Changing your colours

We take playing international football in England for granted but as Steve Menary explains it can be a long fight to be gifted that right

When West Ham signed Valon Behrami from Lazio this summer, he became the club’s first ever Swiss international. His status may change on December 19, when FIFA meet for a second time to consider a membership application from Kosovo, where Behrami was born in 1985.

Behrami’s parents moved to Switzerland when he was a boy and, like other Kosovans who fled their war-torn country, he gained a new nationality. After breaking into Swiss football with Lugano, Behrami moved to Italy in 2003, playing for Verona and Genoa before joining Lazio in 2005.

Kosovo’s manager, Edmond Rugova, is talking to the West Ham player and other exiled compatriots about switching nationality, which FIFA have agreed will be allowed if the Kosovans are accepted.

Other players that could make the move include Crystal Palace forward Shefki Kuqi, who was raised in Finland and plays for their national team, plus Marseille’s Lorik Cana and Besart Berisha, currently on loan from Burnley to Rosenborg, both of whom represent Albania – if Kosovo are accepted by FIFA, the Albania squad could be badly hit.

What could sway the exiled Kosovans’ minds is that the proposal being considered is to let their new national team play only friendlies. Another former part of Yugoslavia, Montenegro, slipped seamlessly into FIFA membership, but Kosovo’s application is more ­controversial. Until February 2008, Kosovo was formally part of Serbia and run under a United Nations mandate. Kosovan footballers, predominantly of ethnic Albanian background, were in limbo, unable to play anywhere else unless they adopted another nationality.

The Football Federation of Kosovo quit the Yugoslavian set-up years before independence, but shunned the New Federations Board for non-FIFA nations while targeting UEFA and FIFA membership.

Rugova, one of the region’s most famous players, left his hometown club, FK Pristina, for the United States in 1984, but returned home two years ago to take charge of the national team. Until independence was declared, games were hard to come by, but in June 2007, a team of Kosovo-based players slipped over to Ankara in Turkey, where they beat Saudi Arabia 1-0. After declaring independence, the FKK tried to organise a match with Brazil before the Olympics, but FIFA spent so long considering whether to sanction the match that the Brazilians went to Singapore instead. Last August, Rugova organised matches with the Saudis, Qatar and Benin, but FIFA intervened and the games were called off.

The FKK’s application for international recognition was considered on October 24, but rebuffed. FIFA general secretary Jérôme Valcke wrote to Rugova saying the governing body’s statutes require that an association organises football in a country recognised by the international community, whereas only 51 of 192 United Nations member states currently accept Kosovan independence.

However, there is a precedent for a national team being permitted to play only in non-competitive matches. Northern Cyprus, the top third of the island sectioned off by a Turkish invasion in 1974, were given sanction for fixtures against teams such as the Saudis, Libya and Malaysia in the 1970s. That ended when the Turkish Cypriots declared formal independence in 1983 and they have been in isolation ever since. The difference is that only Turkey ever recognised Northern Cyprus as a country, whereas Kosovo is accepted as a state by countries including the United States but not, crucially, by Serbia’s ally Russia.

To get into FIFA, the Kosovans first have to be accepted by UEFA, whose current membership criterion is UN recognition, a recent change designed to keep out Gibraltar and appease Spain. “It’s not making any sense not to let you play friendly games. We think this is politics and discrimination,” says a frustrated Rugova, who held a training camp in Switzerland in early December ahead of the big vote. “We will have a great team, it will all be worth it one day,” he added. That day may come on December 19.

From WSC 263 January 2009