Flags Barred From World Cup 2018 By Tariq Panja

MOSCOW — After years of trying and failing, Kosovo’s soccer association finally got what it wanted two years ago when FIFA granted it full membership, welcoming it into a club of more than 200 national federations.

FIFA membership meant Kosovo, which is still battling for recognition at the United Nations 10 years after declaring independence from Serbia, could compete for a place at this summer’s World Cup in Russia. But while its team would have been welcome inside stadiums here, Kosovo’s flag apparently is not.

Flags Barred From World Cup 2018
Flag of the Republic of Somaliland Source: Republic of Somaliland

The flag — which depicts a gold map of Kosovo under six white stars on a blue background — is one of more than two dozen barred from World Cup stadiums by tournament organizers. It is listed on a seven-page document, alongside flags representing Somaliland, Taiwan, and pre-revolutionary Iran and also a variety of separatist movements. The flags of terrorist groups like the Islamic State are cited as well.

The document, viewed by The New York Times, has been retained for reference at security checkpoints at every World Cup venue.

A FIFA spokesman said in an email that “FIFA allows the flags of its 211 member associations in the stadiums,” and it referred questions on the issue to the Russian organizing committee. The committee did not respond to a request for comment.

Ever since fighting a war of independence against Serbia in the late 1990s, Kosovo has existed in a political and cultural limbo. Despite being recognized by a majority of United Nations and European Union member states since declaring its independence in 2008, Kosovo has yet to win official recognition. Russia, an ally of Serbia, has threatened to veto any such move at the United Nations Security Council.

Russia also had opposed Kosovo’s efforts to be recognized by FIFA and, earlier, by European soccer’s governing body, UEFA. In a close vote in Budapest in 2016, before which Serbia’s soccer chief had made an impassioned speech imploring members to reject membership for Kosovo, the organization eventually accepted the Balkan nation as UEFA’s 55th member. That decision paved the way for full FIFA membership two weeks later.

While Kosovo’s team is not in Russia, the country still made news at the World Cup after the Switzerland midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri wore an image of the Kosovo flag on his boots during his team’s matches. Shaqiri was born in what is now Kosovo to Kosovar-Albanian parents but emigrated to Switzerland as a boy.

Flags Barred From World Cup 2018
Credit Johannes Eisele/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The document citing the forbidden flags is separated by a continent and ranges widely. So it includes Taiwan, which like Kosovo is a FIFA member but plays international soccer as Chinese Taipei and under the same flag it uses at the Olympics, as well as the Estelada, an unofficial emblem of the Catalan independence movement.

A FIFA spokesman said it did not ban the Taiwan flag from the World Cup, but it said it was correct to bar the Catalan Estelada because it is considered a political symbol.

Catalonia moved to declare independence from Spain in 2017 after holding a banned referendum. China considers Taiwan as a breakaway province that will one day be reunified with the mainland.

Other forbidden flags include those linked to the Islamic terrorist groups Al Qaeda and the Shabaab, and two others associated with breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, where fighting between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian army has claimed more than 10,000 lives since 2014.

Fans entering any World Cup stadium this summer have had to pass through a rigorous security check, which includes an X-ray machine and a pat-down from security officers stationed behind metal detectors. Staff members at those stations are issued a separate booklet, numbering almost 60 pages that lists an array of prohibited items. The booklet includes pictures of drug paraphernalia and various weapons, but also more benign items, including packed sandwiches.