As an independent Kosovo strives to assert itself, soccer is one way the fledgling country is promoting itself on the world stage. Kosovo could receive a huge boost on May 3, when European soccer's governing body, UEFA, could change its rules on eligibility, allowing the country to join the organization.
However, Kosovo's national soccer team's right to compete, and its composition, are being challenged by both friend and foe.
To begin with, Serbia does not recognize Kosovo's independence and is trying to block Kosovo's access to all international organizations, including UEFA. The president of the Serbian Football Association, Tomislav Karadzic, said that his delegation would fight hard against Kosovo's admittance at UEFA's annual congress in Budapest on May 3.
But while Serbia's opposition is not unexpected, the looming prospect of a Kosovo national team has been setting off alarm bells in what should be more friendly quarters. Fans of neighboring Albania fear that Kosovo's UEFA membership will draw talent away from their own squad. Several key players on the Albanian national team, including the team captain, Lorik Cana, are Kosovo-born. Albania's "black and reds" have qualified for this summer's Euro 2016 championship in France, which will be the country's first-ever appearance at a major tournament, but they may find it hard to repeat that success if some of their top players decide to play for Kosovo. Although UEFA does not normally allow players to switch national teams, an exception is made in cases where a newly formed country is accepted as a member.
The Albanian fans' fears are real. The Albanian national team has already lost goalie Samir Ujkani, who quit to play for Kosovo in 2014. And while Manchester United's talented Adnan Januzaj has so far turned down both Albania and Kosovo, preferring to play for Belgium, his country of birth, some recent reports say he may still choose to represent Kosovo, if the country becomes a member of UEFA.
Mass defections are unlikely, though. Three other Kosovo-born players -- Fredierik Veseli, Berat Djimsiti, and Amir Rahmani -- have decided to continue playing for Albania. Switzerland's trio of star players -- Xerdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, and Valon Behrami -- born in Kosovo or to Kosovar parents, have been prominent advocates of Kosovo's membership in UEFA, although they are unlikely to abandon the Swiss national team.
Presently, UEFA membership is open to any country recognized as an independent state by the United Nations. Kosovo has been recognized by 111 UN member states, but is still denied UN membership largely due to a Russian veto.
If the rules are changed in Budapest, that would mean recognition by a majority of European nations -- rather than UN membership -- is the basis for acceptance into UEFA. Kosovo would thus be able to apply for UEFA membership, as it has been recognized by 32 European countries so far. In 2013, the last country to be accepted into UEFA was the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar, which is not recognized by world soccer's governing body, FIFA, or the International Olympic Committee.
For many Kosovars, membership of UEFA, and the right to compete in European competitions as an independent nation, is perhaps even more important than UN membership. Soccer has always been far more than just a game -- and, over the past three decades, that has been especially true in the Balkans.