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Kosovo Scores Big With UEFA Membership, Eyes FIFA Next

  • Eugen Tomiuc

Delegation members from Kosovo celebrate their UEFA membership admission after the UEFA congress in Budapest on May 3.

Delegation members from Kosovo celebrate their UEFA membership admission after the UEFA congress in Budapest on May 3.

European soccer's governing body, UEFA, has narrowly voted at a congress in Budapest to make Kosovo its 55th member.

Kosovo Football Federation President Fadil Vokrri called the 28-24 vote a "historic moment" for the impoverished central Balkan republic, which unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

Serbia's representatives had led the voices of those opposed to UEFA membership for Kosovo, arguing unsuccessfully that acceptance would amount to a political rather than a sports decision.

Membership means Kosovo's national team can play international matches against other European sides and enter European competitions, as can its clubs.

"This is true happiness," a woman in Pristina, the Kosovar capital, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "We waited for this for a long time. ... I hope famous Kosovar footballers who play abroad will now come back to Kosovo to play for the national team. And why not? I expect victories."

"Although it was raining today in Pristina, this event made the day," said another.

World soccer body FIFA is expected to vote on whether to admit Kosovo to its ranks at its annual congress on May 13, a decision that would allow Kosovo to enter a qualifying group for the biggest prize in global football, the World Cup.

Kosovo has so far been allowed by FIFA to play only friendly international games.

Pristina hopes FIFA approval could lead to a late slot for Kosovo in European qualifying groups for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Kosovo was the scene of a bitter war between ethnic Albanian and Serbian forces in 1998-99, a decade before Pristina declared independence from another fellow component of the former Yugoslavia, Serbia.

More than 90 percent of Kosovo's roughly 1.9 million people are ethnic Albanian.

Kosovar President Hashim Thaci hailed UEFA's decision, writing on his Facebook page: "Kosovo in UEFA! The best news for countless fans in our republic. Now we will play in international championships. Some games will be won, some will be lost, but no one will ever keep us out from green fields."

Kosovar Prime Minister Isa Mustafa also welcomed the news.

"Kosovo is experiencing a period of extraordinary successes," Mustafa wrote on Facebook. "Great results, the product of our commitment and the support of our international partners, will continue in the coming days. We are proud of our fatherland."

Ahead of the vote, Kosovo federation chief Vokrri appealed to delegates to "give the youth of the country the chance to play football" and leave the ghosts of the past behind. "What message are we sending the youth of Kosovo? Do we really have the right to deny Kosovo's young athletes of this privilege?" Vokrri asked delegates.

The head of Serbia's football federation, Tomislav Karadzic, had urged representatives from the UEFA federations to reject Kosovo's application.

"This is a political, not a footballing proposal," Karadzic said before the vote. "It would create turmoil in the region and open a Pandora's box throughout Europe."

Since declaring independence, Kosovo has been recognized by 112 states, including 108 of the 193 members of the United Nations and 23 of the 28 European Union's members. Serbian ally Russia has remained staunchly critical of independence for Kosovo.

In northern Kosovo, where ethnic Serbs are a majority, the mood was somber.

"I hoped this would never happen, but politics is a strange thing," an ethnic Serb told RFE/RL.

"UEFA?" said another, "Those are just Western lobbyists taking advantage of a weak Serbia."

But Serbian sportswriter Gorcin Stojanovic told RFE/RL from Belgrade that Kosovo's entry to UEFA would only contribute to improving ties between the rival populations.

"If we are working toward establishing political normalization, it's the most normal thing to start with football, and to arrange the football game between Kosovo and Serbia in Pristina, and to solve the problem once and for all," Stojanovic said.

There are also said to be fears in neighboring Albania that Kosovo's UEFA membership will draw talent away from the Albanian national squad, several of whose players were born in Kosovo.

Kosovo is a member of several world sports bodies, including in athletics and gymnastics, despite Serbia's drive to prevent Kosovo gaining international recognition.

Kosovo will make its Olympic debut in August in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

UEFA President Michel Platini could not attend the Budapest congress for the vote because of a six-year ban imposed by FIFA over a suspect $2 million payment authorized by the world body's former president and power broker, Sepp Blatter.

With contributions from RFE/RL's Balkan Service
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