XL. A kick to diplomacy
Madrid's strategy of not recognizing Pristina's independence has jeopardized the football match between Spain and Kosovo, in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 European qualifiers
welcome back to BarBalkans, the Italian newsletter whose aim is to give a voice to the Western Balkans’ stories, on the 30th anniversary of the Yugoslav Wars.
Because of the international break, this weekend there will not be any games in the national football leagues. We can take advantage of this opportunity to shed some light on the interweaving of football and politics.
And to reaffirm that football is much more than a game.
This is our starting point. When two national teams face each other in a sport competition, it is like they are reproducing a war between nation-States.
Of course, in a peaceful way, but it is still a fight. In the end one wins, the other succumbs.
We can argue that, even with no war-mongering rhetoric, sports competitions are the last legacy of a certain militaristic mentality.
Also - and especially - in football.
There is “a battle on the field”. A “sniper” who “shoots the ball” under seven. The striker who “takes aim”. In a “group of death”, a “giant killing” can happen. In the “fortress” of home ground, a team is designed “to shield”. And so on.
But what happens if an army in socks and shin guards has to face a group who does not recognize the existence of the State it represents?
It will probably do everything to make that battle on the green rectangle a fair match.
Because a “conventional war” between two national sports teams can be the prelude to the diplomatic recognition of a State.
The match between Spain and Kosovo has already begun.
FIFA qualifiers with a view
Spain, Greece, Sweden, Georgia and Kosovo are the five teams that compose the Group B of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 European qualifiers.
For the Kosovar national team this is one of the worst scenarios. Not only in terms of going beyond this round - completely out of reach - but most of all for the teams that it has to challenge.
Three opponents out of four do not recognize Kosovo as an independent State.
Spain, Greece and Georgia.
What does this mean? Spain, the first team on Kosovo’s path, will explain it to us.
The match between Spain and Kosovo will be played on Wednesday 31 March.
The squad list of coach Luis Enrique was announced by the official site of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), with a statement that immediately created controversy:
«[The national team] will close the series of matches on Wednesday 31 March at the ‘La Cartuja’ stadium in Seville against the territory of Kosovo».
The territory of Kosovo.
The Royal Spanish Football Federation reflects the policy of the national government: Kosovo can only be a territory, a region (of Serbia).
It was used the most neutral word possible. The problem is that sometimes neutrality can be a political expression.
Moreover, Marca daily sports newspaper also revealed that, in the intentions of the Federation, the Kosovo flag should not be shown alongside the Spanish one and the Kosovar national anthem should be presented as “the music donated by the territory of Kosovo”.
The diplomatic incident is ready.
Through an official note, the Football Federation of Kosovo (FFK) took a tough stance:
«The UEFA and FIFA criteria are clear and Spain knows it. Anything different, said or written, does not change or will change these rules. If they want to justify themselves in front of the national media, that is their problem. But Kosovo will not make concessions: we will only play according to the strict criteria and rules of UEFA, with the national anthem and the flag. Otherwise, the match will not take place».
The Football Federation of Kosovo was accepted in 2016 as UEFA member and the international football organizations recognize equal rights to all federations.
Just one day later, on March 10, the Royal Spanish Football Federation took a step back. It confirmed that the match will take place in accordance with FIFA and UEFA rules and that the Kosovar national team will find hospitality.
This might be a Pyrrhic victory for Kosovo, but only the playing field will give the answer.
A semantic challenge
It is clear that this issue is not confined to a mere battle between national sports teams.
If the recognition of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia is a thorny issue at the international level [for further information, I recommend you the 35th stop, Eternal sunset of the spotless countries], for the EU Member States it is a bit more complex.
Spain, Greece, Slovakia, Romania and Cyprus.
These EU countries do not share the EU’s position of facilitating Pristina’s progress in the European path and implicitly backing its independence.
In the plenary session of March 25, the European Parliament adopted the report by the Committee on Foreign Affairs: the five countries have been invited to change their position as soon as possible and to align with the other 22 Member States.
But Madrid doesn’t seem to give up.
As highlighted by Pol Vila Sarriá and Agon Demjaha in the policy paper Kosovo and Spain at the EU level: A battle of semantics, «the Spanish position on Kosovo has been extremely legalistic, in terms of State recognition».
The reasons behind non-recognition are many, but they «can be boiled down to the territorial dynamics within Spain».
Namely, the relationship between the national government in Madrid and the autonomy of Catalonia and the Basque Country.
This is not only about a third country (Serbia) and its secessionist region (Kosovo).
Because Spain has very similar dynamics at home.
Recognizing the independence of Kosovo would be an unwelcome signal to the restless provinces, that they could try the same way. Or at least it would be very difficult to explain.
For this reason, a strong adherence to international law has become an indispensable tool for Madrid.
«Spain continues to apply a tough policy vis-á-vis Kosovo at the EU level» and «does not support Kosovo’s accession process, as it would entail de facto recognition of statehood».
This means that it is playing a battle of semantics.
For Madrid, ‘accession’ (to the EU) and (European) ‘perspective’ have a different meaning and connotation. The former implies «a clear acknowledgment of aspirations to join the EU», while the latter «has a vaguer meaning, implying only EU’s commitment to the region».
From the Spanish perspective - which complies with the Treaty on European Union - only European States can join the EU.
But Kosovo is not a State recognized worldwide.
This is how Madrid became the guardian of the EU status-neutrality in the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade, allowing Kosovo only a slow progress towards the EU.
In other words, Brussels has always to be careful not to take sides.
«When this has not been guaranteed in the past, Spain has voiced its concerns», but most of all «it did not hesitate to veto declarations and resolutions that did not respect status-neutrality».
In this way, a twofold path is followed.
As long as Kosovo’s progress into the EU «does not undermine explicitly the Spanish position and EU neutrality, it is not obstructed by Spain» (for example, the Stabilisation and Association Agreement in 2016).
However, as soon as «it risks recognizing Kosovo’s statehood, Spain plays a distinct role in limiting Kosovo’s integration process into the EU».
It is certainly true that diplomatic battles takes place within the halls of power.
But, at the same time, forgetting the importance of the battles played on the football fields may turn into a Waterloo.
Pit stop. Sittin’ at the BarBalkans
We have reached the end of this piece of road.
While watching the football match, we need a good pint of beer. Our host recommends us a Sabaja Pils.
Sabaja is Kosovo’s first craft brewery, founded in Pristina by Etida Zeka and her husband Alex Butler in 2013.
The mission of the micro-brewery is to bring a wave of innovations in Kosovo, introducing Ale styles like IPA, Porter, and Imperial Stout for the first time in the country.
However, Pils remains the flagship, for lovers of fresh and high quality beers.
Sabah is a Turkish word absorbed into the Albanian language and it means “morning”.
Our host is probably suggesting us that a new dawn may have come for Kosovar breweries, for the national football team and for the whole country.
Let’s continue the BarBalkans journey. We’ll meet again in a week, for the 41st stop.
A big hug and have a good journey!
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