Glory Issue 2: Kosovo
At a small Church of England primary school in South West England, a young boy sits cross-legged on a chilly sports hall floor. He’s surrounded by 200 or so other children, and all are praying – praying for men, women and children they’ve never met. A thousand miles away, war is raging in the Balkans and families are being driven from their homes to seek uncertain futures abroad. Many will never return.
Growing up in a safe, peaceful country far from the horrors of war, it was impossible to fully appreciate what Kosovo and her people were going through during the latter years of the last millennium. And so, as our teachers led the prayers in classrooms across England, we could never have imagined that less than two decades later we’d travel there to cover the most compelling story in world football.
The scars of war are deep, and yet today the people of Kosovo are as positive, forward-thinking and friendly as any you could meet. And nowhere is this resilient attitude more apparent than in the national football team.
After years in the international wilderness, Kosovo finally gained UEFA and FIFA recognition in 2016. As a member association, Kosovo could now play competitive international fixtures – and fight for a place in the 2018 World Cup. It’s impossible to overplay the importance of this decision for Kosovars everywhere. This was a chance to write their own football history from the very first page. To be a Kosovar football fan is to be at the heart of one of the most exciting moments in world sport.
Nor was that all. Hot on the heels of FIFA’s decision came the news that a number of high-profile footballers might possibly switch allegiance to the Kosovar cause. Kosovo’s celebrated diaspora means that players of Kosovar descent have represented Albania, Norway, Switzerland and others, and now many of these players might have the chance to turn out for the world’s youngest football nation. Among them were stars with serious European pedigree: the Xhaka brothers (Granit and Taulant), Xherdan Shaqiri, Adnan Januzaj, Valon Berisha and others.
All this shone a light on Kosovo’s domestic league, where cheap matchday tickets, partisan support, atmospheric, Soviet-era stadia and heated derby rivalries conspire to create one of Eastern Europe’s most watchable club competitions. And across the continent, young Kosovars are breaking through in elite clubs from Barcelona to Manchester City.
The time was right for the Glory team to explore a region few have the chance to visit. And what did we find there? Vibrant cities building for an exciting future. Stunning, mountainous scenery the equal of any Alpine vista. Positive, welcoming people. And above all, a resounding passion for football that transcends club allegiances.
We timed our visit to coincide with Kosovo’s first ever competitive home fixture, and although that tie with Croatia did not pan out the way Kosovars would have liked, history was made on a rainy, atmospheric night in Shkodër, Albania all the same. The future looks bright for Kosovo and her football, and while the World Cup in Russia may be a step too far, the 2020 European Championship could well see Kosovo make a historic competition bow.
This was an incredible experience for the Glory team. We all have memories like that long-ago school assembly, and what a long way Kosovo has come in the years since. We’ll be watching the region – and its football team – with keen interest.