After six years of rejection, cajoling, schmoozing, direct action and, finally, acceptance, Eroll Salihu is at last organising a game that counts.
The Kosovo national soccer team will play its first Fifa-sanctioned friendly match Wednesday, against Haiti, in Mitrovica, 24 miles north of the capital, Pristina.
For Salihu, who has handled the day-to-day running of Kosovo’s soccer federation as its general secretary for the best part of a decade, this is virgin territory.
Although it unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and has been recognised by 23 of 28 European Union member states and 108 members of the United Nations, Kosovo remains officially unrecognised as a sovereign nation.
Without United Nations membership, Kosovo is unable to join either Uefa, European soccer’s governing body, or Fifa, the sport’s international governing body. Players with Kosovar heritage have ended up playing for some of Europe’s top national teams, and in many cases thriving.
Despite opposition from Serbia, which sees Kosovo as an inviolable part of its territory, and Michel Platini, the Uefa president, it was agreed in January that Kosovo would be allowed to play Fifa members, albeit with no national symbols, flags or anthem. Matches against former Yugoslav republics were banned.
Choosing the squad for Wednesday’s match, however, has been a diplomatic minefield. Salihu and the federation invited Manchester United’s Belgian-born prodigy Adnan Januzaj, whose heritage qualifies him to represent Kosovo but also Belgium, Serbia, Turkey and, perhaps in a few years, England.
Despite the assurance that an appearance for Kosovo would not affect his chances of playing for another national team, Januzaj’s father said no.
The decision on who will play Wednesday ultimately lies with coach Albert Bunjaki. He has been in charge of Kosovo’s national team for five years.
In that time, he has prepared for only four matches, three of them against club teams.
Wednesday will be a full house. Tickets are only 5 euros ($6.85), and Salihu said he had received about 50,000 ticket requests, even though the stadium holds 18,000 people.
“It will be very emotional,” he said. “Everyone wants to say they were at this match.”