Like much of the violent reorganisation of the Balkan States that took place following the crumbling of communism, the Kosovo War was bloody and controversial and by the end of two years of conflict it is estimated that 13,500 people were killed or missing. Yugoslav and Serb forces also caused the displacement of close to 1.5 million Kosovo Albanians.
Though the war officially ended in 1999 the fall-out was predictably messy and protracted and it wasn’t until 2008 – just eleven years ago – that Kosovo was recognised as an independent country free of Serbia.
From there, in an altogether less important footballing context, another fight began.
After two decades of playing exhibition matches against non-FIFA members – the most notable of which was a 7-1 trouncing of Monaco in 2006 – the fledgling nation was finally sanctioned to play international friendlies in 2014 and in March of that year they took on Haiti in the mining town of Microvica. No flags were permitted. No national anthem was allowed to be played.
Twelve months later a tight vote of 28 to 24 saw Kosovo accepted as a member of UEFA and from there the Kosovan federation immediately applied to join FIFA, a request that was agreed to in May 2016. “The players and people of Kosovo have been waiting a long time – thank you,” the Kosovo FA president stated as the world governing body acquiesced.
Had the decision been made much earlier it is likely that Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri would be turning out for Kosovo, born and raised as he was in the Gjilan district. At the 2018 World Cup Shaqiri sported a right boot that had the Kosovo flag stitched into it while his Swiss team-mates Granit Xhaka and Valon Behrami are both also of Kosovar descent, the latter deriving from Microvica, the town where Kosovo’s soccer heritage was reborn.
These players are what-might-have-beens. A collective what-if had history been kinder and resolved itself quicker.
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Yet that is not to say that the Kosovo national side is short of quality. Indeed, though there are several fascinating strands to the opening chapters of their story, perhaps what interests the most is that, via unusual circumstance, their ranking is entirely disparate to who they are and what they are capable of. FIFA presently rank them 120th in the world – behind such luminaries as Bahrain and Sierra Leone – and that is understandable given how few competitive fixtures they have played. But they’re good. They’re really, really good.
Known as the ‘Brazil of the Balkans’ theirs is a team sprinkled with familiar names and furthermore together they cohesively play with the immense pride of a country that has recently emerged whole from former suppression.
In goal stands Torino’s Samir Ujkani, the team’s captain. In defence Huddersfield Town’s Florent Hadergjonaj and Verona’s Amir Rrahmani offer stout resistance. Further up there is creativity to spare from Swansea’s Bersant Celina – whose excellent form is a major reason for the Jacks’ present promotion charge in the Championship – and then there’s the Dardanian’s star man Arber Zenelli, a midfielder of rare ingenuity.
Could “the new David Beckham” start for England against Kosovo tonight? Find out in the video below…
Kosovo’s successful Nations League campaign last year saw them boss Division D and consequently they are now guaranteed at least a playoff spot for next summer’s Euros. Most startlingly of all they presently boast the longest unbeaten run of any country in Europe. “I will tell England that Kosovo is not going to be easy,” Christian Eriksen said following Denmark’s 2-2 draw with them back in March.
This brings us to Tuesday’s Euro qualifier and though it will not be the Dardanian’s most meaningful game to date it is unquestionably their biggest in scale. This is Wembley, the home of football, a home inhabited by 90,000 fans.
At first glance it is tempting to believe that Kosovo are minnows at they take on Kane and company, at best ‘dark horses’. In truth they are anything but; in terms of ability, in terms of their achievement to exist.