Why Kosovo? Behind our second issue
In a little under a week's time, Ryan, Lee and I will board a plane at London Heathrow Airport and cruise 1,200 miles southeast to a country none of us has ever visited before. We'll touch down in Prishtina – Kosovo's capital – and begin the pleasant task of getting to know a country few in the United Kingdom ever have the chance to experience.
So why Kosovo? It's not like we were short of destinations to visit for Issue 2 of Glory Magazine, or of compelling football stories to bring to light. It's just that Kosovo's football story is the most compelling of all right now. This is Europe's youngest football nation, granted official recognition by the sport's governing bodies just this year after months of onerous bureaucracy. On the eve of his country's first ever competitive game, manager Albert Bunjaki was still unsure as to whether several members of his starting 11 would be deemed eligible to play.
Put simply, it's fascinating to witness the fortunes of a region for which competitive international football is still so fresh. More interesting still, this is no team of callow no-hopers. FIFA's second-youngest recognised side – the tiny peninsula of Gibraltar – have already established themselves as whipping boys of the highest order, shipping sixteen goals without reply in three games against Portugal, Latvia and Scotland earlier this year. Don't expect Kosovo to be turned over in similar fashion.
In the Republic's first ever competitive match – an away World Cup qualifier against Finland – Bunjaki's men came from 1-0 down to draw 1-1 through a second-half Valon Berisha penalty. Kosovo had chances to win the game, too, and were the better side for large spells against a country boasting FIFA affiliation going back to 1908. Kosovo followed this up with three encouraging friendly performances: a 2-0 home win against the Faroe Islands (read Glory Issue 1 if you're tempted to underestimate this achievement), a 2-2 draw with neighbours and Euro 2016 alumni Albania and another 2-0 victory against Equatorial Guinea. These lads are no pushovers.
That Valon Berisha should score the equaliser against Finland was significant too. He, along with five other players, had to wait until the 11th hour for FIFA clearance to represent the Dardanët. Berisha has 18 senior caps for Norway and has represented his adopted country at every age group from under-15s upwards, but when the chance to play for his ancestral home materialised, he took it. And Berisha wasn't the only one. Milot Rashica, Herolind Shala, Amir Rrahmani, Alban Meha and Samir Ujkani – all of whom have represented Albania – were also granted permission to switch in time for Kosovo's debut World Cup Qualifying campaign.
This is part of what makes the Kosovo story so intriguing. The Kosovar diaspora has settled across Europe, and includes among its ranks some truly impressive football talent. Berisha – once considered one of the brightest young stars in Europe – was arguably the best player on the pitch against Finland. And he isn't the only star player with Kosovar ancestry. The Xhakas – Arsenal's Granit and older brother Taulant – are of Kosovar/Albanian parentage. So is Stoke's Xherdan Shaqiri. So too Sunderland's Adnan Januzaj.
All four could potentially pursue FIFA clearance and follow in Berisha's footsteps. Consider this from Shaqiri, when interviewed by The Guardian's David Hytner during Euro 2016: "What if the coach of Kosovo wants me as the captain? Of course, I am thinking about it then." But even without these household names, Kosovo are in the process of proving their worth on the international stage. We'll have the chance to witness their progress first-hand, when we attend their debut competitive home game against group favourites Croatia.
You could argue that fans of the Kosovo national football side have it better than any other supporters on Earth at the moment. With a first World Cup qualifying campaign to relish and the prospect of adding some of the game's brightest young talent to their ranks in future, it couldn't be more exciting to be a follower of Kosovar football. Croatia, Turkey, Iceland, Finland and Ukraine pose a significant challenge to qualification, but it's not beyond the realms of possibility that the Dardanët will make it all the way to Russia 2018. What a story that would be.
Add to that a lively, passionately-supported domestic game, beautiful architecture, stunning scenery and tumultuous history, and Kosovo emerges as the perfect destination for Glory Issue 2. The timing could not be better. We're going to find out what fans, players and coaches are hoping for from the future of Kosovar football, how they feel about finally achieving international recognition and what it means to them to be Kosovar at such an exciting time for their Republic. We can't wait.
Preorder Glory Issue 2 here.
– Louis Rossi