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The story of Kosovo's footballing emergence: How war-torn nation's sporting dream became exciting reality

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 08/09/2019 Sam Dean
Soccer Football - Euro 2020 Qualifier - Group A - Kosovo v Czech Republic - Fadil Vokrri Stadium, Pristina, Kosovo - September 7, 2019  Kosovo's Vedat Muriqi celebrates scoring their first goal with Edon Zhegrova   REUTERS/Florion Goga © Reuters Soccer Football - Euro 2020 Qualifier - Group A - Kosovo v Czech Republic - Fadil Vokrri Stadium, Pristina, Kosovo - September 7, 2019 Kosovo's Vedat Muriqi celebrates scoring their first goal with Edon Zhegrova REUTERS/Florion Goga

In the words of their manager, the Kosovo players who will face England in Southampton on Tuesday night are nothing like “other” footballers. “I have spoken to them about the history of Kosovo, which has suffered a lot,” said Bernard Challandes earlier this year. “I told them they are not like other players, considering the sufferings of their parents and of past generations in Kosovo.”

Challandes was speaking after his side, who until then were largely unfancied in the race for Euro 2020, had come from behind to score a last-minute winner in Bulgaria in June. It was a remarkable win and a reminder that Kosovo will not be the pushovers that more casual observers might expect.

They provided another warning this weekend. As England were strolling towards a comfortable victory at Wembley on Saturday, Kosovo were celebrating a 2-1 victory over Czech Republic which cemented their place as the primary challengers to Gareth Southgate’s side in their qualifying group.

Predicted England squad for Euro 2020 (Read Sport)

Kosovo are now undefeated in 15 matches, a run stretching back to October 2017, despite only receiving Uefa and Fifa recognition three years ago. Their rise is hard to believe, given the footballing resources at their disposal, and their story is one of great significance within sport and in the wider world of international politics.

Fifa’s decision to grant membership to Kosovo in 2016 prompted wild celebrations within the country’s football federation. Only eight years had passed since Kosovo had declared independence from Serbia, and the champagne flowed in Pristina as the country’s officials - and indeed its people - allowed themselves to enjoy the moment a sporting dream became an exciting reality.

“In terms of Kosovo itself, this is about state recognition,” says Dr David Webber, a senior lecturer in football studies at Solent University. “The broader story here is one of recognition and the recognition of a state that has been under extreme pressure from other states.

Soccer Football - Euro 2020 Qualifier - Group A - Kosovo v Czech Republic - Fadil Vokrri Stadium, Pristina, Kosovo - September 7, 2019  Kosovo fans   REUTERS/Florion Goga © Reuters Soccer Football - Euro 2020 Qualifier - Group A - Kosovo v Czech Republic - Fadil Vokrri Stadium, Pristina, Kosovo - September 7, 2019 Kosovo fans REUTERS/Florion Goga

“All of this gets played out in normal politics, in terms of diplomacy and statecraft, but Fifa is an important actor. Fifa affords countries something that the big institutions of global governance do not often provide to states, and that is recognition. Recognition of their sovereignty, recognition of their independence.”

Fifa and Uefa’s acceptance of Kosovo, in short, has reaffirmed the country’s sense of identity on an international scale at a time when Serbia and its allies continue to show political hostility. A match against England, even if it is taking place at St Mary’s rather than Wembley, will only serve to strengthen those feelings of self-worth, and justification, for Kosovo. In terms of the calibre of their opposition, this is without doubt the highest-profile match of their short existence as a footballing nation.

“On Tuesday night there will be a great sense of pride,” says Webber. “Being there, being recognised, playing football in England - that’s something many of the Kosovan people will want.”

The ‘Brazil of the Balkans’ tag, given to Kosovo by their supporters as a result of their youthful, attacking football, is an indication of the excitement that surrounds this team at home. The average age of the team that defeated the Czech Republic on Saturday was just 23, and they are already guaranteed a play-off place for Euro 2020 thanks to their success in last year’s Nations League.

The more familiar names to English fans are Bersant Celina, the Swansea City attacker, Huddersfield Town defender Florent Hadergjonaj and goalkeeper Arijanet Muric, who is on loan at Nottingham Forest from Manchester City. Many of their players grew up abroad, the children of the estimated 1.45 million Kosovo Albanians who were displaced during the horrific conflicts of the 1990s. In 2016, on the day of their first competitive match, Kosovo had six members of their squad cleared to play despite those players already representing other international teams.

There are other high-profile players who would have been eligible for Kosovo, such as Adnan Januzaj, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri. Most have simply been born too early, committing themselves to a nation before the prospect of playing for Kosovo had become genuine, and the hope is that, going forward, more and more of the top footballers from the region will wear Kosovo blue.

Newly appointed coach of Kosovo's national soccer team Bernard Challandes speaks during a press conference on March 2, 2018 in Pristina.  / AFP PHOTO / Armend NIMANI        (Photo credit should read ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images) © Getty Images Newly appointed coach of Kosovo's national soccer team Bernard Challandes speaks during a press conference on March 2, 2018 in Pristina. / AFP PHOTO / Armend NIMANI (Photo credit should read ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

Kosovo’s rise has been fuelled by emotion. There is a fierce sense of pride at their achievements so far, and also a feeling that the players are honouring the memory of Fadil Vokrri, the former player who became the president of the Kosovo football federation. Vokrri, who was instrumental in their successful fight to be recognised as a footballing entity, died suddenly last year, at the age of 57. When England play Kosovo away later this year, they will do so in the Fadil Vokrri Stadium.

They will also do so against an ongoing backdrop of political strife. This weekend, police in Kosovo arrested eight Czech Republic supporters who were carrying a drone, a Serbian flag and a banner stating that “Kosovo is Serbia”. Police also seized fireworks, and a knife. It should not be forgotten than only five years have passed since a qualifying match between Serbia and Albania was abandoned in Belgrade after a drone was flown carrying a nationalist flag that said Kosovo was part of “Greater Albania”.

A hotbed of both footballing talent and political tension, Kosovo is still finding its place in the world after just 11 years of independence. The national team has played - and will play - a crucial role in its journey.

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