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Soccer Kosovo set to take big step toward qualifying for 2018 World Cup

Kosovo can move closer to joining UEFA this week with a place in 2018 World Cup qualifying at stake.

Visar Kryeziu/AP

Kosovo can take a step closer to joining UEFA this week, a move that could lead to a place in 2018 World Cup qualifying.

Membership of Europe's football governing body will allow the former Serbian enclave's national team and clubs to start playing in continental competitions.

That is the first step required before gaining FIFA membership, part of Kosovo's wider push for international recognition since defying Serbia by declaring independence in 2008.

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UEFA's executive committee can rule the Balkan republic eligible to apply when it opens a two-day session on Thursday in Malta.

Full membership can only be granted by UEFA's annual congress, which meets in March in Budapest, Hungary.

"We are expecting in March to be full members of UEFA and (then) FIFA and to catch the qualification," Kosovo Football Federation secretary general Eroll Salihu told The Associated Press in the Maltese coastal town of St. Julian's on Tuesday.

With fast-track support from FIFA, Kosovo could kick off World Cup qualifying next September.

FIFA's 209 members could allow Kosovo to join at meetings in Mexico City next May, allowing time to place Kosovo in one of the two European qualifying groups which have only five teams instead of six.

"Because there are two groups with five, we hope to be like all others in this qualification," Salihu said.

FIFA said it "cannot make comments about potential scenarios."

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UEFA is now supporting Kosovo's case after resisting previous efforts by FIFA to let its teams play opponents from other countries.

"Based on our commitment and the will UEFA is showing to resolve Kosovo's problem, we believe that in Malta the UEFA executive committee will propose to the congress a solution for us," Fadil Vokrri, the FFK president, said.

In May 2012, FIFA President Sepp Blatter announced that Kosovo clubs and national teams should be cleared to play friendly matches.

That was soon blocked by Platini, who sided with Serbian officials and cited a "purely political" decision. Russia, a traditional Serbian ally, and Spain, which opposes independence movements in its own regions, have also opposed Kosovo's football diplomacy.

A breakthrough came in January 2014 when FIFA ruled that Kosovo teams could play international matches, except against teams from other parts of the former Yugoslavia.

As a further security measure, FIFA said Kosovo "may not display national symbols (flags, emblems, etc.) or play national anthems" at these matches.

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Kosovo's national team finally made its debut in March 2014, drawing 0-0 with Haiti in Mitrovica.

Though Kosovo is not formally recognized by the United Nations – as UEFA statutes require of its members – it won a sports politics victory last December when it was granted recognition by the International Olympic Committee.

In March, visiting FFK officials met with Platini and UEFA lawyers at their headquarters in Switzerland.

"It is absurd not to be part of UEFA at a time when the country is recognized by more than 100 countries in the world and (22 of 28 European Union) member countries," Vokrri told the AP. "UEFA is not complete without Kosovo, one of the most football-loving countries in Europe."

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