Kosovo. Yugoslavia. Milošević. Exotic, intriguing, but ultimately historic clash of titans, a very recent conflict that eventually led to the creation of the small country of Kosovo in 2008. Kosovo is located in the East of Europe, in between Albania, Serbia, Montenegro and North Macedonia, and its history is crazy. As we watched them pick up a few medals at the Tokyo Olympics this summer, it is now time to look at how this small nation that was officially affiliated to UEFA in 2016 became a serious contender to qualify for Euro 2020. Diving into a tragic recent history, all the way to the union of a passionate crowd behind a growing nation in European football, this is the controversial story of Kosovan football and its recent development.
Political turmoil, Serbia and genocide
Part of Serbia from 1912, then part of Yugoslavia for most of the 20th Century, this nation went through a lot before becoming independent. It started with a story of religion, with the Albanian Muslim community of current Kosovo wanting independence from Serbia. A logical path for them when 95% of the country was represented by the Islamic religion, the final 5% being Albania Catholics, which would eventually side with the current rulers of Serbia. A key figure to know in this conflict is the president of the Serbian communist party, a political movement that was still powerful at the end of the Yugoslavian era, in the name of Slobodan Milošević. When the news of independence rose to the ears of the Serbian president, Ivan Stambolić, he sent Milošević to speak to Serbs living in the Kosovan area in April 1987. However, instead of trying to ease tensions, settle peace between the territories and move forward together, the envoy rallied what he considered was the oppressed population to join him in regaining full power over Kosovo and create a bigger Serbian nation. He would later create the anti-bureaucratic revolution, at what point he would ally with neighbours Montenegro, Vojvodina and the Serbs of Kosovo and push all his friends and himself to power. He eventually became president of Serbia in 1991, at a time when Yugoslavia was crumbling to pieces and its resulting independent nations were scrambling to gain a maximum of power and territories in the area.
While Milošević was gaining power, the wind of independence was blowing throughout Kosovo and the people were rallying together to reach their goal of separating from Serbia. To gain their freedom, they created the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), later classified as a terrorist organisation by the USA, but still supported by the Americans who saw them as a chance to crush communism in Eastern Europe. They wanted to gain independence through force. In light of this, Serbia responded by sending in police troops into Kosovo in January 1999, a move that resulted in the murder of 45 Albanian Kosovans in the small village of Racak.
The pit of bodies brought not only the attention of the local politics, but it also brought the attention of international organisations such as NATO and the media from around the globe. The coverage helped the world realise the early stages of this crime against humanity which would further develop in days to follow. The Serbians progressively started sending in more and more troops, executing 15,0000 Kosovans within 78 days, a war which was ended by NATO’s military intervention. This came a few years after the Bosnian genocide (1992-1995), a war which saw over 8,700 Bosnians executed. The Serbian surge led to hundreds of thousands of families fleeing Kosovo to neighbouring countries. While some had fled in the early 1990s, such as Liverpool’s winger Xherdan Shaqiri’s or Arsenal’s Xhaka’s parents, who fled to Switzerland in 1992, many other families left after the increased Serbian military presence in Kosovo. Between March and April 1999, 262,000 people left the country, for Albania, Switzerland, Montenegro and more neighbouring countries. A total of 400,000 people left within that year.
Although peace conferences were held for many years (1999-2007) after the war had ended, the positions would not budge. Serbia still wanted to keep Kosovo within its country, considering it was always part of it and its inhabitants belongs to the great nation of Serbia, while Kosovans were clearly not only seeking refuge after the trauma of the war, but also continuing their movement towards independence. It took the intervention of ex Finish president and UN special envoy, Martti Ahtisaari, to settle the debate around this war. His proposition was the following: if Kosovo were to get independence, they would be allowed to rally with Albania at a later date, reinforcing the power of Serbia’s political rivals.
After months of discussions, a deal was struck and the conflict ended, at least officially. While Kosovo might be free from Serbia, the political tensions in the regions still exist, more so between Albania and Serbia. The final issue for Kosovo is getting international recognition as a fully independent state; half of the world have agreed to recognise it, which includes Albania, France, Turkey or the United Kingdom. The other half however still create issues, with Serbia, Russia, China and Spain notably failing to see this new nation as fully independent. As we will see later, this creates not only geopolitical issues but also issues in sport. Kosovo is independent as far as we are concerned, but understanding their political history is essential to understand their footballing history as well.
Football, a political and conflicted story for the Kosovars
Being independent as of 2008, the Kosovan Federation was officially created in its new form that year, a year which also saw them apply for the first time to be part of FIFA/UEFA nations, enabling them to compete in international and continental competitions. And like many other moments of Kosovan history, this was no easy task. Guided by the late president of the federation, a central figure in their application process, Fadil Vokrri, they applied to FIFA first to become a recognised footballing nation in May 2008. Unfortunately, Kosovo were denied by the institution on the basis of Article 10 which says “independent states need to be recognised by the international community” in order to be fully accepted by FIFA, something Kosovo were clearly not able to fulfil. For years, this went back and forth between FIFA and Kosovan Federation, not managing to settle for an agreement. One day, the football governing body accepts that they play friendlies, the next they are refused to play any form of football in an official setting, a decision which followed pressure from then-UEFA President Michel Platini and – you guessed it – Serbia. Eventually, 2016 was the happy ending Kosovo had been hoping for nearly a decade, when they were granted full affiliation to FIFA and UEFA, enabling them to compete in World Cup 2018 qualifiers and any further international official matches.
So, before we dive into the nit and grit of the pitch, it is also important to comprehend that for many more years, and even before their full affiliation, Kosovo has had geopolitical issues within the realm of football. Yes, politics have had a big say in their history, but this followed into the world of football. This nation and conflict created an even stronger rivalry between Serbia and Albania, which followed inside the stadium. In October 2014, during a Euros qualifier that had both nations in Belgrade, a fixture that hadn’t taken place in 50 years, things got a bit out of hand. Deep into the first half, a drone made an appearance in the stadium, holding a flag for the whole crowd and players to see. Controlled by Ismail Morina, an Albanian fan and patriot, the drone was flying a flag covered in Albanian symbols, including a map of the ‘Greater Albania’, a congregation of territories that would unite ethnic Albanians together. This map depicted Serbia and Montenegro being part of this new association of territories. A clear provocation towards the Serbian crowd but was, in his mind, not an instigation of violence within the stadium but simply a way of getting back at Serbia in this difficult relationship between the nations.
As the drone flew closer to the pitch after parading for a few seconds inside the stadium, one Serbian player grabbed the flag aggressively. Whatever his intentions were with this flag, this did not please the Albanians inside the stadium, whether they were on or off the pitch. Crowd invasion of the pitch followed, with punches and shoving unleashing between the two sets of fans and the players. Stewards in the stadium were clearly not good enough to hold back the infuriated crowd, security of the players was at risk and both captains, Lorik Cana and Branislav Ivanović, tried their best to protect their players but chaos had unleashed. The investigation that followed put Ismail behind bars (in Croatia notably to avoid Serbia getting their hands on him), in addition to an imposed 3-0 defeat and a three-point deduction to Serbia. Albania then went on to qualify for Euro 2016, while Serbia didn’t, adding further fuel to the fire. As of today, both Serbia and Kosovo are trying to join the European Union, a Union that was built, in part, to avoid further conflicts within Europe after the World War. An ongoing conflict such as Serbia with Kosovo will not look good on their application to join the EU, therefore both countries are trying their best to meet on common grounds, decrease tensions and try, somehow, be somewhat friendly in order to both join the European Union.
Further issues, with other European nations, have arisen in recent years, with a notable incident of Kosovo refusing to play Spain in 2021 while being in their qualifying group for next year’s World Cup in Qatar. Spain, as a political country rather than its football association, have not recognised Kosovo as a country yet. Playing them in the qualifiers was therefore an issue of the highest political instance. The main issue was the fact Spain implied they would not expose any official sign in reference to the newly formed country, whether that be their name, flag or anthem. Luis Enrique announced his list of players for the game in a press conference where he stated they would be playing the “territory of Kosovo” rather than simply Kosovo. The Spanish government opposes any independence movement, as seen with the Catalan example recently, but also Gibraltar, a nation the Spanish cannot play in football due to the everlasting conflict between the two. This, like other games that are prohibited by UEFA such as Russia/Ukraine or Kosovo/Serbia due to political unrest, is another case of football and politics meddling. It was however not expected that Kosovo would encounter more footballing issues intertwined with politics on the other side of the continent, out of the Balkans. Another instance of this small nation being belittled by other more powerful nations.
Football, a story of mass immigration
When discussing the war earlier, there was an important point made about the mass exodus of populations from Kosovo and Albania away from the area, to avoid persecution from Serbia. Amongst those immigrating was Shaqiri and Xhaka, who both feature regularly in the Switzerland national team. Their performances were remarked against Serbia in the Russian 2018 World Cup, which saw them both score against the Serbs. Their subsequent celebrations were the main talking points though, with both imitating the Albanian eagles with their hands, another provocation towards their parents’ past persecutors. While the players were both charged, as FIFA have very serious feelings towards politicising football, the celebrations for the Swiss victory back in Albania and Kosovo were certainly wild, an additional wound for the Serbs after their defeat.
Immigration from Kosovo has led further players to compete for other European nations while Kosovo were going through administrative turmoil for years in order to get UEFA/FIFA affiliation. Players who were born in another country but were eligible to Kosovo include Sociedad’s Adnan Januzaj (Brussels, Belgium), Wolfsburg’s Admir Mehmedi, who plays regularly for Switzerland although being born in current North Macedonia, and more. Meanwhile, players like Valon Behrami or Valdet Rama were born in today’s territory of Kosovo but play for other nations, in their case Switzerland and Albania. Ex-Albanian captain, Lorik Cana, was born and raised in the Kosovan capital Pristina, he was even a fan of the local club, before moving in 1992 to Switzerland.
On the other hand, some players switched nationals sides when FIFA ratified the Kosovan federation. Norwich’s new recruit Milot Rachica was born in Vučitrn (Kosovo) first chose Albania, before changing for Kosovo when he was eligible for a switch. Many other younger players were born after their parents’ immigration and have now chosen to represent their ancestors’ country. This is the case for numerous Kosovan internationals who were born in Switzerland, Germany or in Valon Berisha’s case, Sweden. Currently playing for French side Reims, the Kosovan international played his youth international football for Norway, even getting 20 caps for the senior squad. The later affiliation of Kosovo enabled him to switch sides later on and represent the country of his parents who had moved to Sweden then Norway to flee the war. Bit by bit, the Kosovan federation is gaining traction from players who were born post-immigration and creating a team that is continuously progressing.
Football, a source of happiness and more drama
So, where does that leave football in all of that, the pitch, the beautiful game? Football has brought a lot of joy throughout the world, in developing countries, in war-torn countries and poor countries. It is fair to say, Kosovo falls in those categories to an extent, and football has certainly brought hope and joy to the people. I spoke to a few people from Kosovo who would help me understand better the impact of the beautiful game in the country, the views people have about the game and more importantly how do these people relate to the national team, when most of them are from Albania descent and that the Kosovan diaspora is so spread out following the mass exodus in the 1990s. It is fair to say, not everyone sees it the same way.
First of all, we talked about the national side on the pitch. The team played poorly to start with when they were invited to participate in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, a set of 10 games which resulted in a single point and nine losses, leading to the departure of the local manager Albert Bunjaku. Although he and the federation had done well to find players of Kosovan descent who could be eligible to play for the national team, the quality of the players was not always up to standards throughout the team, but more importantly, the tactics were not right. In addition, FIFA were not authorising Kosovo to play at home, making ‘home games’ a whole new difficulty, with matches played in Albania instead. A new coach came in, the Swiss Bernard Challandes, in addition to a ratified agreement that Kosovo could finally play home games in the capital of Pristina, was a real boost for a young team who were slowly growing in confidence and in quality. They went on to be unbeaten for 15 games after the disaster of the World Cup qualifiers, only to be beaten by England in September 2019.
While some of the unbeaten games were friendlies, many were part of the Euro 2020 qualifiers campaign as well as the Nations League, a competition in which they did brilliantly. Unbeaten throughout the latter competition, they moved up a division and qualified for the play-offs which could see them qualify for the European Championships in case the regular qualifiers did not work out. However, they lost to North Macedonia in that game, a game many feel they should have won but was unfortunately impeded by the absences of 8 players who were not released by the clubs due to isolation protocols during COVID-19. Without fans, a crucial part of the success of the team, and with the squad selection issues, the supporters were still hoping for a better result but recognise that North Macedonia were the better side.
Other than the disappointment of not qualifying for the Euros, the people saw real progress under the management of Challandes. His tactics were better, with a rigid backline helping to keep a team balance while still using exciting attacking football, an interesting cocktail as put a fan. Challendes’ expertise reassured players who were hesitating before choosing to play for Kosovo. The process of recruitment of players was a lot harder than expected, with players negotiating playing time with Albania and other nations for which they were eligible for. Progressively, however, players started joining and with FIFA’s accords, 16 players changed national squad after playing official games for their previous national side, as we saw with Berisha earlier. The federation has actively tried finding players in Scandinavia, Switzerland and Germany, where most families fled to. While making huge ‘signings’ in the last five years, they were less lucky with players such as Brighton’s Andi Zeqiri who flirted with Kosovo before choosing Switzerland instead. Challandes has added more talented players, changed the direction of the team and made what Kosovo is today said one supporter, who did however praise the groundwork made by Bunjaki.
Football, a source of pride and national unity
If you’ve ever watched a European Cup night involving an away game for your club in a Balkan country, you’ll know, at least visually and audibly, that it will be intense. The flares, the chants, the flags, the topless fans, Balkan countries know how to support their club and country when it comes to sports and football in particular. They always put on one hell of a show and Kosovo is no different. While the fans I talked to feel it is still a complicated relationship with the national team, as many people living in Kosovo feel closer to the Albanian team, there is definitely a growing interest in the Kosovan team. Yugoslavs were always fans of football; the passion has stayed and the Kosovans continue to show their passion. They watch football daily, with a lot of support for Liverpool FC apparently, and they are definitely up for a match of the national team. Certain fans in the country, like in many other countries around the world, consider football like a religion. It is no surprise to see the passion in the stadium when England came to visit in 2019. The national team is a national symbol and it brings the whole country together, something that Kosovo cannot take lightly after years of separatism.
Club football is progressing, with Drita nearly eliminating Feyenoord in the Conference League playoff, but more needs to be done to develop the league and the clubs in order to support the national team, where real progress was made. A stronger league would enable the federation to rely a little (or a lot) more on this system rather than the diaspora, which comes with its upsides and downfalls. The support from the people has helped and has definitely changed the mindsets of players who were hesitating to play for Kosovo or another nation they (or their family) migrated to during the war. The results are not perfect, the disappointment of not qualifying for the Euros through the playoff against North Macedonia is still there, but there is hope for better things in years to come.
The team is young, it is constantly changing and in reality, is truly progressing with a group of talented players joining the team with Challandes leading a great project ahead. The federation is working with UEFA to create a national academy similarly to Clairefontaine in France in order to produce a lot more talent in the future, a promising project for the future of Kosovan football. The government is also investing, in stadiums, training coaches and football related staff, an investment in the overall sport which showed good things at the Olympics Games, particularly in judo. The objective is to be competing soon with neighbouring nations like Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Slovenia but particularly nations like Croatia, who has 4 million inhabitants compared to Kosovans’ 1,8 million, a reasonable objective for a nation issued from the same Yugoslavian empire. If you are looking for a new hipster national team to back, Kosovo certainly checks everything on the list: interesting story, a passionate crowd and a new exciting group of players who can certainly aim for qualification for an international tournament in the very near future. There is so much more to say about this new nation, but for now let’s wish them the best of luck in their World Cup qualifiers, that they will be mostly playing against countries that have not recognised them as an independent state. More drama ahead for the Kosovan national team.
Thank you to Kosovo Abroad (https://twitter.com/KosovansAbroad), Becks (https://twitter.com/BEKIMBEKA) from Kosovo Fans (https://twitter.com/KosovoFansFC), Luan (https://twitter.com/morinaluan), Kosovans Football (https://twitter.com/kosovanfooty_EN and Football Kosovar (https://twitter.com/FootballKosovar) who helped me massively with their insight.