In their first World Cup qualifying campaign, Europe’s newest nation face unique difficulties.
For a brief few moments, everything – apart from the dozens of flares that littered the pitch, that is – had disappeared from view. Gone were the two white minarets that usually overlook the Gjilan City Stadium in eastern Kosovo. Gone too were the lines of riot police patrolling the front of the main stand along with the 10,000 strong crowd, all enveloped in a monstrous blue cloud of smoke. On the other side of the pitch, a similar scene was being played out, but the consuming cloud was red. The only evidence of a football match being played was the thunderous noise of drums and chants rising ethereally from the fog.
It was the fifth time the referee had called a halt to the biggest match in the Kosovo Superliga, the city derby between the red of KF Gjilani and the blue of KF Drita. For the past 20 years the match had attracted tens of thousands of partisan fans, even as Kosovo remained in political and sporting limbo following its war of independence from what is now Serbia between 1997 and 1998. The war killed thousands and left Kosovo as a self-declared republic, although officially unrecognised by the UN.
But today’s Gjilan derby has added importance. In May, Kosovo was recognised by UEFA. After years of isolation, cut off from the rest of the football world, this season’s league champions will qualify for European competition.
In addition, Kosovar teams can now benefit from a transfer system, rather than seeing their players taken on the cheap. Funds are also available to help rebuild the region’s infrastructure and stadia, much of it – like Gjilani and Drita’s shared home – crumbling through neglect.
A few weeks after UEFA acceptance, FIFA also recognised Kosovo, allowing the national team to join the 2018 World Cup qualification campaign.
Placed in Group I alongside Croatia, Ukraine and Iceland, Kosovo played its first match, against Finland, in September and came away with a creditable 1-1 draw.
Long-time Kosovo national coach Albert Bunjaki is in Gjilan too, watching the derby, somewhere among the smoke. In a few days time, his side will play a first competitive “home” match, against Croatia, even though the game has to be staged in Albania as Kosovo still has no FIFA-approved stadiums.
Bunjaki has come to check on the local talent, but not much football is taking place thanks to the flares and smoke bombs. Someone is also piloting a drone carrying a blue Drita flag.
“We are supporting the ‘Dardanet’, they are the supporters group of the Kosovo national team, and we are going, we will support against Croatia,” shouts Andi Ismaili, a 21-year-old member of the Drita ultras group “The Intellectuals”, through the smoke and the heavy metal fence during the enforced break in play.
“We are Kosovo, we are a free republic. We promise this is just the beginning. The world will know who the hell is Kosovo. We will win all games!”
But not the derby itself, as Gjilani won 1-0, with a 97th-minute goal sparking wild celebrations. Drita’s players sat in front of their fans at the end in a masochistic ritual of punishment and catharsis. The fans hurled abuse down from the stands as the team meekly nodded in agreement.
“It was crazy,” Bunjaki said later of the chaotic scenes at the match. “But you should have seen it last year. It was a competition to see who could throw the most bombs. If one group threw 10 bombs, the other group wanted to throw 20. It is blue against red.”
This, however, was the relative calm before the storm for Kosovo’s coach.
For the past seven years, Bunjaki has been patiently waiting for the day when he could take charge of his team for a competitive game. Politics had always got in the way and matches were not allowed against official FIFA members.
Teams would pull out when they were told that their governments did not recognise Kosovo, and there was fierce opposition from Serbia, which views Kosovo as a historic and inviolable part of its territory. It was only in 2014, in a move pushed by Sepp Blatter, Kosovo was allowed to play friendlies against other FIFA members, albeit with no flags or national anthems.
It was Bunjaki who led the team out for their first official match, against Haiti, in front of a packed Adem Jashari Stadium in the northern city of Mitrovica. It rained hard, was freezing cold and ended 0-0, but the packed crowd sang throughout.
Eventually, opposition to Kosovo’s membership of UEFA and FIFA – something that seemed impossible when Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008 – melted away as a majority of UN member states recognised the self-declared republic. Even though UEFA’s statutes forbid membership to those without formal UN recognition, Kosovo narrowly won the UEFA vote.
The next struggle was to build a team as the war had spread hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees across Europe. Bunjaki, who in 1989 was a promising player for Pristina, fled after being called up to the Yugoslav army and watched the war in isolation from Sweden. He didn’t see his family for a decade.
Some of Europe’s best players had Kosovar roots, not least most of the Swiss and Albanian national teams, including Gjilan’s most famous son, Xherdan Shaqiri of Stoke City, and Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka. In the end, FIFA made it all but impossible for those big-name players to switch nationalities. Instead, Bunjaki chose younger players who had only played a few games at international level, such as talented 20-year-old Vitesse winger Milot Rashica or, more controversially, midfielder Valon Berisha, who had played 19 games for Norway.
Before the Finland game, 13 members of the squad were still waiting for FIFA clearance to switch from one national team to Kosovo. Just a few hours before the match, five players – including Berisha, Rashica and the goalkeeper Samir Ujkani – still didn’t know if they could play. They were approved with only hours to spare.
“At that moment I was crying. I can’t explain. You need to feel it. And I did. I felt it with my heart and brain and all my body,” Bunjaki recalls of the moment his team were lined up for the national anthems in the Finnish city of Turku.
“If you ask me about my life, I would choose my daughter’s birth as the most important moment. And this was the second most special moment in my life.”
Finland took the lead in that game, but after half-time Kosovo dominated with their young team of effervescent wingers – Rashica being the standout – who appeared to have no interest in defending. Few knew how they would play, including Bunjaki who’d only had a few days with his full squad. Eventually they got their chance with a second-half penalty and Berisha stepped up to take it.
“When the other players got the permission [to play], I was pissed because
I was the last one. I didn’t think I’d get it,” said Berisha of those few hours before the game. “But then I got it and I was happy and played with a lot of emotion.”
There was, he said, only one person who was going to take the penalty.
“In that moment when I got the ball I was so sure I was going to score,” he said.
“I looked around me first I didn’t know who was going to take it. But I decided I would put the ball down. I was confident.
“Even though the goalkeeper guessed the right way, I put so much emotion and pace on the penalty. I just wanted to score for my country.”
Berisha’s switch wasn’t universally applauded in Norway, where he had grown up. But his brother Veton decided to stay with the Norway team, a decision he believes made the switch easier for both of them. “We showed the appreciation to Norway, we both didn’t leave and we wanted to show we were raised there and they gave us a good life,” he said.
The Finland result had raised expectations in Kosovo and among the diaspora, but Berisha was cautious. The 2020 European Championship was the team’s aim, he said. The team was young, and they were still working out how they were going to play, still working out their identity on the pitch. “In every game we go into, we are the underdog,” he said. “So we can only win.”
Bunjaki was only waiting on two players who wanted to switch nationality ahead of the two back-to-back games against Croatia and Ukraine: Arber Zeneli, from Sweden’s under-21 team, and goalkeeper Adis Nurkovic, who once represented Bosnia and qualified via marriage to his Kosovar wife. But this time the coach decided that the team needed a few days in Kosovo, with open training. Hundreds of fans came to see the team.
Almost every member of the team had left Kosovo before the age of five and had little memory of Kosovo, so language was an issue too, with Bunjaki giving the talks in Albanian but giving extra instruction in English and Swedish.
“I wanted two days to be here to get all the energy from here,” he said. “I wanted them to think about the road the country has been through, the war and isolation. Everyone has their own history.”
Bunjaki had also envisaged something different. He had played in Pristina, but the stadium was being renovated.
“It is a little bit strange as I have dreamed many times of this game, our first home game,” he said. “You are thinking with pictures how this game would look. In my dreams it would be in Pristina.
“It is not the same as playing in the city that I played in as a child. Or the city I was born in. But it is a great feeling.”
The team coach left for the four-hour drive, to Shkoder in northern Albania, through a scrum of journalists and local dignitaries eager to be close to history.
On the day of the match, eight coaches met outside FC Pristina’s stadium in the centre of the capital. Workmen could be seen on the vast concrete structure, grinding, banging and drilling as sparks flew over the protective fencing. Several hundred members of the Dardanet, the ultras of the Kosovo national team, had met to take the journey to the stadium.
There was, however, one problem. This was the first proper meeting of the group. Like the nearby stadium, everything had to be built anew. New songs had to be written and learned.
“I’d say the first couple of games are huge just because we are still getting an identity. Who are the fans? We are still getting to know our players,” said Hasan Leku, a 24-year-old fan waiting to get on one of the buses. He’d travelled all the way from Victoria in Canada, where he resettled after being displaced by the war in 1998.
“It is pretty much as far as it is possible to travel,” he laughed as the drivers busied themselves fixing Kosovo flags to the front of their coaches next to us.
For many fans and even many players, the issue of Kosovo’s identity was still a controversial one. The country’s blue, yellow and white flag is a recent construct, as is the national anthem. Both remain surprisingly unpopular in Kosovo itself. Kosovo is ethnically Albanian and the language is Albanian. You will see the Albanian black-and-red eagle flown everywhere in Pristina, but seldom the Kosovo flag. Some fans have even said they will not support the team until it becomes a united Albanian team.
Albania’s captain at Euro 2016, Lorik Cana, was born in Kosovo. Even though he supported the creation of a Kosovo team, he told me in 2012 that he would not switch because Albania should be the team for all ethnic Albanians.
“Before Kosovo was a country, Albania was the only team we could support on the national stage,” explains Leku.
“People feel almost guilty abandoning that team. People feel like they have to make a decision. For me it is not that complicated. I’ll always identify as Albanian but I’ll support both.”
He was more worried about Croatia. “They have one of the best counter- attacking teams in the world,” he said.
The convoy of supporters’ coaches inched through the Pristina traffic, with the horn permanently pressed down, as the fans were taught the lyrics to new songs.
A leader of one of Kosovo’s main ultras groups taught them how to sing each one. By the third attempt, everyone had each song down perfectly.
Along the way more coaches joined the procession until more than 20 arrived at the Albanian border, a border that was closed for more than 50 years under the rule of Albania’s isolationist communist dictator Enver Hoxha. The hundreds left their seats and ran across the boarder like an invading army, letting off fireworks as well as yellow and blue smoke grenades. The Albanian border guards waved them through with a smile, taking pictures on their phones as they passed.
The Loro Borici Stadium in Shkoder was packed an hour before kick-off, even though torrential rain had been falling most of the evening. The Dardanet unfurled a tifo they had been planning.
It read: “Raised by Wolves, Stronger Than Fear”. The Croatian fans started chanting “Death to the Serbs.” Before long the whole stadium was repeating it.
Within five minutes Croatia were 1-0 up and by half-time Mario Mandzukic had a hat-trick. Kosovo kept attacking, creating chance after chance, and even having three one-on-ones, but they missed all of them. Rashica, in particular, terrified Croatia’s defence, but Kosovo’s attacking verve left the defence exposed and Croatia clinically picked them off on the break.
It finished 6-0, the sixth goal with the very last kick of the game, in a freezing cold deluge. Kosovo had been taught the harsh realities of international football.
Two days later, in the dugout at the Marshal Jozef Pilsudski Stadium in the Polish city of Krakow, Bunjaki is still angry at his team’s capitulation. “Of course it was tough but we had chances to score,” he says, downbeat. “They had seven chances, they score six. We have seven and we didn’t score, that is a big difference.
“Everyone knows it is too early to win against Croatia, but I am happy with one thing. We made a lot of chances against Croatia, but we need to work with the defensive balance.”
It is 24 hours before the next qualification match against Ukraine and the flight from Tirana to Krakow was quiet. The players spoke of their embarrassment, but also about how thankful they were to have a game just three days later, to put it right. But there was a chance that the Ukraine game wasn’t going to happen at all. Ukraine does not recognise Kosovo and refused to host the game in Kiev.
Neighbouring Poland was suggested as an alternative, but the Polish police were close to cancelling the game. They feared that violent Polish hooligans would turn up to fight with the few hundred Ukrainian fans who’d made the long journey.
At the last minute the game was given the go-ahead. “I don’t think this is fair because we got the answer a week ago,” said Bunjaki. “Why can’t we play in Ukraine? This is football not politics.”
The Croatia game had shown Kosovo’s strengths, its passion and effervescence in attack, but also its weaknesses in defence. “I was very angry, especially with the last goal,” said, Bunjaki. “I feel very sad. Now we have a chance to at least show another way. We will fight.”
There were just a few hundred fans inside the stadium. A large blue-and-gold Ukrainian flag had been pulled over one set of seats. The national anthems and periodic chants echoed around the empty stands before the referee’s whistle started the game.
Both teams had bigger reasons to want to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Kosovo, as a new football nation, if not a recognised country, would send an important message to Russia, the 2018 hosts, who have politically blocked
Kosovo’s recognition at the UN Security Council. Meanwhile, the Ukraine team – now coached by Andriy Shevchenko – would also send a message to Russia, with war raging in the east of the country, if they qualified.
No Polish hooligans arrived to cause trouble, and Kosovo began the game much more solidly, creating less chances but defending more resolutely. It took a heavily deflected own goal from Amir Rrahmani to give Ukraine the lead. Kosovo pressed and hit the bar in the second half, but two late goals killed them off. Again they couldn’t take their chances and Bunjaki’s side lost 3-0.
After the adulation of Finland, the games against Croatia and Ukraine had held Kosovo, and their coach, up to a harsh light.
“I want to go home, to see my family,” he said after the game. “I feel we played good against Ukraine. But…” He was stopped half way through by a passing Shevchenko, who wished him the best. “He said, ‘You have a very good team’, ” said Bunjaki, smiling. “We played a good team. It has been emotional. I feel it. We are tired.”
When asked what he had learned from the last two games, Bunjaki replied: “Teams don’t need much to score.”
The Kosovo team coach was waiting outside the stadium with the engine running. November will see the team travel to Antalya to play Turkey, then there is a five-month break during which Kosovo and Bunjaki can take stock.
“We started quite good!” said an upbeat Valon Berisha, standing next to the coach as the players filed quietly on.
“In almost every situation we need time. We need to be patient. We will get better.”
The pressure on the team had been huge, but Berisha had seen enough to know that better days were ahead.
“It has been hard when you lose 6-0 against Croatia,” he admitted. “But that’s what I mean. We had chances. We aren’t playing too bad. We will develop and get to know each other. We are young and creative. We just want to go forward and score goals. But we get punished.”
He boarded the coach back to the airport, and back to reality.
By James Montague
This article featured in the December 2016 edition of World Soccer