Sports

Kosovo Prepare For International Football Debut Amid Continued Controversy

Kosovo will make their competitive international debut tonight – but half of the team still don’t know if they’ll be allowed to play.
September 5, 2016, 1:28pm
Armando Babani/EPA

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

While the spotlight has been shining on Sam Allardyce's first game as England manager, Monday night will provide an altogether more auspicious and historic football debut in the Finnish city of Turku. Almost 2,000 miles from home, the tiny, impoverished Balkan nation of Kosovo will make their competitive international bow, some eight-and-a-half years after their unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia and 18 years since the end of the war that decimated their country.

But the situation has been complicated by concerns that half their team will not be allowed to play. Several players have already represented other countries at international or youth level, and FIFA is yet to decide whether previous appearances will be scratched and allegiances transferred over to their 211th and newest member. At the time of going to press on Monday morning, nothing has yet been decided.

Despite these ongoing issues, the mood in Kosovo is buoyant. To suggest that the game is hyped in the capital, Pristina, would be an understatement. "I would say that becoming a member of FIFA and FIBA (the basketball equivalent) was as important as being a member of the United Nations," says Albert Hashani of @KosovanFooty. "We want to show the world our potential and our talent. We did it in the past [playing for] other nations, we want to do it again by representing our national team."

The issue of eligibility has been the major hurdle that the Kosovo side has had to overcome in their mere months as an official international team. To delve into the issue, one must first go back and understand the torrid recent history of the country and the region.

Kosovo – along with the more established nations of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Slovenia – was part of Yugoslavia, but differs from the rest of the former country in two crucial ways.

EPA Images/Armando Babani

Firstly, the predominant language is Albanian. In fact, it might be useful to understand the country almost as a northern province of Albania, as 92% of people speak Albanian, support the Albanian national teams (the biggest ultra group at Euro 2016 was Plisat Pristina, from the Kosovan capital) and there is no enforced border between the two countries. Secondly, the predominant religion is Islam, rather than Catholicism or the Orthodox Church.

Back in the days of General Tito's Yugoslavia, Kosovo was by far the poorest and least developed corner of the nation. So, in the early nineties, when the socialist state began to fall apart, the two major ethnic groups – Serbs and Albanians – began a feud that to all intents and purposes continues in 2016. It would take several days to cover the complete ins and outs of internal Yugoslav politics, but the upshot of one of the bloodiest and most vicious European civil wars was the de facto, if unrecognised, independence of Kosovo from the wider Serbian state, and one of the largest refugee crises seen since the Second World War. While they declared independence in early 2008, only around half of the UN, and crucially not near-neighbours Serbia or Security Council permanent members Russia or China, recognise the nation.

READ MORE: Kosovo Finally Gets UEFA Recognition After 25-Year Wait

The effect that this civil strife and mass emigration has had on the nation's football team has been profound. There are an estimated 800,000 Kosovans living abroad, mostly in Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Sweden, and in a sporting context they have excelled. The likes of Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Adnan Januzaj are all Kosovans, but turn out for the countries in which they were raised, rather than their birth nation. Of the 22 players that started the Albania vs. Switzerland clash at Euro 2016, 11 were Kosovo-qualified, and whether these players would be able to transfer to the new nation has been a huge issue. Shaqiri publicly wondered about moving as a power play when the Swiss manager considered stripping him of the vice-captaincy, and Januzaj has regularly been linked with swapping from Belgium to Kosovo.

The torrid and short history of Kosovo in FIFA is not just limited to the boys on the park – the park itself is a major issue, and one that has only been temporarily resolved. Due to international isolation and chronic lack of funds, the stadia of Kosovo fell into significant disrepair in the 20 years without UEFA or European investment. With the best players moving abroad interest in the local league was low, and the two principal stadiums – one in central Pristina, the other in Mitrovica, a city almost completely divided between Albanians and Serbs – are unsuitable for international-level football.

Though Monday represents their competitive debut, Kosovo have played a number of friendly matches // PA Images

With the Pristina stadium undergoing renovation, and Mitrovica incapable of hosting their first home match against Croatia next month for self-evident historical reasons, a compromise has been struck: the game will take place in Shkoder, a city located a few hours to the south in Albania. Should Kosovo qualify for the World Cup, their eligibility issues would go even further: 2018 hosts Russia do not recognise their independence, and recently refused visas to two Partizani Tirana players travelling to a Europa League tie on Kosovan passports.

What most Kosovans want, however, is simply the chance to play anywhere. When the game starts – assuming that their players are able to play – the team might actually have a chance. There are young prospects across the field with huge potential, from Manchester City youngsters Sinan Bytyqi and Bersant Celina, to Vitesse Arnhem winger Milot Rashica. There is a worry that the team are forward-heavy, and inexperience is obviously a major issue, but they will have a near-home advantage. The crowd in Turku is likely to be almost half Kosovan as the local diaspora population is huge, and there are little to no expectations on the team.

READ MORE: Fear and Loathing in the Regionalliga Nord/Ost

Arber Loxha, the Editor-in-Chief of Kujtesa Sport, Kosovo's largest TV sports show, told me: "It is our first competitive international appearance so people just want to have that feeling of seeing Kosovo play... we still cannot believe that we are playing and the result from this first game would not matter much."

The power of sport to transcend politics is still alive and well in Pristina – they recently celebrated a gold medal at their first Olympics as an independent nation, thanks to judoka Majlinda Kelmendi – and whatever happens, and whoever is eligible to play in Turku tonight, the road to international recognition for Europe's newest country just became a little smoother.

"The mood is great; the feeling is that we now can say that we are equal to anyone in Europe in terms of having the right to compete," says Loxha. "It is our first, historic game, and people are impatient for it to start. Personally I couldn't sleep last night, from the excitement I have. Since I was a kid, I dreamt of seeing Kosovo play [in the] World Cup or Euros qualifiers."

Tonight, that dream will come true for Kosovan football fans across their homeland and beyond.

@MikeMeehallWood