After eight years of becoming an independent state, Kosovo was accepted as a member of UEFA on Tuesday, becoming the 55th member of European soccer’s governing body despite strong opposition from neighboring Serbia.
Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia back in 2008.
Twenty-eight of UEFA’s members, the minimum necessary, voted in favor of Kosovo and 24 against after a long and sometimes heated discussion at UEFA’s Congress.
Acting UEFA President Angel Maria Villar, speaking at a UEFA congress streamed live from Budapest, Hungary, confirmed that Kosovo’s application was accepted by 28 votes to 24 and two abstentions.
Fadil Vokrri, president of the Football Federation of Kosovo, described the vote as a “historical moment” and said: “It is a great emotion… I extend my gratitude to all of you.”
The decision allows the Kosovan national team to compete for the European Championships and for Kosovan clubs to participate in UEFA competitions such as the Europa and Champions leagues.
It also opens the way for Kosovo to join global soccer body FIFA, at a vote next week, and take part in the 2018 World Cup qualifying competition.
Kosovo President Hashim Thaci wrote on his Facebook page: “Kosovo in UEFA! The best news for countless fans in our republic. Now we will play in international championships, some games will be won some will be lost but no one will ever keep us out from green fields.”
It was not immediately clear whether FIFA would allow Kosovar players who have already played for another national team to switch nationalities.
FIFA rules do not allow players to change allegiance but there has been speculation that it could allow a one-off for Kosovo. This would have a big influence on Switzerland and Albania both of which have contingents of players with Kosovar roots.
In Switzerland’s case, that includes some of their top players like Granit Xhaka, Xherdan Shaqiri and Valon Behrami.
“We have asked FIFA the question in a very direct way and we would like to receive a clear answer but before we do I can’t say anything about this,” said UEFA legal director Alasdair Bell.
Albanian FA president Armand Duka said he supported Kosovo’s bid in any case. “We have players of Kosovar origins and might be afraid of losing them, but this is not the issue,” he told the Congress.
Before the vote, Serbian FA president Tomislav Karadzic had urged the Congress to reject the application, saying it was a case of politics meddling with sport.
“This is a political, not a footballing proposal,” he said. “It would create tumult in the region and open a Pandora’s box throughout Europe.”
“Football must not cross the particular line of changing the borders of any country and accepting the self-proclaimed Kosovo republic would be crossing such a line.”
Although Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state, it signed an accord in 2013 aimed at settling relations as a condition for its own progress towards European Union membership.
UEFA statutes say that membership can be granted to any football association “based in a country which is recognized by the United Nations as an independent state.”
But Bell said a literal reading of that article “would not make sense from a legal point of view.”
“The United Nations has no competence to recognize states; states recognize states; you are either a member of the UN or not, the fact you are not a member of the UN does not mean you are not a state; this is a legal matter,” he added.
Kosovo were allowed to play friendlies with restrictions by FIFA in 2014 and have met several teams including Haiti and Turkey.
Kosovo is due to compete in this year’s Olympic Games, having gained International Olympic Committee membership in December 2014.