Earlier today, after a long campaign for recognition, Kosovo was admitted as a member of European football’s governing body, UEFA.
Erolld Belegu received the bad news, by text, at the most inopportune time. It was 2008 and the president of Kosovo’s basketball federation — attending a conference in Cardiff called Regional Sport, International Participation — had just hauled his powerful frame on to the stage. He was about to wax lyrical about how sport could heal divisions in post-conflict societies and how sport could triumph where politics failed. Suddenly, however, it seemed that his heart wasn’t it.
“I had just heard the news that FIBA [basketball’s world governing body] has rejected our membership again at their central board meeting,” he explained, shrugging as if to suggest he wasn’t that surprised. “Now this is becoming purely political. [People who say] sport and politics don’t mix are kids.”
In a way, Belegu was right — but perhaps not in the way that he intended. Sporting recognition is intensely political, which is why last year’s decision by the International Olympic Committee to admit Kosovo as a member was met with street parties, approval and condemnation far outside the boundaries of the sporting world.
“Kosovars are celebrating probably the most important day since the declaration of independence,” Kosovo’s deputy foreign minister Petrit Selimi said after December’s decision. “Modern nations aren’t just about the EU, Council of Europe and the UN. They are also about forging modern identities, and having an Olympics team is as much a marker of national identity and pride.”
Serbia’s minister for sport, three-time Olympic water polo medal winner Vanja Udovicic, was less enthused, and condemned the decision. “As a sports minister, I maintain the decision is not good, primarily for international sports, because it gives room for future precedents that could jeopardize world sports,” he said in a statement. “What are the motives to make such a decision and grant full membership to a so-called state, not recognized by the United Nations?”
Since the end of the Kosovo War in 1999, it is not just Kosovo’s political institutions that have been fighting for recognition. Despite being recognized by over 100 UN members and 23 out of 28 European Union states, full United Nations membership remains elusive. Serbia views Kosovo as a historic and intrinsic part of the Serbian state, as does its ally Russia (which has a veto at the UN Security Council). During a recent visit to Belgrade, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia would “never” recognize Kosovo. But there has been much more progress in the recognition of sports federations, from soccer to basketball, swimming to athletics.
Without the recognition of international sporting bodies, participation in major international events like the Summer and Winter Olympic Games or the soccer World Cup finals are impossible. But recognition at these events carries tremendous power, representing acceptance in the wider world, the status of being a country with with a flag and an anthem, alongside other states.
Membership confers international legitimacy, which is one reason Belegu cited as to why Kosovo’s bid to join FIBA failed. “The former secretary general [Borislav Stankovic] is Serb, he was secretary general for more than 25 years,” he said after his speech back in 2008. “In many FIBA structures in leading places there are Serbs. I think it’s not that FIBA doesn’t want us, it is that they cannot bring themselves to break the hearts of their Serb friends.”
FIBA denied that this was the reason for their decision. “Actually, the decision from the central board was basically that there was no new progress from our decision in April 2008,” explained then-FIBA spokesman Marcos Beltra. “There are some pending issues with the basketball federation … but the main one is that that it has to be recognized by the IOC and the UN.” As Petrit Selimi admitted, for many new or fledgling states, sporting recognition is as important as representation on major international bodies. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said that a country needs three things to be classed as such: a currency, an army and a national soccer team.
For the Palestinians, who have long endured limited international recognition, sport has provided a platform where political solutions have failed. Both the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, have recognized Palestine, allowing it to compete in the Olympic Games and in qualification for the World Cup finals. Earlier this year, Palestine qualified for the Asian Cup, Asia’s equivalent of the European Championships. International sport allows a territory or country to wave its flag on the international stage. When South Sudan was granted independence, its first act of celebration, on the very first day of independence, was a match for the brand new South Sudan football team.
Other disputed territories have tried to do the same: The Kurds in northern Iraq have their own national football team, as do Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia. In fact, as the 2014 World Cup began, a World Cup for unrecognized nations took place in Sweden. Kurdistan appeared, as did Abkhazia. All of these would-be nations hope that recognition through football will lend legitimacy to their claims of statehood. Sport in general, and soccer in particular, offers a back door toward official recognition.
The most famous success is that of Gibraltar. The tiny overseas British territory on the Iberian peninsula was ceded to the British by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, but the Spanish still claim it as their own. So when Gibraltar attempted to join UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, in 1993, the Spanish were livid. By the time a decision was to be made, Spain threatened to pull all its teams, both club and national, out of continental and international competitions in protest. UEFA and FIFA, terrified of losing revenue and prestige from an absent Real Madrid and Barcelona, pored over the original treaty looking for loopholes to stop Gibraltar joining. In the end, the rules were changed: UEFA decided that only UN-recognized states could join – the current stumbling block for Kosovo’s recognition.
While it is clear that Serbia and Russia have opposed Kosovo’s recognition within sporting federations, the Gibraltar situation also highlights the other states that have historically opposed recognizing Kosovo for fear of setting a precedent that might agitate separatist regions within their own borders. Soccer is a case in point. In the winter of 2014, under black clouds and in the shadow of ancient smokestacks pumping acrid yellow plumes into the sky, a group of young men in blue tracksuits met on a soccer pitch for the first time. The players of Kosovo’s national soccer team ran around the pitch of the decrepit KEK stadium in the town of Obilic — a town dominated by Kosovo’s two largest power stations, which, according to the World Bank, represent the “worst single-point source of pollution in Europe” — as a crowd of a few hundred clapped and cheered every time they passed.
In two days’ time, the players would pass an important milestone in Kosovo’s recent history. After years of politics, fighting, failure, fraught negotiation and finally a tentative agreement, Kosovo was about to play its first FIFA-approved match, a friendly against Haiti. “I feel great because we struggled to have this opportunity to show the world we have a tradition in football,” said Eroll Salihu, the general secretary of the Football Federation of Kosovo, as he watched the team train pitch-side. “It will be the first step for recognition of football.”
Since 2008, the FFK had been pushing for recognition by UEFA and FIFA, which had proved to be a politically explosive issue. The lack of recognition has also had a devastating effect on sport in Kosovo — and nowhere is that more evident than in football. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the war 15 years ago, spreading across Europe to Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Switzerland and other places. Despite Kosovo producing an inordinate amount of talented players — Xherdan Shaqiri, Lorik Cana, Granit Xhaka, Valon Behrami and Adnan Januzai were all either born in Kosovo or have Kosovar parents — the lack of a recognized national team meant that many of those players ended up representing the countries they settled in. Most tellingly, Switzerland easily qualified for the 2014 World Cup finals with a core of Kosovar players.
There seemed little chance that Kosovo would be recognized by UEFA and FIFA, but when Sepp Blatter backed calls for Kosovo to be allowed to play friendlies in 2012, it reignited the issue, angering the Serbs and worrying the Swiss (who feared they may lose their best players if a Kosovo team was recognized). Eroll Salihu and FFK president Fadil Vokrri embarked on an audacious operation to gather the signatures of Shaqiri, Cana and others for a petition calling for Kosovo to be allowed the right to play friendlies before Switzerland played Albania in a World Cup qualifier in October 2012. It was a symbolic match, as nine of the 22 players during that game had Kosovar roots. Salihu and Vokrri sat with the Swiss national team players in their hotel outside Zurich and watched as Shaqiri, Xhaka and Behrami all signed the petition.
Back on the pitch in Obilic, Salihu was breathing in the sulphur-laden air as the Kosovar players who were chosen spoke with Swedish, Norwegian and German accents. Among them was Palermo goalkeeper Samir Ujkani (who was in goal for Albania in that match against Switzerland 18 months ago), Norway’s Ardian Gashi and Swiss international striker Albert Bunjaku, who played in the 2010 World Cup finals.
“My parents were born here, I was born here, all my family was born here, so it was 100 percent that I came here to play,” said Bunjaku. Like almost every player there, he had to constantly answer questions about his loyalties back in the country he settled in. “I was 6 when I went to Switzerland,” he said when asked about his relationship with Switzerland. “I am very grateful for what Switzerland did. When [then-Switzerland national coach] Ottmar Hitzfeld called me, it was great. It was unbelievable. I can’t explain with words. But this is my country. I see myself as Kosovan.”
Although coach Albert Bunjaki (no relation) chose a team of players from around Europe, the difficulty lay in building a team ethic. Trips were arranged to famous monuments and the house of a Kosovo war hero. Before the game, Kosovo’s prime minister and president both met the team, too. “These people fought for Kosovo just as we are fighting for Kosovo on the field. We are warriors as well, just in a different way,” Albert Bunjaki explained. “Some of the players are born in Sweden, Germany. It’s good they learn the history of Kosovo.”
Of course, not everyone was happy that Kosovo was playing its first FIFA-approved friendly match, especially as the northern city of Mitrovica had been chosen to host it. Mitrovica remains a divided city. It is here that most of Kosovo’s Serbian minority, who make up 5 percent of Kosovo’s population, still live. A river bisects the city, with the Serbs in the north and Kosovar Albanians in the south. The bridge that links the two is full of rubble and guarded by a cohort of Italian Carabinieri. Crossing north, the walls are covered in anti-EU graffiti. Serbian flags fly from most buildings. The Serbian dinar is the currency of choice and the northern population vote in Serbian elections.
A few miles north of the bridge, Igor Uljarevic was standing on the pitch of a dishevelled, covered training complex. Electrical wires hang down onto the pitch as rain falls through the tears in the fabric. The 35-year-old is a coach and striker for FK Partizan Kosovska Mitrovica, who play in the Serbian fourth tier. Before the war, they used to play in what is now known as the Adem Jashari stadium in the south, where Kosovo’s first match was due to be played in a few hours’ time. But no one goes south anymore. “We don’t care about it,” Uljarevic explained. “We have our side, our team. We don’t care about the game and no one will watch the game. [It’s a] provocation and we don’t support that. We don’t want to know anything about that match.” The issue of Kosovo’s Serbs had been a vexing one for the FFK. They had hoped to call up a Kosovar Serb player to the team, but that was a bridge too far. “If a Serbian plays in that, the [Kosovo] team has all the support of Europe,” says Uljarevic, who believes the move was just a PR exercise. “They can say ‘Look, we have Serbian players here, we saw it on television that Serbian players play in Kosovo.’ But that is not good for us.”
As kickoff approached in Mitrovica, the roads leading to the stadium were full of flags and song; flags of Kosovo, Albania, the US and the European Union. On the stadium’s flagpoles flew the standards of Haiti and FIFA, but nothing from Kosovo, as agreed with UEFA. The stands, though, were full of flags from every corner of Kosovo. Some anti-Serbian chanting could be heard, as well. But no national anthem was sung. More than 17,000 people jammed into the stadium as the rain fell on the uncovered crowds. The match would end in a 0-0 draw, played on an awful, waterlogged pitch.
The crowds left the stadium happy that they had seen history being made, even if they would have to wait for Kosovo’s first FIFA-sanctioned victory. “We have waited all of our lives for this game. We have seen history today,” said Mohamed Vokrri, a supporter who had queued for hours to get a ticket. In September, Kosovo enjoyed its first victory, but the road to FIFA membership remains long.
Bring on Brazil
By the end of 2014, Kosovo’s provisional IOC membership and the prospect of competition at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics raised the cause of full international recognition to a new level. At the House of Sports in the center of Prishtina, the president of Kosovo’s National Olympic Committee is preparing to leave for France. It is December 2014 and the IOC is about to vote to ratify Kosovo’s full membership in Monaco.
“The recognition, even this provisional membership, was historic,” said Besim Hasani. His office is small, but next door two chairs and a table are positioned in front of the Olympic rings mounted on the wall, designed for photo opportunities with visiting dignitaries. “It will be once again historic when the IOC grants full recognition to our National Olympic Committee,” he added.
Hasani had no doubt that the IOC would ratify the move. There was concern that some last-minute political maneuvering might sink it. “I think by participating in the Olympic Games, you are watched by 5 billion people,” Hasani said. “I think it will have an effect in all the other areas when they hear about Kosovo.” The move would benefit the athletes most, he explained, who wouldn’t just be going to wave a flag. “We’ll see Kosovo not only during the Olympic ceremony but also the winning ceremony,” he said. “I am 100 percent sure that if God sent Majlinda Kelmendi, and she will not be injured, I guarantee she will be an Olympic medalist.”
The day before the vote, at the Tony Kuka Judo School in Peja, the 23-year-old Kelmendi is training in a blue uniform with a Kosovar flag stitched above her left breast. She is one of the best Judo fighters — or judokas — in the world; a double world champion in the 52kg weight division. “More than any other athlete, I have that feeling of being ignored or not the same as other athletes in the world,” Kelmendi said in between bouts. She has already competed at one Olympic games: London 2012, but under the Albanian flag. “I was not allowed to have my flag or my anthem,” she said of her short appearance in London. “I’m happy it will not happen again. We will be the same as every athlete in the world.”
The International Judo Federation is one of the few to recognize Kosovo, but when Kelmendi went to the 2014 World Championships in Chelyabinsk, Russia, to defend her title, the old problems arose. She was informed that she would compete under the IJF flag and hear the Olympic anthem if she won a medal. “It was a big surprise for us,” said Kelmendi. “I went there to represent my country and I was not allowed.” Putin is himself an eighth dan in Judo, an honorary member of the IJF and the author of a bestselling Russian book on the sport. He attended the final day of competition. “It makes me angry inside, not scared,” she said. “I wanted to prove that even if I’m not representing my country, I’m the best in the world.” Kelmendi easily retained her title in the final.
“I think the KGB were following me,” laughed Driton Kuka, Kelmendi’s coach. He recalled how both judokas were searched before they went out to compete. Kuka was himself once a promising fighter, a champion in the former Yugoslavia and seemingly destined for a medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. But the rising tensions that led to the Yugoslav civil war meant that the country’s Kosovar athletes boycotted all international competition “to let the international community know that we are living like the people of the second hand, as they say,” he explained. His two houses were destroyed during the later Kosovo War, but his half-built judo school survived. “Our dojo was a bit lucky,” he said. “It was not finished. It was just the walls. They couldn’t burn it down.”
Although he never had the chance to fight for an Olympic medal, coaching Kelmendi has given him the chance to relive the dream he sacrificed over 20 years ago. “When I look at Majlinda in competition, I see myself, to continue that what I stopped because of politics and the war,” he said. “If we get an Olympic medal, [and] the next day my life will be finished, this is OK. It is my goal in life.”
The next day, on Dec. 9, 2014, the IOC voted to ratify Kosovo’s full membership. “This is the beginning of a new era for the Olympic movement in Kosovo,” Hasani told the IOC assembly. Last year saw the most progress made in sporting international recognition than all the years combined since 1999. That is partly down to the efficient campaigning of the Kosovo National Olympic Committee and the Football Federation of Kosovo. But it could also be because of a shift in attitudes in Serbia. Despite angry words from the Serbian foreign and sports ministers, neither move could have happened without at least some cooperation from Serbian institutions.
“Yes, of course, because we have to be part of the society,” said Vlade Divac, an Olympic medalist and former NBA basketball player who is now head of the Serbian National Olympic Committee, in an interview with Reuters when asked whether he backed Kosovo’s IOC membership. “Personally, I had a similar situation when we [Yugoslavia] were banned from competing in the 1992 Olympics, so I insist that we look at this issue with sporting eyes and let the politicians do their job.”
The Serbian Football Association had also stepped away from confrontation on the issue after initially airing its misgivings. As Serbia decides whether it moves toward Russia or its stated aim of joining the European Union, the kind of political opposition that Erolld Belegu and his basketball federation felt in 2008 may become less pronounced. It is expected that, in the wake of the IOC’s move, other international sporting bodies will follow suit.
Meanwhile, Kosovo’s athletes are training hard for Rio 2016 regardless of which direction the political battle goes. When the decision was made, Kosovo’s then-Prime Minister Hashim Thaci announced that it would be Majlinda Kelmendi who would be carrying Kosovo’s flag at the opening ceremony. “My main goal now is the Olympic games because at the moment I am the best in the world,” Kelmendi said once training had finished. “I know it’s hard. But it is not impossible. I don’t do anything else. I eat. I sleep. I train. That is it.”
Photos: Atdhe Mulla.