pot – as one might expect of a country looming at the conflux of four others, and whose role during the World Wars was to act as the continent’s refugee camp while the rest of Europe was tearing itself apart.  A majority of the current playing squad find their roots in other corners of the globe – Johan Djourou (Côte d’Ivoire), Gelson Fernandes (Cape Verde), Gökhan Inler (Turkey) and Admir Mehmedi (Macedonia/Albania) – to name just a few.

Most of the second- and third-generation immigrants that represent the Swiss squad can trace their heritage back to a recognised and stable nation-state.  For the Kosovan contingent, however, nationality and its tenuousness has undoubtedly always been at the forefront of their lives.  Xhaka, Shaqiri and Behrami were all born in towns which were part of Yugoslavia (which became known as ‘Serbia & Montenegro’ in 2003 after other Balkan nations had seceded, and then simply ‘Serbia’ after Montenegro gained independence in 2006, before the Kosovan Declaration of Independence).

Kosovan fans get behind their team

Kosovan fans get behind their team

Since 2008, Kosovo has been battling in the political realm for international recognition and separation from Serbia with varying degrees of success – 91 countries now accept their legitimacy (including a majority of Europe, as well as the USA and the IMF), but in political terms the transition won’t be complete until the United Nations chooses to recognise the country as a sovereign state.  Likewise, the Football Federation of Kosovo (FFK) exists, but until it gains membership into Fifa and Uefa, sporadic and meaningless friendlies are the highest ambition they can have.

Dabbling into the further complexities of the Third Balkan War, the current political landscape, spheres of influence and claims for political legitimacy, would be ill-advised on my behalf – not just because of the enormity and sensitivity of the matter which goes beyond my comprehension.  But one thing that seems clear is that Kosovo’s claim to be able to represent itself at football is by no means audacious or unprecedented, unlike the assertion of the Serbian FA would suggest, who have cited the necessity of being a member nation of the UN as being a prerequisite to joining Fifa.  “We do call upon observing all the rules, since otherwise chaos may be provoked,” read the Serbian FA’s statement to the New York Times, “because a large number of internationally non-recognised countries, in Europe and worldwide as well, would request an admission to Uefa and Fifa.”

Sepp Blatter gets a lot of flak – almost all of which is justified – but his decision to entertain claims to have the FFK recognised is indeed progressive and praiseworthy.  Serbia’s rather sinister claim – which was backed in May by Uefa president Michel Platini – seems to be based on whimsical precedents, rather than any statute, and hasn’t been applied retrospectively.  Fifa presently recognises several countries that the UN doesn’t – Palestine, Puerto Rico, Faroe Islands, Hong Kong, just to name a few.  Similarly, the International Olympic Committee has many more member nations than the UN – Kosovo, however is still not one of them, with the IOC citing similar logic to Uefa.  Serbia’s statement is little more than a thinly veiled political grudge, and nothing to do with sport.

It was only an attempt for footballing independence by Gibraltar, which is comprised largely of British ex-pats and whose entire population wouldn’t fill Villa Park (a bit like Aston Villa – oh snap!), during the 1990s that led to this trend of veto in the first place.  Spain’s reaction and threatening to boycott international tournaments didn’t seem worth risking for the sake of allowing such a liberty in sport to a nation with such a nominal presence in global affairs.

Again in 2007 Gibraltar applied, but it fell well short as only England, Wales and Scotland of Uefa’s then-52 members backed their bid.  (It might be noted that under Platini’s judgement, the home nations should be represented under one flag as the United Kingdom – which, to add further complexity to the matter, would not be the same as Team GB football team as at the London 2012 Olympic Games, which represented ‘Great Britain’ as understood by the IOC, whose jurisdiction in fact includes a lot of islands as far away as the Caribbean which don’t have their own National Olympic Committees.)

It is easy to patronise Gibraltar’s application because of their minnow status – but it is this unwillingness to recognise a right to self-determination which Fifa should address, if only to make its claims consistent.  The membership of Fifa need not (and comprehensively does not) overlap with the UN.  It seems blatant that attempts to block Kosovo’s admission to football’s international bodies are rely on the legitimacy of these rulings, which have no empirical basis.  One only needs to look at Uefa’s member list – which features Asian nations Israel and Kazakhstan – to realise that the political landscape and the world of football don’t always correlate.

Fifa preaches a narrative of inclusiveness and boundlessness, and uses these qualities to justify its work.  However there are still nations which don’t have a place in the eyes of the federation, and between those nations there is clearly an element of solidarity.  It was in this spirit that the VIVA World Cup was founded in 2006 for unrecognised states – some with more widely-discussed claims for political independence than others, such as Northern Cyprus and Kurdistan.  It would be fair to say that the tournament is not famed for its quality, as much as for its message.  Kosovo are yet to enter the competition (and perhaps will not do, if their Fifa membership appears attainable) but their list of friendly fixtures has the included equally unrecognised Sápmi, Northern Cyprus and Monaco.

The Basque team, unrecognised by Fifa

The Basque team, unrecognised by Fifa

Meanwhile the separatist Basque Country has secured countless friendlies with non-accepted UN members (and, of course, their Catalonian neighbours) – which either signifies a de facto recognition of their autonomy, or just their sheer ability on the field – indeed, the Euskadi team is usually a formidable opponent, comprised almost entirely of Primera Liga players.  However the issue of Basque sovereignty is equally delicate, with no shortage of bloodshed in its history and, in a sporting sense, little hope is held of immediate recognition.

But Fifa wouldn’t even be the ground-breaking party if it chose to observe Kosovo’s right to representation.  Several international sports federations have already granted the country membership – including five Olympic sports, despite the stubbornness of the IOC.  Indeed, the International Table Tennis Association granted full membership to Kosovo in 2003, five years ahead of the country’s Declaration of Independence.

For all the debate on the matter, it can only be a good thing that the Swiss players chose to draw attention to this affair.  On these shores, for all the bravado that is aligned to Englishness and Britishness, appreciation of what nationality means seems pretty diluted.  In this respect, the British distance from Europe is more than geographic – a true understanding of shifting borders on the continent is largely absent.  Sometimes it takes the actions of individuals to give credence to an action, and the Shaqiri et al have certainly done that by putting it on the radar of those that are complacent about the importance that people attribute to their own nationhood.

So with a bit of work Pristina may soon be hosting games sanctioned by the international governing bodies, but nothing is inevitable.  The universality of sport is supposedly in Fifa’s lifeblood, but it cannot maintain that claim while it denies its version of nationhood to those who, unlike the Swiss contingent, have no other allegiances to align with.  For Fifa to pander to the political might of Serbia is to betray the apolitical values which it preaches.

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