Kosovo play a first competitive international football match when they play a World Cup qualifier against Finland on Monday, 17 years after fighting against Belgrade’s rule and nearly nine since declaring independence from Serbia.
Just by earning the right to play and regardless of the outcome of the match and whether or not it qualifies for the 2018 tournament in Russia, the mostly Albanian former province has already triumphed.
While it remains locked out of the United Nations, it has broken through Serbia’s fierce opposition against Kosovo’s recognition and stepped into the arena of major European and global world of sports.
The majority Albanians, who make up 90 per cent of around 2 million inhabitants, launched an insurgency in 1998 for independence of the then Serbia’s southern province.
The rebellion escalated with Belgrade’s heavy-handed response which drew NATO to intervene and end bloodshed in 1999.
Serbia was ousted from Kosovo, which with the backing of the United States and big Western powers declared independence in 2008.
Even before that, Kosovo began creeping into international sport organizations: the table tennis world organization was the first to accept it, already in 2003, then wrestling, softball, archery, judo and others – but none of the heavyweights.
The tide came with the promotion of Kosovo to the International Olympic Committee in December 2014. After that, it joined the big organizations such as the world basketball federation and, finally, it was accepted by FIFA in May, opening the door to World Cup qualifications.
The unresolved diplomatic status, however, still casts a shadow. Even if Kosovo qualify, it is not certain that hosts Russia, Serbia’s superpower ally which has helped keep Kosovo out of the UN, will allow the team to take part as Moscow is backing Belgrade’s claim of sovereignty over Kosovo and has refused to recognize it.
Additionally, Kosovo is still not certain who will represent it in the future, as much of its potential talent has meanwhile played for other countries, such as Switzerland and, particularly, neighbouring Albania.
FIFA is reportedly still mulling request of individual players asking to switch from some country to Kosovo’s fledgling national team.
Kosovo state TV RTK said Friday that it was about seven players: Samir Ujkani, Amir Rrahmani, Alban Meha, Milot Rashica, Vedat Muriqi, Herolind Shala and Valon Berisha.
Already on Monday Finland’s midfielder Perparim Hetemaj, 29, decided not to play for his adopted country in the match against the country he was born in.
Hatemaj is one of several the top players who Kosovo is hoping to feature.
Meanwhile, it has secured Manchester City's 21-year old Sinan Bytyci, now on a one-year development loan to Go Ahead Eagles in the Nethgerlands. Bytyci already played for Austria's U-21 squad.
"I wish to thank the Austrian national team for the great years! From now on I'll play for my homeland Kosovo," he wrote on his Facebook page.