Wednesday 20 February ~
Kosovo is in the news, having formally declared independence in the face of opposition from Serbia and Russia but crucially with the backing of the US and most of the European Union. The Kosovars will also be waiting on acknowledgement from the most powerful organisation in the world whose often sinister influence stretches into all corners of the globe – FIFA. The world football body prides itself on its sweeping global reach and has at times had more members than the United Nations and, unlike the UN, it managed to bring the People's Republic of China into the fold while allowing Taiwan to remain as a member. The Serbs will protest but Kosovo's football team is likely to be included in international qualifying tournaments fairly soon, probably beginning with Euro 2012.
The Kosovo football league used to form one of the regional lower divisions with Yugoslavia. But since the onset of hostilities in the region during the 1990s it has been an isolated championship. FK Trepca, a team from the Serb enclave of Mitrovica where there have been demonstrations against Kosovan independence in recent days, were the first to play in the Yugoslav first division but only for one season, in 1977-78. Six years later FK Pristina, from the Kosovan capital, played the first of seven seasons at the top level during which they were among the best supported clubs. Several Kosovars played for the Yugoslav national team, the best known of whom was full-back Fahrudin Jusufi who played for Partizan Belgrade in the 1966 European Cup final and later worked in the Bundesliga.
Kosovo's national team has played unofficial matches against Albania, Turkey and Saudi Arabia but was not affiliated to the organisation for territories that are not yet FIFA members. The admittance of Kosovo will take UEFA's membership up to 54. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia has enabled UEFA to become the largest federation within FIFA where it once lagged behind Africa and Asia. But the swelling of qualifying groups for the major tournaments has been a source of friction within Europe with clubs protesting about impositions on their players. The clubs have been mollified to some extent with national federations to pay fees for the release of players.
But Kosovo's admittance is likely to prompt more calls for 'smaller' nations to play in preliminary rounds of qualifying tournaments, something that might have come to pass had Franz Beckenbauer become UEFA president. Embarrassing mismatches do happen at international level, such as Germany's 13-0 win over San Marino in 2006, but they are increasingly rare. Indeed the general trend is that 'minnows' are drawing closer to the mid-ranking countries – Ireland were recently thrashed in Cyprus while Slovenia, having taken one point from eight games in the 1998 World Cup qualifiers, went on to reach both Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup finals.
Expect to hear complaints about fixture overload when the first of the British national sides embark on a trip to Pristina – followed by silence after they've squeaked a draw.