UEFA admits Kosovo in step toward World Cup

The UEFA congress voted 28 to 24 with two votes declared invalid to accept Kosovo, which will also have a team at the Olympics for the first time at the Rio de Janeiro Games in August.

Representatives of the Kosovo Soccer Federation Eroll Salihu (left) and Fadil Vokrri at the 40th Ordinary UEFA Congress in Budapest, on Tuesday.   -  REUTERS

UEFA admitted Kosovo as its 55th member in a narrow vote Tuesday, boosting its hopes of competing in the 2018 World Cup despite warnings from former ruler Serbia.

The UEFA congress voted 28 to 24 with two votes declared invalid to accept Kosovo, which will also have a team at the Olympics for the first time at the Rio de Janeiro Games in August.

FIFA will now decide at its congress in Mexico City on May 13 whether to become the last major sporting federation to admit Kosovo.

The Kosovo Football Federation hopes that if FIFA gives its green light, it will get a late place in a European qualifying group for the World Cup in Russia in two years.

“We are very happy today of course,” said federation president Fadil Vokrri.

“Now we have to wait and see what FIFA decides in 10 days in Mexico, but we hope for the best, that we can compete in the World Cup.”

There were also new celebrations in Kosovo where the congress was broadcast live on four major TV channels and by radio stations.

President Hashim Thaci said: “After three decades of isolation for Kosovo football, Kosovo’s membership in UEFA marks a new page, a historic day.

“I strongly believe that the next step will be Kosovo’s membership in FIFA,” he added.

Passionate speeches were made for and against Kosovo’s membership at the congress.

Serbia’s Football Association president Tomislav Karadzic said it would open up a “Pandora’s Box” with other breakaway regions applying for membership.

In Belgrade Serbia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dacic denounced the decision as “clearly political”.

“This is the result of massive political pressure,” he suggested in a statement.

Serbian Sports Minister Vanja Udovicic announced that the country’s football federation would challenge the decision at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

“The law has been violated today in Budapest, UEFA’s statute was trampled on,” added Marko Djuric, head of the Serbian government’s office for Kosovo.

He insisted that “(Serbia’s) fight doesn’t stop”.

But Vokrri said UEFA had to vote for footballers.

“What message are we sending the youth of Kosovo,” the federation president told the congress before the vote.

“Sixty percent of the population of Kosovo are aged under 27. Can we really keep them away from this privilege.”

Switzerland, which has several ethnic Kosovar players in its national team, including Xerdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Valon Behrami, also opposed the vote.

Though FIFA statutes would have to be changed, Switzerland and Albania fear they could lose players to the Kosovo national side.

“It is unfair to put pressure on players,” said Swiss Football Association general secretary Alex Miescher. “They will not have to choose for a country, but against one,” he told the congress.

Kosovo was at the centre of a war between ethnic-Albanian and Serbian forces in 1998-99 and declared its independence from Serbia in 2008.

It is now recognised by more than 100 countries, but it is not a member of the United Nations.

The Olympic appearance will be another victory in its battle for international recognition while the prospect of at least taking part in European club and international tournaments could see a new force emerge.

“Kosovo has many football talents. We need to provide them with proper infrastructure. I believe that Kosovo’s national team will be among the best in Europe,” the Kosovo president said.

UEFA membership is only the first stage of getting into the Champions League or the European Championship however.

Its stadiums and clubs will have to be approved by UEFA’s club committee, while UEFA could also decide to keep Kosovar and Serbian teams apart in European competitions.

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