Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Kosovo: at last....

After years of obstruction from UEFA and its president Michel Platini, FIFA have over-ruled the European body and approved Kosovo's long-running attempt to play international friendlies. At the bottom of a news release on today's FIFA executive committee meeting a brief statement simply reads: "the Executive Committee has given its approval for FIFA member associations to play friendly matches with the Football Federation of Kosovo in accordance with art. 79 of the FIFA Statutes." 

Although FIFA tentatively allowed the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to play a handful of friendlies in the 1970s after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus and the setting up of the breakaway TRNC, which remains largely unrecognised, the decision to allow Kosovo to play friendlies is of far greater importance.

The TRNC only played a handful of low-key friendlies that did not continue after a declaration of independence, whereas Kosovo's independence has been recognised by 92 other nations including many in western Europe, and FIFA's decision now opens the way for the Kosovars to play matches against the 208 full members of the world body.

UEFA and FIFA have previously agreed that Kosovan players who have switched nationality in order to play at international level, such as Fiorentina's Valon Behrami, who plays for Switzerland, and Lorik Cana of Lazio and Albania, can turn out for a recognised Kosovan team.

Switzerland, in particular, could suffer as Frederic Veseli - signed at the start of 2012 by Manchester United - and Bayern Munich's new signing, Xherdan Shaqiri, are among a number of Swiss players that could switch to Kosovo.

The idea of giving up the chance of reaching a World Cup finals or European championship in order to simply play international friendlies may not initially appeal, but having made this one step, more are likely to follow.

Although FIFA hardly trumpeted the decision, it is a clear snub to both Platini and UEFA, which is also struggling with a controversial attempt to join the international game by a would-be member.
Earlier this year, UEFA was forced to give ground to Gibraltar's long-running attempt to join UEFA - an attempt that has been repeatedly upheld by the game's highest legal body, the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

UEFA has agreed to put Gibraltar's application to a vote and allow the British colony to stage an international youth tournament. Perhaps the Gibraltarians should invite Kosovo?

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Who needs to be in FIFA?

Does the world need FIFA? That’s a question often asked, particularly in recent years, and results from some parts of the globe neglected by FIFA suggest perhaps not always.

At the 2011 Pacific Games, Tuvalu beat one FIFA member in American Samoa and drew with another, the Cook Islands, despite being shunned by the world body, but recent results from the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) are even better.

When United States attorney Peter Coleman arrived in CNMI - a United States-controlled territory in the North Pacific – a few years ago on work, he tried to find a game for his soccer-made son but there was none to be found. Coleman organised some and ended up founding a national team, which played its first game in 2007 but remains on the outskirts of the international game.

Coleman has since moved on. But the Northern Mariana Islands Football Association (NIMFA) goes from strength to strength as results from last week’s East Asian Football Federation (EAFF) Under-14s championships in Beijing demonstrate.

A 15-0 thrashing from regional powerhouse Japan and a 9-0 pasting from 2010 World Cup finalists North Korea are not results to dwell on, but others, including a draw with the hosts, were far more impressive.

China - less a regional force on the field but a major commercial one off it and still a one-time World Cup finalist – has a population of 1.3 billion. The population of the 14 islands in the CNMI is officially 44,000. In Beijing, NIMFA’s Under-14s forced an incredible 1-1 draw with the Chinese.

That result was no fluke. Ranked 177 by FIFA, Mongolia could only draw 2-2 draw with the Northern Mariana team, whose nickname is the Blue Ayuyu, the word used in the local Chamarro dialect to describe the Coconut Crab, a local delicacy.

The Blue Ayuyu boys brought two sides to Beijing. The second string lost twice to neighbours Guam – 2-0 and 4-0 – but the first XI went on to record twin wins. Chinese Taipei (Taiwan to most of us) have a FIFA ranking of 169, but were beaten 2-0, while Macau – FIFA ranking 198 – were beaten 1-0.
“I am very pleasantly surprised about the performance and result of our U14 Boys team in Beijing last week,” said NIMFA president Jerry Tan told local newspaperthe Saipan Tribune with some understatement. “Being the newest and smallest FA (football association) of AFC (Asian Football Confederation), two wins and two draws is an amazing result,”

Tan credited twice-yearly youth leagues ran by NIMFA as key to achieving two wins and two draws against FIFA members, all of whom have a considerably larger playing pool and FIFA funding beyond the dreams of anyone in Northern Mariana.

All FIFA members get a minimum of U$D 250,000 per year from the world body’s financial assistance programme. In 2010, FIFA was awash with so much cash that all members got one-off bonus of U$D 300,000. Except it wasn’t a one-off. In 2011, FIFA gave all 208 members another ‘one-off’ bonus of an extra U$D 250,000.

And then there is FIFA’s GOAL programme. Grants go towards projects such as pitches or training centres and are typically U$D 400,000 a go. Guam – a FIFA member since 1996 but also a non-independent country administered by the US – has secured three tranches of GOAL funding worth a total of U$D1.2 million over the past decade.

Helped by neighbours Guam, Northern Mariana joined the East Asian Football Federation, which is a subsidiary of the Asian Football Confederation. NIMFA is also an associate member of the AFC but further progress looks difficult.

In 2010, FIFA set up a Small Nations Working Group and visited some aspiring members, such as Tuvalu and Jersey. Northern Mariana were shunned. A subsequent report ranked potential members in three categories. Independent states were the priority. Places like Northern Mariana were ranked second. The group has since dissolved and its leader, Urs Kluser, left FIFA. His chief cohort, England’s Geoff Thompson, is no longer a FIFA vice president, leaving Northern Mariana only local avenues to explore.

In July, the Northern Mariana senior side will take part in the preliminaries for the 2013 EAFF championship. Their debut in 2008 produced three losses in three games but Guam only edged home 2-0. Tan is hoping for a win to boost his islands credibility at the AFC. As Northern Mariana’s schoolboys showed in Beijing, the size of the playing pool or even recognition by FIFA is no barrier to success.