From Strife to Success: KFV Prishtina Girls Pave the Way for Multiethnic Harmony Through Football

The KFV Prishtina girls seek to show themselves, their families and the world what a multiethnic team can accomplish if they get a fair shot on the pitch and in life.

Jana Simanovic lined herself up for a penalty kick; her eyes on the goal in front of her. Jana’s teammates chanted her name as her orange cleats shuffled on the synthetic turf of the stadium in Manresa, Spain.

Ja-na. Ja-na. Ja-na.

After the referee’s whistle and a quick pause, she kicked the ball hard toward the bottom left corner of the goal. The goalie hesitated a second too long and Jana’s team’s chants erupted into cheers.

Photo from the football match between KFV Prishtina and KFF 16 of July, from Malisheve, July, 06, 2023. Photo: Afrim Ejupi /BIRN

Jana Simanovic in Camp Nou, Barcelona. Photo courtesy of Armenda Filipaj

Jana’s goal was monumental for two reasons. For one, she’s a 14-year-old Serbian girl playing football with Albanian teammates from a country where Serbs and Albanians struggle to agree on anything, much less scream maniacally in support of each other. For another, she scored the goal in Spain, a country that does not even recognize her country of origin’s sovereignty. Kosovo’s right to exist.

Jana comes from Kosovo, which continues to fight for acceptance across the world stage.

In 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, a country to the north that still believes independence is illegal. Before independence, the region of Kosovo had an overwhelming Albanian majority, which led to strained relations with the Serbians and eventually erupted into violence during the end of the 20th century. NATO and the UN were both required to intervene. Independence transferred power to the ethnic majority Albanian government, but violence occasionally remains and tensions are ever-present.

Despite Serbian opposition, most major European powers and the United States recognize Kosovo as an independent nation. However, Kosovo Serbs continue to fight against independence and have control in northern parts of Kosovo close to the Serbian border.

Serbian and Kosovar leaders are in negotiations to this day, trying to find a resolution to a conflict that has lasted for many years.

Spain does not recognize that Kosovo is an independent country, primarily because of the government’s opposition to the Basque and Catalan independence movements within Spain. Thus, Kosovars have not been able to travel to the country since Kosovo declared its independence. Jana’s team were among the first.

Jana scored her penalty kick while playing for KFV Prishtina, also known as the Prishtina Girls Football Team, which is one of only a few teams for girls in the nation. However, most of the time she practices away from the team in her hometown of Brezovicë, 80km away from the capital city. Brezovicë is a small village in southern Kosovo, one of the few with a Serbian majority, but that doesn’t stop her from growing close with her teammates across ethnic boundaries.

Photo from the football match between KFV Prishtina and KFF 16 of July, from Malisheve; July, 06, 2023. Photo: Afrim Ejupi/BIRN

In 2019, Armenda Filipaj, the football club’s founder, used to take her sons to football practice and games, and notice all the little girls, including her daughter, on the sidelines, who had been dragged along to watch their brothers play.

“I noticed that my daughter and all the other daughters were just running around the pitch,” Filipaj says. “And nobody had even given them a ball to play with.”

Filipaj sees gender discrimination on both a personal and national level. As the Program Support Officer for the UN Women office in Kosovo, Filipaj’s team supports shelters for survivors of gender-based violence, promotes gender empowerment, provides guidance for increasing female representation in government and much more. Although KFV is her side passion project, the club’s mission reflects the goals of UN Women in promoting gender equality. For girls just like her daughter.

“My mission from the beginning was to bring UN Women into football,” Filipaj says. “Because it’s run by men and it’s owned by men.”

From there Filipaj asked the owner of the pitch for a ball and a coach. She sent out messages that they were looking for girls who were interested in playing football. Messages also went out to all players at the football club with a request to bring their sisters.

Armenda Filipaj in a photo from the football match between KFV Prishtina and KFF 16 of July, from Malisheve; July, 06, 2023. Photo: Afrim Ejupi/BIRN

Started in 2019 as a group of girls on the sidelines, KFV Prishtina is now a registered NGO and has more than 300 girls registered from ages 5 to 17. Donors include the UEFA Foundation, the UN and local businesses in Kosovo. Proudly displayed across the front of the jerseys is the seal of Kosovo’s president Vjosa Osmani. KFV’s jerseys are the only ones to include her seal because Osmani remains a strong supporter of the team and its mission for promoting girls’ sports.

Filipaj emphasizes the importance of the club being an NGO because many girls would not be able to play if there were a fee. Most families deem club dues too expensive, especially if their sons are already part of a football club. The only costs to families who are a part of KFV are cleats and transportation to practice.

She also explains that Kosovo has women’s football, but it is unpopular, underfunded and most girls cannot join a team until their late teenage years when they would be eligible for U17. In smaller cities and towns, a team may not even exist.

That was the case for Engjēllusha Tasholli, a 16-year-old Ethnic Albanian from Lipjan who goes by Engji. Despite living 20km outside of the city, she commutes 30 minutes to Pristina every day by bus for practice because her town doesn’t have a team for girls.

Engjellusha Tasholli in a photo from the football match between KFV Prishtina and KFF 16 of July, from Malisheve; July, 06, 2023. Photo: Afrim Ejupi /BIRN

Engji has played football since age 9 but took a three-year break when her team closed down in Lipjan. Engji’s parents support her love for football, but for a while they were scared to let her play. There wasn’t a team for younger girls, so Engji had to play with the seniors; girls almost double her size. She often got knocked around, spraining her ankles and scraping her knees. Engji also gave handball and boxing a try, but nothing spoke to her like football.

“I don’t belong in handball. I don’t belong at home,” Engji says. “What do I do? Nothing. Without football I am nothing.”

So when Engji heard about KFV, she begged her parents to join. It has now been eight months, and Engji hasn’t looked back.

She typically plays as a defensive midfielder, dribbling the ball up the field before passing to assist a goal. Sometimes even scoring a goal herself, like in a match against KFF Rilindja, where she scored four of seven goals to win the match.

Engji is aggressive and believes that she dominates the field “as fiercely as boys do”. She says that this sometimes comes off as her playing dirty, but she never aims to hurt her opponents. She just wants to have fun.

“It’s been the best months of my life because I’m playing football again,” Engji says.

Engji wants to make football accessible to other girls in Lipjan as well. With the help of Filipaj, she hopes to start a football team connected to her public high school in Lipjan. In her first year of high school, Engji still has two more years to implement this dream.

“I know there’s a lot of talent there,” Engji says. “I have friends in school, they’re girls, they play football very well, but they don’t have a team. It’s not their fault because not everyone can come here in person every day.”

Photo from the football match between KFV Prishtina and KFF 16 of July, from Malisheve, July, 06, 2023. Photo: Afrim Ejupi /BIRN.

Engji considers the teams’ recent trip to Barcelona to be the best experience of her life. Not only was it her first time traveling abroad beyond Albania, but she has also been an FC Barcelona fan since she was young. Engji even shares her jersey number, four, with her favorite player María León, a defender for Barcelona.

“Everyone was shocked I went to Barcelona because no one can,” Engji says. “No one believed me.”

Because the team was invited to Spain by FC Barcelona, they were able to secure visas from the embassy in North Macedonia. With her team, Engji watched the women’s semi-final match between Barcelona and Chelsea, had training sessions with Barça Academy and played two matches against local teams.

She helped her team win one of their two games, just like her teammate Jana. And it doesn’t matter that Engji is Albanian and Jana is Serbian. They’re teammates. The Albanian, Serbian, and Roma girls all play on the same team.

“Football is a very good way to build bridges between communities,” Filipaj says. “If you put a mixed group together, they have to work with each other to reach the goals of the whole team.”

That’s why after their win against FC Rilindja, it was time for celebration ice cream. The team doesn’t split into small tables based on ethnicity. They push seven tables together as they take over a wing of the patio at Grill House Corner. The long table is loud as girls recall funny moments of the match, catch up on phone notifications and attempt to order for the entire team with one waiter. Filipaj sits at the head of the table, sharing pictures from the game and laughing along with the girls.

“We are all friends,” Engji says. “We don’t care about the war. We don’t care what happened.”

Photo from the football match between KFV Prishtina and KFF 16 of July, from Malisheve; July, 06, 2023. Photo: Afrim Ejupi/BIRN

The one problem that does come up is the language barrier, although they all share knowledge of a few English phrases.

“We communicate with hand gestures and , in football, she knows what to do: pass, shoot, these things,” Engji says. “But I think it’s great. Just because we had history back then doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be friends. It’s really good for all of us.”

Traveling to Barcelona wasn’t the end goal for these girls. Right after their week-long trip, the team threw themselves back into training.

At 6pm on a Friday in May, the girls weren’t thinking about the weekend. As two boys’ teams wrapped up their practices on the same pitch, KFV were warming up. The field crumbles off into gravel and abandoned construction equipment. The only building around is an orange office building framed by a backdrop of the city and surrounding hills. Their turf field on the edge of Pristina is a world away from the pristine facilities of the Barça Academy, but the girls are determined to practice hard to prepare for their upcoming matches.

It’s sometimes difficult to coordinate practice times around field availability and school schedules, but the girls commit to making the most of whatever space they’re given. First, the coach rounded them up to stretch and explain drills. They began with a passing drill to work on precision and quick decision-making in the face of defenders. The coach helped start the drill, but soon the girls were leading it on their own. They yelled each others’ names to signify when open for a pass and laughed when the ball was accidentally kicked right into a defender.

Photo from the football match between KFV Prishtina and KFF 16 of July, from Malisheve; July, 06, 2023. Photo: Afrim Ejupi/BIRN

Practice continued until the orange sun dipped below the hills surrounding Pristina and it was hard to find loose balls in the falling light.

Engji wants to play football professionally. Before KFV Prishtina, she wouldn’t have had the opportunity. But now that she’s part of a team again she can dream.

“I’m a footballer. I’m gonna make it,” Engji says. “I’m gonna make it.”

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