LUCERNE, Switzerland — Xherdan Shaqiri walked onto the field with a white cross against his heart and three flags embossed on his shoes.
A promising 20-year-old midfielder for the German powerhouse Bayern Munich, Shaqiri lined up in the middle of the field alongside his Swiss teammates for a World Cup qualifying match against Albania. The national anthems were played, but Shaqiri did not sing the Swiss anthem.
The flags on his shoes — representing Switzerland; Albania; and Kosovo, the disputed, ethnically Albanian region of his birth — made a louder statement.
“We have been waiting for this for six months,” he said before the match on Sept. 11. “The game against Albania is a game for the emotions.”
In the globalized soccer arena, split allegiances of second- and third-generation immigrants are nothing new. But Switzerland against Albania had become something more.
Of the 22 players lined up for the game, nine were born in or had roots in Shaqiri’s birthplace, Kosovo, a region of the former Yugoslavia that fought a brutal war of independence in the late 1990s against what is now Serbia. They identify as ethnic Albanians.
Decades of repression and the atrocities of that war, which prompted NATO military intervention in 1999, scattered hundreds of thousands of Kosovars throughout Europe. Some 300,000 — more than a sixth of the entire population of Kosovo — settled in Switzerland.
Alongside Shaqiri stood two other Swiss-Kosovar players, also silent during the Swiss anthem: Granit Xhaka, 19, recently signed by the German team Borussia Mönchengladbach, and Valon Behrami, 27, of the Italian club Napoli.
Albania’s 29-year-old captain, Lorik Cana, who plays in Italy for Lazio, was also born in Kosovo.
The crowd was two-thirds Albanian and Kosovar. The black, double-headed eagle of the Albanian flag outnumbered the Swiss white cross three to one.
This peculiar situation arose because Kosovo does not have a recognized national soccer team. In fact, it is not officially recognized as a country.
The Kosovo War, fought between 1998 and 1999, failed to achieve for the region full independence from the Serbian-dominated Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Although Kosovo declared independence in 2008, and despite being recognized by the United States and 22 of the 27 countries within the European Union, it is still not a member of the United Nations. Russia, an ally of Serbia’s, is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and holds veto power.
Kosovo’s soccer team has been caught in the middle. UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, requires U.N. membership before admitting a country, even though 37 of its 53 members recognize Kosovo politically.
But Kosovo’s soccer isolation may not be permanent. In May, Sepp Blatter, the Swiss president of FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, announced that Kosovo would be allowed to play noncompetitive matches against its members, an important step toward full membership.
The move stirred controversy in Serbia, which still considers Kosovo its territory. Russia and other European countries like Spain do not support the move, either; each has lingering territorial disputes.
Fadil Vokrri, the president of the Kosovo Football Federation, said he believed that the dream of Kosovo’s becoming Europe’s next national soccer team was closer than ever.
“It is very special to me to see different national teams play with players born in Kosovo,” he said a few days before the Switzerland-Albania match. “It’s like watching Kosovo A team versus Kosovo B. But the real Kosovo team cannot be represented.”
Vokrri and his general secretary, Eroll Salihu, sat at a table plotting a cloak-and-dagger operation over coffee and beer. In front of them was a petition they had drafted for the Kosovo-born players who represent Switzerland and Albania to sign, pledging support for the official recognition of a Kosovo national team.
“We have to be sensitive with the Switzerland Football Association,” Salihu said as he organized a meeting with the Swiss players on the phone. “We do not want to be exposed.”
The delegation planned to drive to the Swiss team’s hotel to meet the players and procure their signatures. Their caution was understandable. The issue had become a hot topic in the Swiss news media. One newspaper, SonntagsBlick, published a front-page article with the headline “The Fear of Kosovo” under a photo of Xherdan Shaqiri. The fear is that Switzerland’s best players will leave and represent Kosovo if it is granted UEFA membership.
Recognition as an independent soccer nation is of personal importance to Vokrri, a midfielder whose career was shaped, and stymied, by his Kosovar heritage. He was the only Kosovar ever to represent the Yugoslavian national team, and to this day he is considered the greatest Kosovar to play the game.
Despite being one of the most talented players to emerge from Yugoslavia, he earned only a handful of international appearances in the mid-1980s.
“I was very proud to be the first and last Kosovar to play for the Yugoslavian national team,” he said, laughing. He said that if he were not ethnically Albanian, he would have played more.
Vokrri eventually moved to the Serbian club Partizan Belgrade before leaving for France, where he still lives. Now it is Kosovo’s soccer recognition that consumes him.
“Blatter knows that this is an injustice against Kosovo,” Vokrri said. He added, “I cannot understand why Platini is doing this,” referring to the opposition of UEFA’s president, Michel Platini.
About an hour later, Vokrri and Salihu waited nervously in the bar of the Swiss team’s hotel until the three players arrived. Shaqiri, Xhaka and Behrami sat down and signed the petition.
“My mother and father are from Kosovo, and my name says to all that I am not from Switzerland but from Kosovo,” said Shaqiri, who was born in Kosovo but fled to Switzerland with his parents as Yugoslavia slid into civil war in the early 1990s.
He found a new life there: school, friends and stability. His soccer talent was discovered and nurtured, something he has not forgotten.
“For me, I was always going to play for Switzerland,” he said.
But that was before the idea of a Kosovar team existed.
“Now we don’t have a team from Kosovo; they are not in FIFA,” he said when asked whether he would play for Kosovo. “For this time I play for Switzerland. But maybe when Kosovo play in FIFA, it is another time, and we see how many players go to Kosovo. For me, now it is no problem.”
Xhaka was less circumspect. He was born in Switzerland after his parents fled Yugoslavia. He had scored Switzerland’s first goal in its 2014 World Cup qualification campaign a few days earlier, a 2-0 victory against Slovenia.
“Yes, of course,” he said when asked whether he would consider playing for Kosovo. “I don’t know when Kosovo will have a national team — two, three or five years’ time. We have three players here who could play. For now we play for Switzerland, but later we will see what will happen.”
The status of Albania’s Kosovar players was far less controversial. The team’s captain, Cana, met with Vokrri and Salihu at the Albanian team’s hotel in Lucerne to sign the pledge.
“I left Kosovo in 1990 and lived in Switzerland for 10 years, so this is a special match,” Cana said. “I think the country deserves to be recognized as a state and to be recognized in football as well. Sports is the best ambassador for any nation.”
Blatter said his decision to push for Kosovo to be allowed to play exhibition matches was motivated by a sense of justice.
“I took the initiative to say, ‘Let them play,’ at least international football on the levels of clubs and the levels of youth team,” he said in an interview at FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich. “I said we have to do something. It is not fair.”
Blatter’s announcement in May was met by a furious reaction from Serbia’s national soccer federation and Platini.
Platini has said he fears that Kosovo will set a precedent for other nonrecognized nations to seek membership. The requirement that any member must be part of the U.N. — as opposed to FIFA’s lower and more flexible benchmark of being “recognized internationally” — was introduced only after Gibraltar tried to join UEFA in the 1990s.
Gibraltar, a British territory on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, is claimed by Spain. Gibraltar appeared to pass UEFA’s old entry requirements, but Spain threatened to pull its national and club teams, like Barcelona and Real Madrid, from all competitions, a move that would have been financially painful for UEFA.
Although Blatter has said that FIFA will not recognize Kosovo as a full member until a political settlement is made, and will not allow players to switch their national allegiance, Vokrri and Salihu maintain that their case should allow for a one-time, one-year amnesty for Kosovars to switch sides if they choose.
Serbia’s national soccer federation, in a statement to The New York Times regarding Kosovo’s effort to gain recognition as an independent soccer nation, said: “All of us in the F.A. of Serbia strictly adhere to the provisions of the FIFA and UEFA statutes. We do call upon observing all the rules, since otherwise chaos may be provoked, because a large number of internationally nonrecognized countries, in Europe and worldwide as well, would request an admission to UEFA and FIFA.”
At Lucerne’s Swissporarena, the referee’s whistle to start the game could barely be heard over the roar of the mostly pro-Albanian crowd. Shaqiri scored Switzerland’s first goal, placing the ball past Albania’s Kosovo-born goalkeeper, Samir Ujkani.
Shaqiri did not celebrate.
The final score was 2-0, giving Switzerland a perfect start to its World Cup qualification: two victories in two games. The Swiss-Kosovar players commiserated with their Albanian opponents, swapping jerseys at midfield.
Shaqiri walked off the field, now wearing an Albanian jersey, the black double-headed eagle against his heart, the three flags on his boots.