UEFA, European soccer's governing body, has voted to make the small Balkan nation of Kosovo its 55th member. Kosovo won the vote despite strong opposition from Serbia to its application.
The news that Kosovo had been accepted into the European footballing family sparked tears of joy among the country's delegation at the UEFA Congress in Budapest on Monday.
There were also plenty of joyful reactions in the country's capital, Pristina. Even the country's president, Hashim Thaci, tweeted a response to the news.
As expected, though, the margin of victory was slim, with 28 national federations voting in favor of Kosovo, 24 against, with two spoiled ballots. The voting followed a vigorous debate in which the president of the Serbian FA, Tomoslav Karadzic had urged the Congress to reject Kosovo's application, saying it was a case of politics interfering with sport.
"This is a political, not a football proposal," Karadzic said. "We are facing a stern test, we must say no to politics, no to divisions that are maybe detrimental. This would create turmoil in the region and open a Pandora's box throughout Europe."
Football the missing link
The president of the Football Federation of Kosovo (FFK), Fadil Vokrri, though, delivered a passionate plea for the delegates to vote in favor.
"I call on you to give the youth of our country the opportunity to play," he said. "All that is missing is football."
The decision means that Kosovo's national team may now play international matches against other European sides and that it and its clubs can enter European competitions.
FFK officials have said they hope that becoming a UEFA member will help their cause as the federation seek to become a full member of FIFA, when its ruling council meets in Mexico City next week. The FKK has expressed the hope that FIFA will allow its national team to enter qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. However, for this to happen, it first needs to become a FIFA member. At FIFA too, Kosovo can expect strong opposition to its application, including from Russia, which is a close ally of Serbia.
Kosovo is a former province of Serbia, which unilaterally declared its independence from Belgrade in 2008, after almost a decade under United Nations administration. This followed an inter-ethnic conflict that was brought to an end by a NATO bombing campaign. Kosovo has been recognized as an independent state by more than 100 countries. Serbia is not one of them, and political leaders in Belgrade have repeatedly stressed that they never will be.
pfd/jh (Reuters, dpa, SID, AP)