Goal of FIFA membership sets up new soccer politics problem

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GENEVA (AP) Despite FIFA’s ongoing image crisis fueled by corruption cases, membership of the organization remains a goal being pursued with passion.

Still, joining soccer’s world body – gaining entry to World Cup qualifying and million-dollar FIFA funding – can create new political problems on and off the field, including for players.

On Friday, the 209 national soccer federations who make up FIFA should add two more members at a meeting in Mexico City.

Kosovo and Gibraltar can expect to join the club, and then be fast-tracked into the 2018 World Cup qualifying groups which kick off in September.

Kosovo’s case is the more complex, posing the question of who is able to play for the largely ethnic Albanian former enclave of Serbia.

“There are many players in Europe (that) Kosovo may call, and they have expressed the desire to choose Kosovo colors,” the national federation spokesman Fazli Berisha told The Associated Press in an email reply.

It could see a wave of transfer requests to FIFA from players who opted to represent countries, including Albania and Switzerland, before Kosovo started to get international soccer recognition just two years ago.

The player eligibility issue was raised, and not resolved, when Kosovo was elected a member of UEFA last week. That win cleared the way for FIFA’s vote.

The Swiss federation led calls to delay taking Kosovo into UEFA. Its European Championship squad next month should have several Kosovo-eligible players, including midfield stars Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, aged 24 and 23, respectively.

It would be unfair to put players on the spot of having to choose, Swiss federation secretary general Alex Miescher said.

“Whatever they decide upon will not be for a nation, but against a nation,” Miescher told UEFA’s congress. “This will create a lot, a lot of problems.”

FIFA declined to comment in detail ahead of meetings in Mexico City, but noted that its player status committee decides if players can switch allegiance. That panel is on new ground. Typically, players who are eligible for more than one country are allowed to move once, and only if their appearance for initial country was not in a senior competitive international match.

Now, FIFA must consider what to do with established senior internationals who previously did not have Kosovo as an option.

“We’ve asked (FIFA) the question in a very direct way, and we’d like to receive a clear answer,” UEFA legal director Alasdair Bell said last week.

Assuming Kosovo joins FIFA, all parties seem to agree decisions should wait until the European Championship, in France, finishes in July.

The Albania vs. Switzerland match on June 11 in Lens has an extra angle since the Group A draw was made in December.

“I will be there to be Swiss, like all my teammates,” Valon Behrami, the 31-year-old, Kosovo-born Switzerland midfielder, told the Tribune de Geneve daily. “We will see after the Euro. This is such a personal choice that you should not interfere.”

Albania soccer leader Armand Duka has been more positive than his Swiss counterparts.

“We might be afraid we could be losing (players) but this is not the issue,” Duka said, urging a vote for UEFA membership to develop the game in Kosovo.

Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo’s declaration of political independence in 2008 – which is accepted by more than 100 United Nations member states – and has pledged to challenge its neighbor’s soccer recognition at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

It is likely FIFA and UEFA will need to separate the Serbia and Kosovo national teams and clubs in competition draws for several years.

Similarly, Gibraltar and Spain teams have been kept apart since the British territory joined UEFA in 2013.

Swiss official Miescher suggested to UEFA members that where Kosovo plays its home matches could also be a security issue.

Less than four months before 2018 World Cup qualifying groups in Europe kick off, FIFA and UEFA must work quickly if the new members join on Friday.

There are vacant slots in two five-team groups, though Kosovo is again the complication.

When FIFA decided in 2014 that members could play Kosovo in international friendlies, it did not lift a block on matches involving the former Yugoslavia republics, in order to avoid regional tensions.

The qualifying groups able to accept Kosovo and Gibraltar have Croatia in one and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the other. The Croatia group is preferred, Kosovo spokesman Berisha said.

For a scandal-hit FIFA trying to prioritize the game again ahead of soccer politics, the two are not always easy to divide.

Associated Press writer Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania contributed to this report