Kosovo has a unique football culture.
Could you think of another territory or country whose people ferociously support a national team that isn’t their own? And not just good wishes for a neighbour or a Celticesque willing for England to lose.
I spent a week in Kosovo in 2015. It happened that two fixtures for the Albanian national team coincided with this. For both evenings, a giant screen in Mother Theresa Square in the capital of Pristina/Prishtina meant a large crowd and an atmosphere to rival any English public square last summer. Flags, horns, flares, chants … That both games were drab affairs (one goaless draw in Denmark, the other a 1-0 loss to Ronaldo’s Portugal) was not important.
For although Kosovo was granted country status in 2008 (currently just over 50% of UN Members recognise it as so), their existence as a footballing nation only came into unofficial existence in 2014.
Two years later, a Kosovan football federation gained official UEFA status, shortly followed by FIFA recognition, meaning Kosovo could enter the World Cup and Euro qualifiers as their own federation.
Though thanks to shared a history, language, and culture, and ongoing political struggle, Kosovo and Albania will always be the closest of allies.
A perfect example of this was on display last summer, when Xherdan Shaqiri (with Stephan Lichtsteiner and Granit Xhaka) celebrated a Swiss World Cup goal against Serbia with the double-headed eagle celebration – the national symbol of Albania. But Shaqiri is not Albanian.
He was born in Gjilan, in eastern Kosovo. On the Wembley pitch in 2013 after winning the Champions League with Bayern Munich, he draped himself in two flags – the Swiss and the Kosovan. On his boots last summer, stitched flages with the blue and yellow of his Balkan heritage could also be seen in conjuction with the red and white of Switzerland.
But what does this all mean now for UEFA’s youngest member? It means that a federation that didn’t exist a few years ago has become a shining example for minnow European nations.
Kosovo are currently 119th in the FIFA rankings, but this will only go one way. Their population might only be 1.8 million, but a young and football obsessed people will keep providing talented and quality players, especially with the promised continued financial support from UEFA, which will see more 3G pitches and even a new 30,000-seater stadium in the pipeline.
Football in Kosovo has a long history. Indeed, to say that their federation formed in 2014 is perhaps a disservice to the men who founded the first Kosovan football federation in 1945, and were a joint founder to the Yugoslavian federation two years later.
It is said that a French student from Grenoble brought the first football to the region in the early 20th Century. Austro-Hungarian soldiers played football to pass the time in 1914, and clubs began to form in the 1920s.
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Fast forward to today, and Kosovo have a realistic chance of making the Euros next summer, and if they do they will almost certainly be the smallest nation represented. Tough games away against Czech Republic and home against England in November present a difficult challenge.
However, Kosovo have guaranted their place in a play-off via their table-topping performance in their League of Nations group. The fact that Kosovo’s first ever competitive win came in their victory over the Faroe Islands in the first game of that same group shows how far they have come in such a short period.
Bringing the number of competing nations to 24 no doubt dilutes the quality of the competition but it also gave the smaller nations their moment on the big stage. Albania didn’t progress from their group at Euro 2016 yet still returned home to a red carpet, open top bus parade welcome on their return to Tirana.
Wales beat a star-studded Belgium on the way to the semi-final. Iceland, the poster child for minnow nations, took around 10% of the entire 330,000 population to France and become everyone’s second team.
Kosovo can dream of doing the same. They do not have the financial resources of Iceland to invest in coaches and indoor pitches, but the players and their people have a determination to write a new, positive chapter in their history.
“The love for football is crazy. We beat Bulgaria in Sofia and hundreds of fans stayed at the airport until three o’clock in the morning to greet us”, says Huddersfield’s Florent Hadergjonaj.
The right-back’s story is a common one for his people. Observing the degrading situation in their home country, his parents fled to Switzerland where Hadergjonaj played his youth international football. When the opportunity to represent Kosovo came, he chose the country of his family.
“When our players sit around and chat, it’s not just about football. Everyone has their story. Those who weren’t in Kosovo during the war listen to those who were.”
Still to this day, the word Kosovo produces images of guns, bombs, UN interventions. Those dressing room talks include stories of escaping to the mountains under gun fire. Whole families fleeing, walking for days without food or drink. Streets in Kosovo bear the names of George Bush and Tony Blair.
A statue of Bill Clinton adorns the eponymously named boulevard. Their troubled recent history will never be forgotten but iconic sporting moments can define a nation’s narrative as much as any conflict or political debate.
He played all his international youth football in the Norwegian system, but the stylish Swansea City player Bersant Celina now also represents Kosovo.
His parents fled their home shortly before the bombs arrived in 1998. Perhaps in the future, the likes of Shaqiri, Adnan Januzaj, Shefqi Kuqi, and Xhaka will choose to represent Kosovo on the biggest stage. And if that happens, the surprisingly good performance versus England and the shock 2-1 win over the Czech Republic won’t be shocks any more.
Football is important to every European country, but perhaps none more than Kosovo. It brings together a global community that counts a diaspora of one million Kosovo-Albanians among its people. Celina confirms as such.
“Finally being accepted as an independent nation was the most important thing that has ever happened to our country. But I would say that being accepted by FIFA was the second”.
Bill Shankly famously said football is a matter more serious than life and death. Kosovans understands this sentiment perhaps more than any other.