On Monday 5 September 2016, the Kosovo national football team played its first competitive international match, drawing 1 – 1 with Finland in a World Cup qualifier. Valon Berisha, who plays his club football for Red Bull Salzburg in the Austrian Bundesliga, was the scorer of Kosovo’s first ever goal in a competitive international football match. What made that historic feat more remarkable was that Berisha had only been given clearance to play in the fixture a few hours before kick-off.
Kosovo declared independence as a country in 2008. For the past few years, it has been campaigning to join FIFA. That campaign ended in success in May, when FIFA admitted Kosovo as its 210th member nation.
The admission by FIFA of what is, in historic terms, a very young country has raised a number of questions regarding player eligibility.
A number of players who identify as Kosovar had previously represented other international teams. By way of example, on the day of the match against Finland, FIFA cleared the following players to play for Kosovo, each of whom had previously played for the following international sides:
- Amir Rrahmani: one previous cap for Albania;
- Valon Berisha: 19 previous caps for Norway;
- Alban Meha: seven caps for Albania;
- Herolind Shala: five caps for Albania;
- Milot Rashica: two caps for Albania;
- Samir Ujkani: 20 caps for Albania.
There are many other players who were born in Kosovo but who have represented other international sides. For instance, Stoke City’s Xherdan Shaqiri and Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka, both of whom played for Switzerland in the 2016 UEFA European Championships in France.
Under the FIFA Statutes, the general rule is that players are only allowed to represent one international country. That rule may be departed from only in certain prescribed circumstances. In this respect, the Statutes state that, in circumstances where a player has more than one nationality, or if a player acquires a new nationality, or if a player is eligible to play for several representative teams due to nationality, he may, only once, request to change the association for which he is eligible to play international matches to the association of another country of which he holds nationality.
So far, so good for the players who are hopeful of representing the Kosovo national team. However, the opportunity to change one’s international allegiance is subject to the following conditions:
(a) The player in question has not played a match (either in full or in part) in an official competition at “A” international level for his current association, and at the time of his first full or partial appearance in an international match in an official competition for his current association, he already had the nationality of the representative team for which he wishes to play.
(b) He is not permitted to play for his new association in any competition in which he has already played for his previous association.
In the case of the Kosovar players that had previously represented another international side, these conditions were not fulfilled.
It appears that FIFA has made an exception in this case, allowing these players to represent the national team with which they identify.
Clearly this is an exceptional case. It is not every day that a new nation declares independence. However, nor is the situation entirely unprecedented. On the same day as Kosovo was admitted as a member of FIFA, so was Gibraltar.
It will be interesting to see whether the next edition of the FIFA Statutes is amended to fill the lacuna faced by the Kosovar players in the present case.
The issue of eligibility in sport is covered in further detail here.