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Breaking Down Barriers: Being The 'First Serb' On Kosovo National Team Brings Trouble For Teen Soccer Star

While the honor is sure to open international doors for Ilija Ivic, a rangy central defender and Gracanica native, his family says the publicity has attracted ugly threats.

A budding soccer phenom in Kosovo and his family have had little time for celebration since news broke that 16-year-old Ilija Ivic would become the first ethnic Serb to play for a national squad in Kosovo.

The teen confirmed in mid-February his plans to accept a call from Kosovo's under-19 national team, which recently tumbled out of contention for UEFA's U-19 Euro championships later this year in Northern Ireland.

The honor is sure to open international doors for Ivic, a rangy, neatly coiffed central defender and Gracanica native who recently signed his first professional contract with a top-league club in the Kosovar capital, Pristina.

But the family says the publicity has attracted ugly threats, and Ivic's mother has since been fired from her job at a Serbian-backed cultural center in Gracanica.

Serbia has not officially recognized Kosovo's independence, declared in 2008, and many ethnic Serbs in the region insist the former autonomous province is still part of Serbia. Between 1 and 2 percent of Kosovo's nearly 2 million people are ethnic Serbs, most of them concentrated in the country's north, near the border with Serbia.

A fan account welcoming Ivic's call-up:

Ivic had drawn lavish praise within the soccer community but few headlines in his three years as the only ethnic Serb on the Kosovar Superleague club KF Flamurtari.

Routinely described by sportswriters as "one of the most talented players in Europe at his age," Ivic declined repeated RFE/RL requests for an interview and suggested on February 27 that the tempest surrounding his call-up had been difficult to "cope with mentally."

'So-Called Kosovo'

Serbian media outlets leapt at the news of the first ethnic Serb playing for what many of them still refer to as "so-called Kosovo."

The new site Srbija Danas carried a smiling photo of the young man with the headline: This Is The First Serb To Play For The Fake State Of Kosovo!

The headline of another Serbian publication, Kurir, read: WHAT A SHOCK: Serb Accepted To Play For So-Called Kosovo National Team! It went on to call Kosovo "an unrecognized state."

More than 115 countries recognize Kosovo's independence, but not Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Russia, China, or EU member Spain, for example.

Blic online screamed in a headline: BOMBSHELL EXPLODES! FIRST SERB To Wear Uniform Of So-Called Kosovo's Football Representation....

Kosovo fans cheer on their team in a match in Pristina in September 2019.
Kosovo fans cheer on their team in a match in Pristina in September 2019.

Family Under Pressure

Tanja Ivic, Ilija's mother, told VOA's Serbian Service that she had been informed unofficially that she lost her job at a Serbian-financed cultural center in Pristina "because my son Ilija received an offer to play for the Kosovo national team."

Amid the furor, the Kosovar Football Federation (FFK)'s executive committee came to the family's defense. It claimed -- erroneously, as it turned out -- that both of Ivic's parents "have been fired...because their son acknowledged [plans for] playing for the Kosovo U19 national team" and emphasized that Serbian efforts at intimidation were unwelcome.

"The FFK EC strongly condemns this heinous act undertaken by leaders of institutions operating within the system of the Republic of Kosovo, but also of those of the parallel Serbian system, which aim to instill fear in our Serbian citizens, who see Kosovo as their country and want to contribute to its development and football," the federation said in its statement.

Ivic's father is not known to have lost his job.

Alongside other policies aimed at asserting continued sovereignty over Kosovar territory, Belgrade continues to fund cultural, political, and other structures and groups that support ties with ethnic Serbs in Kosovo.

A VOA reporter tracked down the director of the cultural center who signed Ivic's dismissal, Radica Inic, but she declined to be interviewed. Inic instead referred questions to the Assembly of the City of Pristina, a Serbia-funded organization that runs the center.

The assembly's president, Ljubinko Karadzic, is also a lawmaker in Kosovo's national parliament for the dominant ethnic Serb party in Kosovo, Srpska List (Serbian List).

Karadzic told VOA he was too busy to answer questions.

Ethnic Questions

The sports director of the club where Ivic has played for three years, KF Famurtari's Arbnor Morina, praised the young player and questioned what he regards as a double standard.

"Why can one person be a member of [Kosovo's] parliament and another can't play football?" Morina told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "Ilija has been playing at Flamurtari for a long time without any problems. He has been accepted phenomenally by his teammates and, on the other hand, his teammates have nothing but praise for him, his behavior, and his play."

"We'll all be pleased if his career goes uphill," Morina said. "What Ilija did should be a road map for all the young guys who live here, regardless of nationality. Sport is a universal value and no one's property to play with."

The maelstrom Ivic's nomination has caused has exposed an emotionally charged issue at the confluence of international sports and nationhood in the postwar Balkans, where ethnicity still appears to influence top-tier defections and some national teams are more ethnically homogeneous than their populations.

Serbia's national team, in particular, has attracted numerous players from neighboring countries with significant ethnic Serb populations, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, and Montenegro. It is currently the second-highest-placed of the former Yugoslav republics' national teams on the FIFA world rankings, at number 29.

Croatia, which is ranked sixth on the FIFA list, has also attracted several Bosnian-born Croats to its national team over the years.

UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, was forced last year to declare that European teams and national squads whose countries had not recognized Kosovo may not refuse matches with Kosovar teams or decline to travel to Kosovo for matches.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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    Amra Zejneli Loxha

    Amra Zejneli Loxha is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Balkan Service.