On Wednesday evening, Kosovo played its first ever international football match. And while the 0-0 game against Haiti was mostly very uneventful, the historical build up to those 90 minutes was anything but.
I'm not sure how to confirm this, given it happened almost 100 years ago and is only alluded to online, but Kosovo's first football was supposedly brought into the country in 1919 by a student from Grenoble. Three years later, the first couple of Kosovar clubs – Gjakova and FC Pristina – were founded, paving the way for dozens more. However, matches between all these new teams were rare, thanks to the unstable political situation in the region.
One world war later, in 1946 the Football Federation of Kosovo (FFoK) was established as a subsidiary of the Football Federation of Yugoslavia. Everything puttered along pretty nicely for the next 40 years or so, with FC Pristina mostly managing to hold their place in the top Yugoslav league. Around three or four other Kosovar teams also made it up there each season, competing against teams from what are now Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and the autonomous Serbian region of Vojvodina.
Then, during the 1980s, ethnic divides in Yugoslavia began to widen, throwing the region into a state of turbulence that it's still recovering from today. It started becoming too dangerous to play football in Kosovo, and in August of 1991, Pristina FC – at the time, the top Kosovar team – abandoned the Yugoslav professional league as a security measure for its players and staff.
Slobodan Milosevic had been elected to power in Serbia a few years earlier, and through playing the populist card took de facto control of Montenegro, Vojvodina and Kosovo. His reaction to Pristina FC pulling out of the league was to just force every other team to do the same, and in the space of a day professional football in Kosovo ceased to exist.
The same year, Kosovar football fans – confused and outraged at Milosevic's decision – decided to restart the FFoK and keep it independent from Yugoslavia. Of course, there was a lot of other stuff happening in the region around this time; Kosovo wanted autonomy from Yugoslavia, and in the mid-90s militant groups from each side began launching attacks against each other.
In January of 1998, Serbian police responded to attacks by the KLA – the "Kosovo Liberation Army", an armed ethnic-Albanian resistance group – by pursuing and ultimately killing 16 Albanian fighters, a battle that also claimed the lives of four Serbian policemen. That incident is widely credited as the first act of the Kosovo war, which ended in March of 1999 after an extended Nato bombing campaign on Yugoslavia eventually led to the Serbian assembly granting Kosovo political autonomy.
Unsurprisingly, football took a bit of a backseat during the war, but as soon as it was over the FFoK was reorganised, associations were appointed and clubs were reinstated.
Nine years after the end of the war, Kosovo declared its independence, but its status as the self-declared Republic of Kosovo has only been recognised by 108 of the 193 United Nations member states. Because they don't have a seat at the UN, Kosovo weren't allowed to join FIFA or UEFA. However, on the 13th of January, FIFA granted Kosovo permission to play friendly international games against other FIFA members (excluding all former-Yugoslavian countries), as long as the national anthem isn't sung and no state symbols (apart from those on the players' badges) are displayed.
That brings us up to Wednesday's match in Mitrovica against Haiti, where – according to organisers – all 17,000 tickets sold out within seven hours. Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of the tickets that ultimately landed in the hands of fans were sold on to them by black market hawkers, who pushed prices up ten times over the original €3, €7 and €10 entrance fees.
But now the country is allowed to compete on the international stage, security over ticket sales will presumably improve with time. And it hasn't soured anything for the fans. In fact, everyone I spoke to was already compiling their dream team of European stars whose roots can be traced back to this small, landlocked pocket of eastern Europe.
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