ST. JULIAN'S, Malta (AP) Kosovo can move closer to joining UEFA this week, with a place in 2018 World Cup qualifying possibly in play.

Membership of Europe's football governing body will allow the former Serbian enclave's national team and clubs to start playing in continental competitions.

That is the first step required before gaining FIFA membership, part of Kosovo's wider push for international recognition since declaring independence from Serbia in 2008.

UEFA's executive committee can rule the Balkan republic eligible to apply when it opens a two-day session on Thursday in Malta.

Full membership can only be granted by UEFA's annual congress, which meets in March in Budapest, Hungary.

''We are expecting in March to be full members of UEFA and (then) FIFA and to catch the qualification,'' Kosovo Football Federation Secretary General Eroll Salihu told The Associated Press in the Maltese coastal town of St. Julian's on Tuesday.

With fast-track support from FIFA, Kosovo could yet kick off World Cup qualifying next September.

FIFA's 209 members could allow Kosovo to join at meetings in Mexico City next May, allowing time to place Kosovo in one of the two European qualifying groups which have only five teams instead of six.

''Because there are two groups with five, we hope to be like all others in this qualification,'' Salihu said.

FIFA said it ''cannot make comments about potential scenarios.''

UEFA is now supporting Kosovo's case after resisting previous efforts by FIFA to let its teams play opponents from other countries.

''Based on our commitment and the will UEFA is showing to resolve Kosovo's problem, we believe that in Malta the UEFA executive committee will propose to the congress a solution for us,'' Fadil Vokrri, the Kosovo Football Federation president, said.

In May 2012, FIFA President Sepp Blatter announced that Kosovo clubs and national teams should be cleared to play friendly matches.

That was soon blocked by UEFA President Michel Platini, who sided with Serbian officials and cited a ''purely political'' decision. Russia, a traditional Serbian ally, and Spain, which opposes independence movements in its own regions, have also opposed Kosovo's football diplomacy.

A breakthrough came in January 2014 when FIFA ruled that Kosovo teams could play international matches, except against teams from other parts of the former Yugoslavia.

As a further security measure, FIFA said Kosovo ''may not display national symbols (flags, emblems, etc.) or play national anthems'' at these matches.

Kosovo's national team finally made its debut in March 2014, drawing 0-0 with Haiti in Mitrovica.

Kosovo came under U.N. and NATO administration after a 1999 NATO-led air war halted a crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists but its final status was left in question. Its predominantly ethnic Albanian leadership declared independence from Serbia in 2008. But Serbia rejects its secession.


AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar in Geneva and Associated Press writer Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, contributed to this report