Friday, 6 November 2009

Kosovo & Serbia FIFA talks

This story also appeared at Play The Game.

The football associations of Serbia and Kosovo will have their first official meeting in Zurich this Friday (November 5) in talks hosted by FIFA aimed at dragging the former Yugoslav republic out of sporting limbo.

Kosovo declared independence in February last year but has not been admitted into the United Nations (UN) – the key criteria for UEFA membership - after furious opposition from Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovo’s independence, and its key ally Russia.

UEFA would not comment but a FIFA spokesman confirmed the meeting and added: “The meeting will discuss some practical issues … like the transfer of players out of Kosovo need to be addressed.”

Geoff Thompson, the former chairman of the Football Association in England, will mediate between the two delegations led by Fadil Vokrri of the Football Federation of Kosovo (FFK) with Tomislav Karadjic, president of the Serbian FA, also likely to attend.

Kosovan footballers have been left in limbo with players like Lorik Cana and Valon Behrami, who play in the English Premier League for Sunderland and West Ham respectively, switching nationality in order to play international football.

“We are waiting 10 years after the war for something better, 15,000 players are waiting and a community of 200,000 people is engaged in football in Kosovo and hoping for better days,” says Driton Latifi, a journalist and sports news editor at Kosovan newspaper Daily Lajm, who is traveling to Zurich. “Our players are going abroad like emigrants and not proper transfers.”

UEFA has already indicated that if the FFK is admitted, Kosovars playing international football for other nations will be getting the chance to switch nationality in a move that could decimate the Albanian team.

Cana is one of a number of ethnic Kosovars to have played for Albania, while Behrami turns out for Switzerland and the veteran Shefki Kuqi of TuS Koblenz in Germany has appeared for Finland more than 50 times.

The FFK applied to join FIFA, which insists that the matter is only to discuss practical issues not international representation, in October 2008 but the Kosovans need to join UEFA before being admitted to the world body and were rebuffed. In March this year during a visit to the Serbian capital of Belgrade, UEFA chairman Michel Platini declared: “Politics is not my job, and UEFA honours its statute.”

Edmond Rugova, a Kosovar who moved to the US and turned out for the New York Cosmos, returned to the land of his birth in 2006 to take over as manager of Kosovo’s nascent national team.

He masterminded a 1-0 win over 2006 world cup finalists Saudi Arabia but quit earlier this year after the FFK found organizing matches difficult. Friendlies with Qatar and Benin had to be cancelled and the Kosovo national side had to sneak into Sweden in March 2009 and play as the ‘Super Liga of Kosovo Selection’ for a match with Allsvenskan side Malmo, whose squad includes exiled Kosovars, Labinot Harbuzi and Agon Mehmeti.
A weakened Kosovan side lost 5-0 and shortly after that match, Rugova returned to the US.

Albert Bunjaku, formerly the coach of Kalmar FF in Sweden, took over as Kosovo’s coach but Rugova has returned to Kosovo as chief executive of the country’s biggest club, FC Prishtina and hopeful of some progress in Zurich.

The talks are not the first time that FIFA has tried to resolve a political impasse. In September 2007, FIFA invited the football associations in the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and the Greek-dominated Republic of Cyprus together for talks.

These continued for 18 months but collapsed in April 2009, after a change in government in the enclave, which declared independence in 1982, which went largely ignored in contrast to Kosovo, whose independence has so far been accepted by 63 countries.

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