The Kosovo Basketball Conundrum: Why Other Countries Won't Play Ball

It's not easy being a country that doesn't technically exist. Especially when you want to compete at the highest level of sport. Just ask Kosovo, and their national basketball team.
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Erolld Belegu received the bad news, by text, at the most inopportune time. The president of Kosovo’s basketball federation, attending a conference in Cardiff called Regional Sport, International Participation – designed to allow regional powers the chance to discuss how they might compete on the global stage like the Welsh - had just hauled his powerful, once athletic frame on to the stage.

He was about to wax lyrically about how sport could heal divisions in post conflict societies and how sport could triumph where politics failed. Suddenly, you sensed his heart wasn’t it. “I had just heard the news that FIBA [Basketball’s world governing body] has rejected our membership again at their central board meeting,” he explained, shrugging as if to suggest he wasn’t that surprised. “Now this is becoming purely political. [People who say] sport and politics don’t mix are kids.”

It’s a tough, lonely life being a country that’s not officially a country. The international community shuns you, border police look quizzically at your passport as if Mickey Mouse had issued it and almost every action in your daily life is stymied by the intransigence of far away – and sometimes not-so-far-away – hostile governments. No more is this evident than the arena of sport. Both the sponsors of the conference, the Kurdish Regional Government, and the venue, Wales, were apt.

It was designed to show solidarity between regions that wanted to be much much more than merely an area within a host state. They wanted recognition on the international stage through sport and saw Wales as the ideal model as how to achieve it. The conference pack even boasted that Kurdistan was the ‘Wales of the Middle East’ on the first page. But whilst Iraqi Kurdistan is in something of a position of power, thanks to its economic and social stability compared to the relative chaos in the rest of Iraq, nowhere have these efforts for sporting recognition been rendered more futile than in Kosovo.

"Now this is becoming purely political. People who say sport and politics don’t mix are kids."

When in 1999 NATO troops bombed what was then the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, ostensibly to protect the country’s 1.8 million ethnic Albanians from, as the West saw it, potential genocide, the aftermath was almost an afterthought. A decade of wrangling, mistrust and internal unrest between the majority ethnically Albanian and minority ethnically Serbian population paralysed negotiations over a final settlement until the Kosovan’s unilaterally declared independence earlier this year. 53 countries recognised them, including the US, UK and all but five EU states.

What was more telling however were the states who refused. Alongside the likes of Spain and Greece, who have their own regional antagonisms to deal with, sat Serbia and Russia. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and ally of Serbia, it has the power to veto any efforts to recognise Kosovo as an official entity at the UN. Now the country is in limbo, recognised by, in Erolld’s words “60 to 70 per cent of the world’s GDP”, but unable to become a fully-fledged member of international society. It’s a state of affairs mirrored in Kosovo’s most popular game, basketball.

The Basketball Federation of Kosovo has been petitioning for membership of FIBA for close to a decade, but had met opposition from the usual suspects. Although, according to Erolld, the roles have been swapped somewhat with Serbia holding the whip hand thanks to its strength in the international game – Serbia and Montenegro competing as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia won the World Championships twice in 1998 and 2002 – and its power along the corridors of FIBA’s head quarters in Geneva.

“The Serbs [have a powerful voice]. The former secretary general [Borislav Stankovic] is Serb, he was secretary general for more than 25 years. In many FIBA structures in leading places there are Serbs. I think it’s not that FIBA doesn’t want us, it is that they cannot bring themselves to break the hearts of their Serb friends.”

Stankovic’s standing is such that when he retired in 2002 they named an international competition after him, the Stankovic Cup. When I called FIBA for their take on why Kosovo remained in the international wilderness despite being recognised by almost all of its European members, their spokesman admitted that Kosovo had been set a criteria to qualify for it’s membership higher than it states in its own rulebook.

“Actually the decision from the central board was basically that there was no new progress from our decision on April 2008,” explained FIBA spokesman Marcos Beltra. “There are some pending issues with the basketball federation…but the main one is that that it has to be recognised by the IOC and the UN.”

Does it state in the FIBA rules that it has to be a member of the UN or IOC, or just that it is recognised by the international community, which is different?

“It states the international community, not specifically the UN [or IOC].”

"It’s a tough, lonely life being a country that’s not officially a country. The international community shuns you, border police look quizzically at your passport as if Mickey Mouse had issued it."

Has Russia or Serbia put pressure on FIBA over this?

“Ah, we are not making any further comment. The central board has made its decision and that is it.”

The limbo has been a disaster for Kosovan sport. Whilst some sports have recognised Kosovo, like wrestling, softball and table tennis, the drag in its major and most politically significant sports has lead to a brain drain as other nations cheery pick the most talented players. They can, after all, offer international competition.

“Why should anyone [in Kosovo] invest in a young basketball player when, when he gets to 16 or 17, he can just leave?” he asks rhetorically. “We have a player playing for the Poland under 21s basketball team because his mother is Polish and now he will be Polish. There is no clearance letters required from Kosovo in order to play [for another country] abroad. This is in football too. [Derby County’s Finnish striker] Shefki Kuqi is Kosovan, [West Ham’s Swiss midfielder] Valon Behrami also and Lorik Cana [at Galatasaray]. But we want our national team with our players playing for our team. Half the Albanian [national football] team is Kosovan.”

Within its own controversial borders the Kosovan basketball league also reflects the political realities on the ground. Ten percent of the area’s population is Kosovan Serb and are concentrated mainly in the north of the country. Thanks to the reprisals that followed the war against the minority community, there has been little interaction between the two sides except on the basketball court where exclusively Kosovan Serb and Kosovan Albanian teams would play “in sports halls surrounded by tanks and helicopters.”

Fans were banned from attending the matches, such was the fear that violence would break out. But when Erolld was elected president two years ago he decided to try and engage the Serbs more. “When I became president I invited a Serb team, Bambi, to join the Superleague [Kosovo’s premier basketball league],” he said.

“But I said this time ‘there will be no security at the games’. ‘You will play home and away games like everybody else’ and ‘you will be part of the league’. Their only condition was that they played directly in the top division. They agreed and of course the first games were heavily guarded. Not like before but still with lots of special police but the audience was there and you wouldn’t believe it. We go to the game and there were 3,000 people shouting against them. But if they won the game at the end they applauded them.”

"This is in football too. Shefki Kuqi is Kosovan, Valon Behrami also and Lorik Cana. But we want our national team with our players playing for our team. Half the Albanian team is Kosovan."

The team, now renamed Progress, have had to sacrifice much to play in the Kosovan league. Amongst the Serbian community the move, orchestrated by their chairman Miomir Dashiq, was seen as almost treasonous. “I wouldn’t dare to do what he is doing,” joked Erolld. “The president had a lot of problems. They threatened him, burnt out his car in front of his house, wrote graffiti on the walls of his house. They really threatened him. I respect the president very much for doing this and the whole team for joining him. He changes players often too, so we are not talking about twelve [Kosovan Serb] players who stay there for three years, we are talking hundreds of people playing for them.”

Yet even for these players braving prejudice both inside and outside their communities, there are still doubts. “The national team had one international tournament in Jordan and I invited one of the Serb players but his parents wouldn’t let him join us,” Erolld added.

And yet this tiny example of how sport can challenge division is dwarfed by the politics that surround the game at every level. As much as the idea of unity and harmony through sport is an attractive one, it is far easier to point out how sport separates us more than it unites. The very realpolitik that taints the efforts of war torn regions with ambitions of flying their flags through football or basketball or handball  – from Kosovo, to Chechnya, to Iraqi Kurdistan – proves that sport is largely a tool for political leverage. Erolld knows this from bitter experience. For him the idea that sport can transcend politics is a myth. Only when society is ready can sport be truly representative of all of its people, not vice versa.

“Kosovo is not like people say. Serbians live everywhere…even around the capital Pristina and life goes on,” he explained. “We are not killing people everyday anymore. In sport, because this team [Progress] has joined our institutions, in a way they have recognised the Republic of Kosovo. Others are boycotting. They might like the team but they do not go and watch them because the pressure from other Serbs. To tell you the truth, they [ethnic Albanians and Serbs] are more integrated in daily life than they are in sport.” The power lies with an increasingly belligerent Russia. “They can use the veto for 50 years if they want,” he exhales. It will be a while until Erolld gets a text from FIBA containing any better news.

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