BY JACK ROBINSON

Today, the Albanian national team visit Kosovo for what will surely be the most amiable of all the international friendlies being played over the next few days. Posters advertising the game in Pristina carry the slogan ‘Festojme se Bashku’ – We Celebrate Together. The game is being promoted as an opportunity for ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, who make up over 90% of the unilaterally declared republic’s population, to celebrate what is becoming a halcyon age for Albanian football. However, with the Kosovar Football Federation expecting recognition from FIFA and UEFA in March and the complex fluidity of nationality in the 21st century, especially in regard to footballers, how long will these two nations continue to celebrate together?

As the final whistle blew in Yerevan last month, confirming a 3-0 victory for Albania and a place at Euro 2016, delirious scenes broke out across the Albanian speaking world, celebrations that lasted for days. The players returned from Armenia as national heroes. Disembarking the plane in Tirana, they were greeted by thousands of fans, a red carpet and a smitten prime minister, who promised a golden plaque bearing the names of the entire squad at a new national football stadium. The president presented the team with the highest civilian award, the Honour of National Order, before the players starred in a swiftly organised victory concert in the heart of the Albanian capital. Now the triumphant parade rolls into Kosovo, where the reception will be equally rapturous.

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Image courtesy of James Montague http://jamesmontague.com/

The FFK’s promotional material for the game attempts to unify the festivities and present the match as an occasion of celebration of all Albanian football; the emergence of the home team’s national side alongside the unprecedented success of their neighbours. However, most of the Pristina public seem far more excited about the visitors.

In preparation for the game, local fan group, Plisat, have commandeered 5,000 Albanian flags and have been draping the Kosovan capital in red and black since Wednesday afternoon. If this wasn’t a strong enough symbol, a post on their Facebook page this week makes it clear exactly where their loyalties will lie during the game.

They describe the game as an opportunity to share in the joy of qualification (“one of the greatest achievements of our people”) with the players who made it possible. The message goes on to describe Plisat as intrinsically part of the Albanian national team, a group who live for the red and black of Albania. The home side go completely unmentioned.

Interest in Kosovo’s national side is seemingly on the wane. Having received FIFA’s permission to participate in friendlies with other FIFA member associations in January 2014, early matches involving the newly established Kosovan team were greeted with a flurry of excitement. All three matches on Kosovan soil in 2014 were played in front of sold out stadiums and a trip to Switzerland to take on Senegal also attracted a five figure crowd of diaspora Kosovo Albanians.

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This initial enthusiasm appears to have worn off. 2015 has been an entirely different story. Kosovo have struggled to find international opponents, the first two friendlies of the year were played in Germany against Eintracht Frankfurt and Werder Bremen in front of 1,500 and 3,500 fans respectively. The most recent friendly in Pristina, a 2-0 win over Equatorial Guinea, was played in front of a paltry crowd of around 2,000.

The limitations of the Kosovo national team are obvious. They are currently restricted to only playing friendlies meaning many of the country’s best players currently elect to play for other national sides. This coupled with the startling recent success of Albania has left them with no real fanbase. Ethnic Albanians in the country are currently enamoured with Albania, ethnic Kosovar Serbs meanwhile mostly believe the side shouldn’t exist.

It’s also hard to see the team as a true product of Kosovo’s emergence as a nation. Of the 17-man squad named for this week’s friendly, seven were born outside of Kosovo, with another eight raised abroad. Twelve of them have played for other national sides at both senior and youth level.

This is hardly a phenomenon unique to Kosovo. Many nations rely on their diaspora to increase the quality of their football team. Three quarters of Algeria’s scintillating 2014 World Cup squad was born in France and let’s not revisit the controversial levels of “Irishness” of the Republic’s selection for World Cup ‘94.

The diaspora themselves have their own headaches. Given the choice, do they represent the new country which has nurtured their talents or their ancestral homeland? For ethnic Albanians left outside of the borders of Albania by politics and history, this question has yet further complexity. Do they opt for their ‘spiritual’ homeland of Albania, their geographical country of birth or the new nation that adopted them?

For Kosovar Albanians this choice has been made a lot simpler by a lack of FIFA recognition. Previously, the options were a bureaucratic path to Albanian citizenship to join a side that had never qualified for an international tournament, or Serbia, the cause of most of their departures. For some there was even the option of a more developed western European side.

Previously, cynicism declared that it was a mark of quality that determined whether a player chose the former or the latter. Leading lights like Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Valon Behrami represented their new countries and went to World Cups whilst lesser stars toiled away at the lower reaches of qualification groups with Albania.

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Recently though, this has begun to change. Xhaka warned his younger brother Taulant ‘not to make the same mistake he did’ and that he should elect to represent Albania. The Basel star and three time Swiss Super League winner heeded his sibling’s advice and made his Albania debut in 2013. Since then a number of players with Kosovan roots have rejected Switzerland’s advances to don the red and black, including Migjen Basha and the Swiss Super League’s top scorer for last two seasons, Shkelzen Gashi. Albania’s successful qualification campaign and last year’s feisty encounter with Serbia have resulted in a huge surge of players with Kosovan roots declaring themselves for Albania.

This is why it’s hard to see Kosovo’s current side as little more than a ‘B’ or even a ‘C’ team – the third tier, players unable to represent either the country of their passport or Albania. Even now, after FIFA’s limited recognition of the side, refusing the opportunity to play in World Cups and European Championships to play friendlies with Oman and Haiti would take astronomical levels of homeland dedication.

Defenders Frederik Veseli and Berat Djimsiti have both recently declined offers from Kosovo in order to play for Albania, whilst Adnan Januzaj has also declared for Belgium. Amir Rrahmani has previously turned out in the blue and yellow of Kosovo against Senegal but has since been selected by Gianni Di Biasi to represent Albania. He may even play in tomorrow’s friendly against Kosovo. A number of members of the current Kosovo squad have also declared a desire to ‘step up’ and play for Albania and been involved at the fringes of the squad.

However, Kosovo soon expect full FIFA and UEFA recognition. A meeting with Michel Platini earlier this year left members of the Kosovar Football Federation with little doubt that they would be joining the world of global football at the next congress in Budapest in March 2016. Naturally, the recent fiasco in the political football universe may have tampered with these certainties somewhat but the mood in the FFK remains fairly confident. There are even some hopes that Kosovo could join a World Cup Qualification Group for Russia 2018.

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Kosovo’s recognition will alarm a number of national football associations, depending on any further decision by FIFA on players ‘transferring’ their nationality. Alongside Switzerland, the nation set to lose out the most though is inevitably Albania. They have already lost goalkeeper Samir Ujkani, who turned his back on Albania to play for Kosovo after fellow Kosovar Etrit Berisha took his place in the first team. Berisha is one of many Albania first team regulars eligible for Kosovo, including the aforementioned Swiss contingent and captain, Lorik Cana.

Whilst currently most players would rather play in this history making Albanian side, circumstances have a tendency to change and any number of events may influence future generations’ decision on which national team to represent. Full FIFA recognition is undoubtedly one.

History, politics and economics have divided the Albanian people across a myriad of states. Which of these states reaps the benefits of the footballing talent of these people is constantly shifting and will continue to do so as football, politics and history inevitably trudge on into the future. For now though, Kosovo and Albania ‘Festojnë se Bashku’.

FOLLOW JACK ON TWITTER @sunflowershells

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