The Kosovo national team are still waiting for international recognition

By Steve Menary
The most patient manager in international football has nearly had enough. However, Edmond Rugova is not fed up with his players losing matches; he’s just exasperated at not being able to find them any fixtures.

Nearly three years after returning to the land of his birth, national coach Rugova is no closer to finding regular games for his team despite Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in February 2008.

“We’ve done all we can,” sighs the former Yugoslav youth international who left home for New York Cosmos in the 1980s. “This Platini guy had a meeting in Serbia in March and said UEFA is not political and he can do nothing until Kosovo is admitted to the UN [United Nations] and that will take some time. He also says he wants to see football keep developing here, but what does that mean?”

UEFA’s entry regulations were tweaked a few years ago to appease Spain and keep out Gibraltar. So, despite nearly 60 nations around the world recognizing Kosovo’s split from the Serbs, Rugova and his team are left kicking their heels.

In March 2009, Rugova managed to arrange a game in Sweden with Allsvenskan side Malmo. He says: “We went there with a different name and had to call ourselves the Super Liga of Kosovo Selection and not a national team to disguise ourselves.”

Two exiled Kosovars, Labinot Harbuzi and Agon Mehmeti, play for Malmo and, if Kosovo secure UEFA membership, Rugova expects both to play for his team. Mehmeti did not play in Malmo, but Harbuzi scored in a 5-0 win for the hosts, who were watched by a 4,000-strong crowd of mostly exiled Kosovars.

“Physical preparation was the difference,” says a bullish Rugova. “I look at our team, and the players we have, and compare them more to Croatia than Albania or Slovenia.

“But nothing really is happening. We’ve played a few games and I’ve done what I can. The best game was certainly Ankara.”

Rugova’s Kosovans sneaked into Turkey two years ago to play 2006 World Cup finalists Saudi Arabia and won 1-0, but a fixture a few days later against Oman in Switzerland was scuppered by logistical problems.

Long delay
The Kosovan football federation has approached FIFA with a request to play international friendlies but, after a long delay, the only response has been UEFA president Michel Platini’s comments in Belgrade about United Nations membership.

At present Rugova spends his time holding training camps at home and abroad, where a recent camp in the Swiss city of Basle attracted 40 exiled Kosovar children. The skills he sees make him confident for the future – if there is to be one.

“I’m starting to lose a little patience,” he admits. “I’m running low on enthusiasm and patience.

“I know I can do a lot with these kids but it’s taking too long. I’m here for work and I can’t work.”