COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – In a move that made waves in the international soccer community, the disputed territory of Kosovo was formally accepted as the 55th member of European soccer's governing body, UEFA. The decision to admit the Football Federation of Kosovo, which governs the game in the partially-recognized state, was ratified in a narrow 28-24 vote, with two invalid ballots cast, during UEFA's annual congress in Budapest on Tuesday.
For Albanian international and Colorado Rapids midfielder Shkelzen Gashi, who is of Kosovar descent, it was a decision that hit close to home, despite his being over 5,000 miles away at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
“It’s a historical moment for Kosovo football,” Gashi told MLSsoccer.com. “I think the players have shown the outside world what Kosovo football is about.”
The son of Kosovar parents, Gashi was born in Switzerland after his family immigrated due to his father accepting a job as a chef. The 27-year-old still visits Kosovo on vacation, where he maintains strong family bonds.
Kosovo has attempted to gain admission to FIFA dating back to as early as 2008, shortly after the territory declared independence from Serbia. The movement really began to gain steam in the fall of 2012 however, when Albania captain Lorik Cana, along with Swiss internationals Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, Valon Behrami and other footballers of Albanian Kosovar origin, petitioned Sepp Blatter to grant Kosovo the ability to play in friendlies, which was granted in 2014.
Like Shaqiri, Xhaka, and Behrami, Gashi grew up playing internationally for Switzerland at the youth levels. He eventually decided to play with Albania at the senior level, where he now plays alongside Cana and will likely represent that country in the upcoming Euro 2016 tournament.
“A lot of good players come from Kosovo,” Gashi explained. “We are proud and focused. It’s important because people watch what we do and it’s important that we do a good job.”
The decision was a proud moment for those of Kosovar heritage, but remains a point of contention in Serbia, which has opposed Kosovo’s ambitions for full international recognition. Kosovo’s independence is currently recognized by 108 United Nations member states, including the United States, Canada and most of the European Union, while Serbia and Russia (which hosts the 2018 World Cup) are among the countries that still do not recognize Kosovo’s independence.
“We must say no to politics,” Tomislav Karadzic, the president of Serbia’s soccer association, argued to UEFA members before the vote in a speech opposing Kosovo’s admission. “It would create tumult in the region and open a Pandora’s box throughout Europe.”
Nevertheless, Tuesday’s decision opens the door for Kosovo’s admission into FIFA, which could be decided in a vote next week during the 66th FIFA Congress in Mexico. Yet further details regarding the team’s place in World Cup qualification and issues of player eligibility have yet to be resolved.
“I hope that FIFA will accept Kosovo so they can be included [in World Cup qualification],” said Gashi. “This would be a very beautiful day for the players and for the country. What comes further down the road, I don’t know.”