In amongst the list of international fixtures played on Wednesday night was an unassuming game with huge significant importance. The clash between Kosovo and Haiti was not the most glamorous on the list (that honour went to either Spain vs. Italy or Holland vs. France) but was the setting for another first in football. It was the first full international game that Kosovo have played on the world stage since the country gained independence in 2008. Still yet to be confirmed with either UEFA or FIFA membership, Kosovo has played several unofficial international friendlies in the past but it wasn’t until FIFA gave the national team permission to play against FIFA member associations in international friendly in January this year that an official game could be scheduled. Due to time constraints and the pre existing fixtures scheduled for Wednesday 5th March, Kosovo could only arrange a game against Haiti but that did not matter to the team that has strived for so long for this moment.
The game against Haiti; played in the Olympic Stadium Adem Jashari in Kosovo ended in a stalemate but the importance of the match cannot be understated. It is a major milestone in Kosovo’s football progression and will likely help in their quest for FIFA membership. They have a long way to go before they can compete in qualification stages for European Championships or World Cups and several hurdles to get over including how to build a squad. Several Kosovo born players have already committed themselves to playing for other countries, mostly because of Kosovo’s footballing status being in limbo for so long. Albanian captain, Lorik Cana as well as Swiss international trio Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Valon Behrami were all born in Kosovo but moved to their respective countries as children to escape the war. All four have long advocated for Kosovo to be accepted by FIFA and given membership but as yet FIFA has declined. The recent move by UEFA to accept Gibraltar into its ranks has proved to be the catalyst towards full FIFA membership (still being considered) but it may be a path that Kosovo needs to go down first.
Opinions are divided on whether Kosovo should be allowed to join both UEFA and FIFA ranks, with neighbouring Serbia the biggest objector as it sees Kosovo as part of its own sovereign territory. There has been some progress with the presidents of the two respective football Associations (Serbia’s Tomislav Karadzic and Kosovo’s Fadil Vokrri) meeting last year in Zurich to discuss a mutually beneficial solution that would allow Kosovo onto the international stage and promote football across the war torn region. Following the meeting, Kosovo will be able to play in a similar way to the Catalonia and Basque teams which meet once or twice a year and ‘borrow’ players from the FIFA-recognized nations they play competitive international football for. That is until full UEFA and FIFA membership can be obtained.
In the game against Haiti, head coach Albert Bunjaki and assistant Tord Grip decided to go against selecting better known Kosovo players like Cana and Xhaka, instead choosing young players who haven’t been capped at full international level for another country. That said, there were some familiar faces including goalkeeper Samir Ujkani (capped 20 times by Albania), defender Lum Rexhepi who has played at all levels for Finland from under 16’s and up, Norwegian midfielder Ardian Gashi and Switzerland striker Albert Bunjaku. They did reach out to rising Manchester united star Adnan Januzaj who also has Kosovo roots but the player turned down the advance as he is yet to decide which country he wants to represent. Whether Januzaj chooses to play for Kosovo or not, the future of Kosovo football looks bright as it rises from the ashes of war.