Wider role of sport epitomised throughout Kosovo's second international football match
Wednesday, 21 May 2014
Kosovo's bid for sporting recognition took another step here today with the Balkan republic's second full international against relative giants Turkey in front of 18,000 passionate and united fans.
Following a declaration of independence in 2008 Kosovo is now recognised by 107 United Nations (UN) member states, and was granted permission to play international friendly matches by governing body FIFA in January.
History was made in a debut match against Haiti in March, which ended in a 0-0 draw, but this second encounter was a step-up-in-class against a European side who finished third at the FIFA World Cup in 2002 and are ranked 39th in the world
The greater guile, skill and fitness of the Turkish opposition indeed shone through as the home side fell to a 6-1 defeat, although Kosovo's first international goal was enough to send the full-to-capacity crowd home with something to celebrate.
But more important than anything else was the symbolic significance of the occasion as Kosovo joined together in a celebration of sport, national identity and progress.
Taking place 40 kilometres north of the capital city Pristina, the roads around the Stadium were packed with vocal fans of all ages and backgrounds, as they descended on a picturesque stadium with a mountain backdrop made all the more welcoming by bright sunshine and clear blue skies.
Many wore the national colours of yellow and blue, but a wide variety of styles were on display as the event adopted an ambience more reminiscent of a national festival than a sporting contest.
No better was this displayed than when Albert Bunjaku scored Kosovo's first official international goal on the stroke of halftime, as the crowd celebrations had a layer of genuine passion highlighting that something deeper was at stake than mere sporting respectability.
Nor was there any antipathy between the supporters as Turkish fans, and flags, were dotted together with blue and yellow, and a minute's silence in memory of last week's mining disaster in Soma, which caused more than 300 deaths, was observed by both sets of fans.
There certainly remain challenges ahead, with Kosovo yet to be allowed to play competitive matches, or become a member of European governing body UEFA because UN recognition is part of UEFA's criteria for membership.
Kosovo is unable to gain UN membership, down mainly to Russia's use of its veto as a permanent member on the UN Security Council.
Another challenge, which will remain difficult so long as Kosovo play only friendly matches, is encouraging the best players of Kosovan heritage to turn out for the national team, with Xherdan Shaqiri of Bayern Munich and Adnan Januzaj of Manchester United two who have chosen to represent other nations, namely Switzerland and Belgium respectively.
It is hoped the next generation of world-class Kosovo-born players will have the opportunity to play for the national team.
A final problem relates to gaining funding for improved resources, coaches and facilities.
But the attention received by Kosovo's two international encounters has already helped and plans are underway to develop a National Stadium in Pristina with a capacity in excess of 30,000.
Kosovo Olympic Committee President Besim Hasani described international recognition as something that has "raised the interest of all the nation", and brought attention to the Kosovan plight from within and outside its borders.
This view was reiterated by the secretary general of the Football Federation of Kosovo, Eroll Salihu, who bemoaned the fact that until now there had been no chance for Kosovan athletes to compete at the highest level.
The obvious benefits of this will entice the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to reconsider its stance towards Kosovo in time for either the Baku 2015 European Games or the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro the following year.
Rule 30 of the Charter dictates that all IOC members must be "an independent state recognised by the international community", something that Kosovo justifiably claims to fulfil due to the fact 107 of the 193 UN members have granted recognition.
But in practice this statute has been taken to mean full UN membership, meaning Kosovo is likely to remain ineligible unless a different interpretation is adopted.
Yet there is growing momentum behind a campaign to change the IOC stance, with 12 International Federations now recognising Kosovo, and plans to take advantage of the Agenda 2020 reform process and launch a fresh bid for membership to the Executive Board later this year.
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May 2014: Football friendly hailed as helping raise Kosovo's profile as Olympic inclusion bid gathers pace
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January 2014: FIFA give clearance for Kosovo friendlies
June 2011: Kosovo in race against time to make it to start-line for London 2012