The Bajram Aliu Stadium in Skenderaj is a bleak place to watch football. Two banks of cold grey concrete stare back at each other across an unkempt pitch. One has a rudimentary steel roof, but the other offers no protection from whatever conditions happen to visit this northern corner of Kosovo on any given Saturday. On March 19, it's nothing so much as a late-winter breeze, but there's something about this Spartan setting that lends it an unseasonable bite. It nips close to the bone.
The stadium's grimness is a relative joy compared to the drive to Skenderaj from the capital, Pristina. The road is lined with gravestones and rubble—reminders of Kosovo's bloody civil war nearly two decades ago. The man that many consider the father of modern Kosovo, Adem Jashari, was killed in combat just over a mile from the Bajram Aliu Stadium.
The media gantry at the stadium is an improvised platform that looks uncannily like old orange crates. It houses three TV cameras, all mounted on rickety tripods and manned by chain-smoking technicians in denim and leather. The small crowd is easily divisible into two groups: those who sat freezing on the rock-hard terrace and those who had the foresight to bring makeshift cardboard seats and spare their behinds from the ice-cold stone. Nobody looks thrilled to be here.
Typically, crowds in Kosovo's Super League get steadily larger as the game progresses, since by the second half nobody is bothering to check for tickets on the permanently open gates. So when Granit Arifaj puts KF Drenica in front against FC Prishtina with a flying volley 20 minutes from time, it's greeted with a healthy roar from the home fans. Struggling Drenica beat their relegation rivals 1-0, a huge win that takes them one step closer to top-flight safety.
But then every game in the Super League this season is significant. On Tuesday, UEFA finally rubber-stamped Kosovo's full membership in the European football family, marking the end of a journey that began in earnest almost 25 years ago, when a handful of rebels split from the game in federal Yugoslavia and started their own football league in the mud and marshes of this embattled Balkan republic.
In September 1991, days after the start of the Yugoslav Second League season and with the country paralyzed by a desperate civil war, Prishtina legend Eroll Salihu made a call that would change Kosovan football forever. "After playing one match, we were asked if we wanted to keep playing," he said. "We had already missed two matches by then because it had become difficult to play in Serbia and in Bosnia. We were the only non-Slavs in the federation and everyone thought that war was about to break out in Kosovo. It didn't happen, but we felt by then that it had become impossible to play football in Yugoslavia. So when we were asked if we wanted to keep playing, I said no. I was the first to say no."
Salihu started the first independent football league of Kosovo, effectively siloing the nation's footballing world. The Kosovan league, its players and its clubs, were rebels against the authority of their Serb masters, and were treated as such. Clubs in the new league were forced out of their stadiums, which, for the most part, were owned by Serb-led municipal authorities. They had to play matches on scrap land to avoid crossing the Serb state police and an informal militia whose sole mandate was to suppress all expressions of Kosovan independence.
"Often we would have our games stopped in the middle by Serb police," said Daut Geci, Drenica's club president and one of the brave ones to play in those dangerous days. "But sometimes it would be worse than that. There would be physical intimidation on the pitch, and once that had happened we couldn't return to the same place to play. During one game in Mitrovica [a city in northern Kosovo] we were chased from the pitch by Serb militia. Those who were young and fit enough were able to escape, but the more elderly members of the crowd were forced to carry the heavy goalpost around the pitch on their backs. It was ritual humiliation."
As Yugoslavia tore apart along its ethnic seams, the Albanian majority in Kosovo were battered into submission. "They were the most difficult circumstances you can imagine," Salihu said as he leafed through a volume compiled by the Football Federation of Kosovo (FFK) of the league's first 20 years. The book is a statistician's dream, a comprehensive account of records and results, brought brilliantly to life by pictures from Kosovan football's darkest days. "We had no freedoms.
"Obviously it is better now," Geci said, "and once we are in UEFA things will get better again. There will be more investment in clubs from third parties, which means our facilities will improve." His club, for one, looks forward to a planned multi-purpose training complex.
It is up to Salihu—who spearheads the Football Federation of Kosovo's (FFK) drive towards UEFA membership today, serving as its general secretary—to get that membership, and the economic windfall it brings. "UEFA statutes say that countries must be recognized by the United Nations," he says seated behind his desk in the crowded complex that the FFK shares with the governing bodies of a handful of other sports here in Pristina. "Not members but recognized. What does recognized mean? It is undefined."
According to the UN, recognition means a readiness by other states to assume diplomatic relations, which an increasing number of countries have. But Salihu is clearly irritated by the process: the FFK has petitioned UEFA for membership since 2008, when Kosovo declared independence from Serbia.
In order for Kosovo to be fully recognized by the international community, it must first navigate a bureaucratic maze. In order to be in FIFA, it must first be in UEFA; in order to be in UEFA, it must first be in the UN; and in order to be in the UN, it must assume diplomatic relations with a two-thirds majority of member nations. Kosovo is currently recognized by 108 of the UN's 193 members (far from the necessary two-thirds, but moving in the right direction), as well as by the UN's International Court of Justice and the International Olympic Committee. It's not immediately clear how UEFA recognized Kosovo given its UN requirement, but the governing body has been rumored to be mulling a change to its statutes so that it no longer requires UN recognition.
Salihu says that the case in favor of the FFK have become too compelling for UEFA to ignore. "We are recognized now in sports and in politics, so there cannot be much argument anymore," he said.
With UEFA membership comes sponsorships. Currently, some Kosovo clubs have wealthy backers bankrolling their existence, while others scrape by with the help of local business. Without matches against international competition, however, they are hesitant to fork over too much. Fisnik Isufi, the vice-president of FK Drita, a club in the eastern city of Gjilan, said, "It just isn't very attractive for people who run businesses because they see other ways to generate money in better ways than football."
Kosovo has been vying for UEFA and FIFA membership for so long that their dreams may be getting ahead of reality. The hope at the FFK is that once FIFA membership is ratified the national team will be added to the qualifying draw for the 2018 World Cup. If so, they may be able to call on the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri, Adnan Januzaj, and Granit Xhaka, who already have built international careers elsewhere.
There's some precedent for such a switch right in Kosovo's own backyard. When the rest of Yugoslavia broke up in 1991, athletes who had played for the federal side became eligible for their newly independent republics despite the fact that Yugoslavia still existed (the rump state comprising Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo still competed under the name Yugoslavia).
Though Kosovo has come almost unimaginably far since independence was declared, there is no escaping the legacy left by the war, which left 900,000 Kosovar Albanians dead or displaced at the end of the last century. Whether it's the Martyrs' Cemeteries that punctuate cityscapes or the leafy Bill Clinton Boulevard that cuts through the capital—homage to the international intervention that cut the conflict short—there are near constant reminders that Kosovo is Europe's freshest battleground.
But there is hope here, not least of it in football. Pristina today is a vibrant place, with money flooding in under a raft of agreements with the EU to improve the city's infrastructure and living standards. One can hardly turn a corner without being confronted by the blue and yellow starred flag of European solidarity. Kosovo has adopted the euro as their currency, one of a tiny handful of European countries to do so despite being outside of the Union, such is the willingness here to turn away from its recent past and forge stronger links with the West. That something approaching a consensus is being reached concerning its international status is a key step along that road. Kosovo may have lost 25 years in the footballing wilderness, but their path out seems clearer than ever before.