Issue 2: F.C. Diaspora
War tore Kosovo apart. Now, football is going some way towards knitting her together again. While there are a vocal few who would prefer a united Albania team to a separate Kosovar national side, for the most part the team that fought back to earn a point in its first ever competitive match in Turku has become symbolic of a region building for an exciting future. This is the new, positive, forward-thinking Kosovo.
A great many Kosovars returned home after the war, but many more stayed away. They’d built new lives for themselves and their families across Europe and around the world, and yet, most retained strong ties to their homeland. These displaced Kosovars had children, and those children played football. Some grew up to play football very well indeed.
Then, in 2016, the call arrived. Kosovo had been recognised as a member association of both FIFA and UEFA, and that meant a first taste of competitive football. All of a sudden, people began paying attention to one of Europe’s most obscure football outposts, and it transpired that the generation driven away from its homeland during the war had produced some disproportionately talented footballers. Could they now switch allegiances and trade their adopted nations for their ancestral homeland?If so, a Kosovo diaspora 11 could be unusually strong.
Granit Xhaka - Switzerland
While many exceptional Kosovar players have gone on to represent other nations, Granit Xhaka is the one indisputably established world-class talent to emerge from the region’s displaced generation. The Arsenal midfielder has excelled since his move to the Emirates Stadium. His goals from distance may have generated the most headlines, but the younger Xhaka is also an accomplished long passer, neat in possession and strong in the tackle. This is a central midfielder who could walk into practically any team in the world.
Following a European Championship in which he played four games for Switzerland and was named man of the match in two, Granit wrote an open letter explaining his position with the Kosovar national side. “I will do whatever I can to play for Kosovo”, he wrote, but added: “FIFA clearly states (those) who played at EURO 2016 have no right to change the team they represent”. It seems that Xhaka, and any other Kosovars who represented another national side at Euro 2016, will not be allowed to pull on that blue Kelme shirt and step out in front of the Dardanët.
Despite his apparent enthusiasm to represent Kosovo, Granit remains a key member of the Swiss squad and feels “proud, because I will be a good ambassador for every Albanian who lives and works in Switzerland”.
Xherdan Shaqiri - Switzerland
The player nicknamed ‘The Alpine Messi’ has yet to fulfil his rich promise on a consistent basis. Shaqiri was good enough to earn a transfer from FC Basel to Bayern Munich, but failed to break into a side where Arjen Robben and Franc Ribery had the wide attacking midfield positions on lockdown. A move to Inter Milan didn’t work out for Shaqiri either, at which point Mark Hughes made an audacious attempt to lure the Swiss/Kosovar to the Potteries. It worked. Shaqiri became a star signing for Stoke City, and has sparkled in moments for the Potters – endearing fans with his eye for the spectacular. There’s no doubt of his international quality. A player of Shaqiri’s talents would be a shining light in any Kosovo 11.
Shaqiri was born in Gjilan to Kosovar-Albanian parents, but the family emigrated to Switzerland before the outbreak of war. The winger went on to represent his adopted nation, but Kosovar interest was piqued during Euro 2016 when Shaqiri told The Guardian’s David Hynter: “what if the coach of Kosovo wants me as the captain? Of course, I am thinking about it then.” However, like the Xhaka brothers, Xherdan’s appearances at the Euros mean that FIFA will surely block any attempts by the player to switch allegiances. Kosovo’s loss is Switzerland’s gain.
Valon Behrami - Switzerland
Watford’s Behrami is a workmanlike midfielder with a decent club football CV, and while he may not be a star name like Xhaka or Shaqiri, he’s certainly of international quality for a side with the resources of Kosovo.
The Behramis’ story will be a familiar one to all too many Kosovars. Valon was born in Mitrovicë in 1985, but the family fled their hometown five years later ahead of the chaos of the Yugoslav Wars.The Behramis pitched up in Switzerland – as did many members of the Kosovar diaspora – but come 1995 it seemed as though they’d be forced out by the Swiss authorities. Instead, a petition instigated by the young Valon’s athletics club raised 2,000 signatures demanding they be allowed to stay. It worked. Today, the combative Behrami has pledged his allegiance to Switzerland, and joins Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri in lining up for the Rossocrociati.
Taulant Xhaka - Albania
Taulant Xhaka has blazed a trail similar to those of many displaced Kosovar footballers, emerging through the youth ranks at Basel to impress at both club and international level. In one of the diaspora’s most famous and compelling stories, the older Xhaka brother chose to represent Albania while Granit sided with the Swiss. Both nations played one another during Euro 2016, and the two brothers faced one another on the pitch once again during the 2016 Champions League group stage. The images of the Xhakas’ mother wearing a half-and-half Switzerland/Albania shirt during that Euro 2016 clash is one of the tournament’s defining images.
Like his brother, Taulant’s appearances at Euro 2016 seem certain to preclude him from ever representing the Kosovo national side.
Adnan Januzaj - Belgium
Adnan Januzaj was supposed to inherit Ryan Giggs’ shirt at Manchester United – that’s how highly the winger was thought of during his early days at Old Trafford. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. Januzaj simply didn’t live up to his early promise, with rumours of an attitude problem surrounding his transfer from United to Sunderland in the summer of 2016. Januzaj hardly hit the ground running at the Stadium of Light either, but there’s still plenty of time to fulfil that rich promise.
Having been left out of the Belgium squad for their ill-starred Euro 2016 campaign, there’s a possibility that Januzaj could turn his back on the Red Devils and become the most high-profile addition to Albert Bunjaki’s Kosovo side. It was reported in May 2016 that Januzaj told FFK General Secretary Errol Salihu that he was interested in joining the Dardanët, but by the time Kosovo’s World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign had kicked off in Finland, that story had gone cold.
Valon Berisha - Kosovo
There was a time when Valon Berisha was considered among the most promising young footballers in Europe. The Red Bull Salzburg midfielder plays not unlike Granit Xhaka, with perhaps a few more tricks and turns on the ball if not the same vision and range of passing. The two would have made a formidable midfield duo for Kosovo had things gone a little differently. Berisha played for Norway at every age group up to and including senior level, but as his adopted nation failed to qualify for the Euros there were no obstacles between this gifted centre-mid and his dream of playing for Kosovo.
Valon was named in the starting 11 for Kosovo’s debut competitive match against Finland just hours after gaining FIFA clearance to play. The midfielder put in a man-of-the-match performance and scored the most important goal in his team’s short history, burying the equaliser from the penalty spot to earn Kosovo a first ever competitive point. Berisha had never scored for Norway, but found the net for Kosovo in just over an hour of game time. He was one of few Kosovars to emerge with credit from their 6-0 spanking at home to Croatia, too.
Milot Rashica - Kosovo
Of all the talented Kosovar diaspora, Milot Rashica is perhaps the least well known. That’s unlikely to last long. Playing for Vitesse in the Dutch Eredivisie, Rashica has impressed in an attacking midfield role – dazzling withhis neat footwork and direct running. And despite only making his debut inJuly 2015, the Kosovar wunderkid has already been linked with the likes of Chelsea and Spurs.
Rashica played his youth football for KF Kosova Vushtrri, but represented Albania at all youth levels before making his senior debut in 2016. However, like Valon Berisha, when Kosovo sought his services later that year Rashica heard the call. Milot played the full 90 minutes for Kosovo in their historic draw with Finland, and again completed the match as Kosovo were thumped by Croatia in Shkodër. Despite this resounding defeat, Rashica impressed in that game from his station out on the right of midfield – finding space time and again to run at the Croat defence.
Before the outbreak of war, Kosovo had a population of just two million or so. You don’t need me to tell you that’s a very small number. In fact, it’s roughly twice as many as the city of Birmingham. In short, the fact that the diaspora has produced so many notable players is nothing short of remarkable. Put these athletes together with those already playing in Kosovo and those automatically eligible to represent the country and you have a side that could compete with most teams in Europe. It’s hard not to feel as though FIFA’s confusing post-Euro 2016 ruling has robbed us of a potentially enthralling sporting spectacle.
However, even without the Xhakas, the Shaqiris, the Januzajs and the Behramis, Kosovo have a solid side more than capable of ruffling a few feathers. And the future looks brighter still. In players like Rashica, Manchester City forward Bersant Celina and the young Barcelona sensation Labinot Kabashi, Kosovo have more than their fair share of tomorrow’s world-beaters. If just one of these players fulfils his potential, Kosovo will have a talent to envy.
From here on, fewer and fewer members of Kosovo’s vibrant diaspora will choose to represent the countries of their birth. The lure of the homeland will be strong, and with illustrious names already beginning to swell Kosovo’s ranks, it’s likely their competitive thirst will be quenched too. For fans of Kosovar football, the future is very exciting indeed.