George Kyris
Juan Manuel Montoro
Ta Nea December 13, 2022

For Kosovo, The World Cup is More than Just a Game

Originally published on Ta Nea, the Greek daily, on December 13, 2022.

The World Cup in Qatar is slowly coming to an end. But football, and sports in general, is much more than just a game- it is part of global diplomacy.

Through sports matches between teams from different countries, the viewers learn which countries exist in the world and what they look like. That is why neighbouring Kosovo has in recent years made it a priority to become a member of international sports bodies, as it sought to boost its international image and standing after declaring independence from Serbia in 2008.

The door to the World Cup, FIFA and other sports organizations opened with the acceptance of Kosovo to the International Olympic Committee. Despite the lack of universal recognition, the IOC approved Kosovo's membership on the grounds that more UN member states recognized it than did not – at the time, 108 out of 193. This ended decades of sporting isolation rooted in discrimination against Koosovo Albanians during Yugoslavia.

Thus, Kosovo was able to take part in the Olympic Games, with impressive results so far, considering how small and young it is, owning to three gold medals in women's judo: Majlinda Kelmendi in Rio and Distria Krasniqi and Nora Gjakova in Tokyo.

As for the World Cup, the Kosovo team finished last in its group and did not qualify for Qatar, but the matches it played were important, especially those against teams from states that do not recognize its independence, such as Greece and Spain.

These matches were not without backlash. For example, at some matches, Greeks displayed banners in support of Serbia's claims to Kosovo. On a more official level, however, Kosovo's flag, anthem and name were used as normal, even though Greece does not recognize it as a state. Conversely, when Kosovo faced Spain, which also does not recognise it, public television commentators were forbidden to use the word "Kosovo".

These differences reflect differences in the general way Spain and Greece deal with Kosovo. Neither country maintains an official embassy in Pristina, but Greece has at least a 'liaison office' mainly for commercial purposes.

In any case, these appearances help cement Kosovo's image as a state, even in the most unlikely of places. For example, when Kelmendi won gold at the 2016 European Judo Championships in Kazan, Russia, the army band played the Kosovo anthem, despite Kremlin's long-standing support for Serbia's refusal to recognize Kosovo as an independent state.

Participation in international competitions, therefore, is an alternative way of doing diplomacy, which enables athletes to stand equally against their opponents from other countries, and spectators to learn about the countries of the world and their successes. That Kosovo has a number of achievements under its belt already, despite the challenges it faces in diplomatic recognition, makes these successes all the more significant.