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KOSOVO: HOW UEFA’S NEWEST NATIONAL TEAM CAME SO FAR SO QUICKLY

Kosovo only became an official UEFA and FIFA member in 2016 and in that short span of time, they have come a long way and could make the European Championships next summer.

Kosovo have made immense progress in football over the last few years. A successful Nations League campaign saw them comfortably win their group in League D, while they have made great strides in their European Championships qualification campaign. A place at next year’s finals is a real possibility, and it is a massive deal.

It’s the sort of thing Kosovans dreamed of, but even their wildest ones surely wouldn’t have imagined the possibility coming around so soon. This time 20 years ago, Kosovo was in limbo, attempting to get over the brutal war that had ravaged the country for 18 months, displacing almost 90% of its citizens. People were concerned with mere survival; football not on their mind, no matter how important we often claim it is. 

After the war, Kosovo was placed under temporary UN authorisation, as negotiations to determine what sort of region or country it would become slowly began. Something that didn’t take long to get going was football. Suspended for the 1997-98 and 1998-99 seasons, it resumed the following year, a testament to the power of the sport and the passion Kosovans have for it.

However, given that Kosovo was not a country in 1999, international football would have to wait. There had been a match in 1993 against Albania when Kosovo was (unsuccessfully) trying to make itself as the ‘Republic of Kosova’ in amongst the chaos and tragedy of the Bosnian War. Albania won the game 3-1, a tie that featured Kushtrim Munishi and Muharrem Sahiti, currently the manager of the U19 Women’s side and Assistant Manager to the senior side respectively. 

The teams met again in 2002, with Albania running out 1-0 winners in a packed Pristina City Stadium. Fixtures against international opposition began to occur more regularly in the mid-2000s. The team attended a tournament in Northern Cyprus, a de facto state that has existed since 1983, albeit with no international recognition. Despite losing 1-0 to the hosts, Kosovo won their first-ever game a day later, a 4-1 victory over Sapmi, a team representing an indigenous group from northern areas of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia.

In 2006, Kosovo thrashed Monaco (the principality, not the Ligue 1 team) 7-1, which remains their biggest ever victory, FIFA permitted or not. A 1-0 win against Saudi Arabia in Ankara year later was perhaps more impressive though, even if the scoreline suggests otherwise. Kosovo had gone head-to-head and won against a team that had qualified for the previous four World Cups. 

But everything was about to change dramatically for Kosovo, which would once again put international football on the backseat. After almost ten years of political limbo, Kosovo declared independence on 17 February 2008. It wasn’t without its controversy though; eleven Serb members of Kosovo’s 120-member Assembly boycotted the vote, and Serbia attempted (unsuccessfully) to have the declaration struck down as illegal. 

Costa Rica were the first country to recognise the legitimacy of the government in Pristina, and within six months a further 45 countries had. However, to this day, many countries still don’t recognise Kosovo as a legitimate, independent country, including Spain, Russia, and China.

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Less than three months after declaring independence, Kosovo applied to join FIFA in May 2008. Despite hope they would join as a full member; FIFA’s Congress rejected the decision in October 2008 as it supposedly did not comply with Article 10 of its statutes. 

This rules that ‘only an independent country recognised by the international community’ can be allowed to join. When FIFA made its decision on 24 October 2008, only 51 countries had recognised Kosovo, a number that justifiably didn’t constitute the ‘international community.’ The ruling could have disheartened the country’s attempt to put itself on the footballing map, but this was nothing compared to what Kosovans had overcome before. National leagues continued, as did a strong desire to get Kosovo into UEFA and FIFA. 

In 2012, the issue was back on the FIFA agenda, and it seemed the governing body were all set to reverse their 2008 decision and allow the country to play international friendlies. A letter submitted to Sepp Platter by prominent Swiss footballers Granit Xhaka, Xherdan Shaqiri and Valon Behrami (who are all of Kosovo-Albanian descent) urging Kosovo to be allowed to do so only added to the excitement and optimism. Once again though, Kosovo would be denied. A protest by the Serbian FA seemed to derail FIFA’s plans and with it Kosovo’s ability to play international matches. 

The wait went on until finally, in January 2014, FIFA ruled that Kosovo could play friendly matches against international opposition. There would be no national anthems, no flags or emblems though, and matches against former Yugoslav countries were certainly a long way off. Serbia’s Euro 2016 qualifying match against Albania later that year highlighted that FIFA had perhaps made the right decision when the Kosovo issue received some grim publicity, a drone depicting ‘Greater Albania’ causing a full-scale-riot in the Partizan Stadium in Belgrade.

Nonetheless, this was a huge step for football in the country. Plans were rapidly drawn up for an array of games to take place over the coming months. On 5 March 2014, Kosovo hosted Haiti at the Adem Jashari Stadium, named after a senior figure from the war with Serbia. The game finished goalless, but it was as much a celebration as it was a footballing classic. 

Three more games took place in 2014; a 6-1 hammering by Turkey, a 3-1 defeat to Senegal in Switzerland, and an emotional 1-0 win against Oman in Pristina. More friendlies took place in 2015, and Kosovo were proving to the world they could perform, drawing 2-2 with Albania and comfortably dispatching Equatorial Guinea 2-0.

Then, after almost two decades of trying and failing, Kosovo’s time had come. On 3 May 2016, Kosovo were accepted as UEFA members. It was close. 28 votes for and 24 votes against, and as always, a huge amount of criticism. Hashim Thaçi, then the President of Kosovo was ecstatic: “No one will ever keep us from green fields!”, he passionately exclaimed. 

As expected, the opposing Serbian reaction was one of anger. The President of the Serb FA, Tomislav Karadžić was livid: “This is a political, not a footballing proposal. Football must not cross the particular line of changing the borders of any country and accepting the self-proclaimed Kosovo Republic would be crossing such a line.” 

The anger, denial, and protests would change nothing though. Ten days later, at FIFA’s 66th Congress in Mexico, Kosovo became a full member of FIFA. The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of them joining, with 86% of members supporting their accession. It was the culmination of such a long process that had ended in heartbreak too many times. But it wasn’t just FIFA either. Kosovo was now finally being accepted across the sporting world.

In 2014, they became members of the International Olympic Committee, having initially applied 22 years earlier. In 2015, Kosovo joined the International Basketball Federation, the International Handball Federation, the Union Cyclist Internationale amongst many others. Acceptance in one sporting organisation had taken over two decades, then a dozen welcomes came at once.

With the 2016 European Championships in France starting just five weeks after Kosovo joined, the national team would have several months to prepare themselves for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. 

As the draw had already been made, Kosovo were assigned to Group I which included Croatia, Finland, Iceland, Turkey, and Ukraine. This was partly to make the number of teams in each group equal, but also to keep Kosovo away from Balkan rivals: Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. They might have joined UEFA and FIFA, but the controversial political baggage still followed them.

September came around and the country prepared itself for a monumental moment in its sporting history. In the south of Finland, some 2,000km from Pristina, the Kosovo national team took to the field. Finland took the lead after 18 minutes. Kosovo’s passion, determination, and sheer joy at just being on the pitch would see them rewarded through Valon Beshira’s penalty midway through the second-half. The Swedish born midfielder, who played youth internationals for Norway, had earnt Kosovo a point in their first competitive game.

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The October international fixtures a month later would blow away the euphoria of the point earnt in Finland though. Played in Albania, as the national stadium in Kosovo didn’t meet UEFA requirements, they were hammered 6-0 by Croatia. Three days later, Ukraine beat them 3-0 in Krakow, Poland. The game had to be played here as the Ukrainian government hadn’t recognised Kosovo’s independence. 

To this day, they still haven’t. The opening result against Finland proved to be as good as it would get. Kosovo lost their remaining seven games, mustering up just three goals. They finished rock bottom of Group I, eight points off fifth-placed Finland. Only Liechtenstein, San Marino, and Andorra scored fewer goals in the qualifiers.

Kosovo ended 2017 with a thrilling victory over Latvia on home soil, coming from behind three times to win 4-3 in the fourth minute of injury time. It would be the start of an excellent run, as they overcame Madagascar, Burkina Faso, and Albania without conceding a goal. 

The draw for UEFA’s inaugural Nations League had been made in January, and Kosovo were heading towards its commencement in impressive form. Drawn in Group 3 of League D alongside Azerbaijan, the Faroe Islands, and Malta, there was a strong belief Kosovo could put the disappointing World Cup qualifiers behind them and prove their doubters wrong.

Kosovo began their campaign away to Azerbaijan, who were ranked 36 places higher in 105th at the time. There was nothing to separate the two sides in Baku, and the game ended 0-0. Three days later, Kosovo ran out 2-0 winners against the Faroe Islands, a team who were then ranked 51 places above them. The return leg in Torshavn a month later finished 1-1, but Kosovo’s 3-1 victory over Malta days before meant UEFA’s newest national team were top of the table going into the final month of fixtures. 

With both Kosovo and Azerbaijan securing promotion to League C by the end of Matchday 5, their fixture could easily have been a dead rubber encounter. Kosovo certainly didn’t treat it as such though, comfortably beating them 4-0, with Arbër Zeneli becoming the first player to score a hat-trick for the national side. 

Kosovo finished the campaign five points clear at the top of Group 3, earning them promotion to League C and guaranteeing themselves a play-off tie in March 2020 to potentially qualify for the summer’s European Championships.

Given they’ve only been a member state for three years, their league ranking is understandably low. In 52nd position, only the leagues of the Faroe Islands, Andorra, and San Marino are below them in the table. 

It’s this country coefficient that determines how many teams each member state gets in the Champions League and Europa League. Of the 13 ties Kosovan teams have contested in European club competitions, they’ve won just four, with no team getting beyond the second qualifying round in either competition. In the 2020-21 season, one side will enter the Champions League and two enter the Europa League, all in the preliminary round that starts in June. 

Teams in Kosovo are beginning to face the same difficulties as other small nations across the continent, with the better, younger players moving abroad to Europe’s big clubs at a very young age. Take Martin Ødegaard, who left Norwegian Eliteserien side Stromsgodset at just 16 to move to Real Madrid. Or upcoming Kosovan midfielder Milot Rashica, who left local side Vushtrria for Vitesse Arnhem in the Netherlands at 18. 

Training facilities at Kosovan clubs are lacklustre, and only four stadiums in the top division have a capacity of over 10,000. The number of foreign players is very low, and there are currently no managers from non-former Yugoslav countries. But these are all aspects of the footballing culture that can and no doubt will change over time. One can’t help but be excited to see what comes of their league and its teams down the line. 

Some argue that it’s a case of what might have been for the national team, that independence and FIFA membership came a few years too late so Kosovo missed their ‘golden generation.’ This argument misses a few crucial points, mainly that lots of this potential ‘golden generation’ weren’t born or didn’t grow up in Kosovo, so wouldn’t necessarily have had to play international football for them.

Take Valon Behrami for example, who enjoyed a solid career across Serie A and the Premier League. Born in Kosovo, he left the country aged just five for Switzerland and went on to play for them 83 times across four World Cup tournaments. Adnan Januzaj, once Manchester United’s future star, was born in Brussels to Kosovan parents but remained loyal to his country of birth and their national team. 

There are others too. Xherdan Shaqiri was born in Gjilan, east Kosovo but moved to Switzerland at a young age, whom he plays for now, whilst Granit and Taulant Xhaka play for Switzerland and Albania, although were born to Kosovan-Albanian parents.

Nonetheless, they have a host of incredible talent. Midfielder Valon Berisha amassed over 165 appearances for Red Bull Salzburg before moving to Lazio last summer, whilst forward Vedat Muriqi has scored seven goals in eleven games for Fenerbahce so far this season. English football is starting to see the footballing talent of this small Balkan nation too. 

Bersant Celina was scouted by Manchester City aged 16, and although he only made one senior appearance for the Blues, his eventual transfer to Swansea would come back to bite them, when he scored against his former club in an FA Cup victory for the Swans. Another Kosovan player scouted by the Premier League champions is goalkeeper Arijanet Muric, who is currently on-loan at Nottingham Forest. Having turned 21 just last week, he has a very exciting future ahead of him. 

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Other notable stars play in the Championship, such as Florent Hadergjonaj, the Huddersfield right-back, and Atdhe Nuhiu, the forward who has played over 200 times for Sheffield Wednesday.

With every game that goes by, Kosovo put this ‘what might have been’ mentality behind them. In the qualifiers in October 2019, their squad had the second youngest average age at 24.7. Only England’s players were younger. The most recent rankings at the end of October had Kosovo in 114th, up from 190th just three years ago. However, one must always take the FIFA rankings with a pinch of salt, as they imply Kosovo are around the same level as Mozambique, the Faroe Islands, and Azerbaijan. Very recent results show that’s not the case, and Kosovo should arguably be in the top 100.

Kosovo put on a strong challenge to qualify directly for the European Championships, but in the end, they fell short against the Czech Republic in England. They do, however, have a chance to make it through to the play-offs, but no matter what, their fans can be proud of how far the team has progressed in recent years and they can be assured that Kosovo will take part in a major tournament soon.

Kosovan football is in a fantastic place. This time twelve years ago, its people were still living in a UN-administered region that wasn’t recognised as a country. Four years ago, its football team were still barred from official matches, playing friendlies often outside their homeland. The people of this country have suffered incredibly in the last three decades but have risen and rebuilt time and time again. Considering what they have come back from in this past, reigniting the footballing hopes of the nation should be no problem at all.

BY GEORGE COOK