Photo: Atdhe Mulla/PI.

The dream is dead, long live the dream!

While off the pitch issues remain, the Kosovo football team’s first ever attempt to qualify for a European Championship has brought joy to Kosovars across the continent this year, and there is more still to come in the future.

After Kosovo’s final match of the year against England on Sunday, head coach Bernard Challandes spoke of the responsibility he and his players feel towards the Kosovo public. “The Kosovo people have suffered – they know why we have Kosovo, why we play football as Kosovo players,” he said at the press conference. “The players cannot disappoint. Everybody wants to support this team. Everybody is proud of this team.”

While the Swiss manager is not quite correct about everybody wanting to support the team — there are still some fan groups in the country that determinedly continue to support Albania — that the public’s imagination has been captured by Kosovo’s performances this year seems absolutely beyond doubt at this point. 

Even after defeat to the Czech Republic in Plzen last week consigned Kosovo to third place in the group, requiring a play-off if they are to appear at the European Championships, the players were given a hero’s welcome when they returned to the pitch in Prishtina, while thousands also gathered in Zahir Pajaziti square to watch the final group game with England. 

Each Kosovo match now feels like a major public event. Questions were even asked about the team to candidates in the build up to parliamentary elections in October, with support for the team seemingly a prerequisite for electoral success. Even Vetevendosje, who as recently as 2017 were espousing the view that only unified Albanian sports teams could provide “dignified representatives,” have embraced the Kosovo side, with party leader Albin Kurti appearing at the home matches with Montenegro in October and England on Sunday.

It is not hard to see the appeal. Since Challandes took over in early 2018, Kosovo have played thrilling, high energy, attacking football, which for a long time seemed almost unbeatable. After winning seven and drawing two of their matches last year, Kosovo began 2019 by extending their unbeaten run to over 500 days after a 2-2 draw in a friendly with Denmark, the team ranked 10th best in the world by FIFA at the time.

The run attracted international attention, and raised expectations to fervent levels before the first ever competitive international match played on Kosovar soil, the home game with Bulgaria in March. An electric atmosphere engulfed the Fadil Vokrri stadium that night, as the fans unveiled a display encouraging the team to dream on.

That dream seemed an impossible ask: A country with one of the smallest populations and lowest GDPs on the continent, qualifying for the European Championships in their very first attempt? And yet for so long, it felt possible.

Kosovo’s dramatic late win in Bulgaria in June pushed the team into the qualification places in the group, while the 2-1 win over the Czech Republic in September ensured they stayed there at the halfway stage. Atdhe Nuhiu’s bullet header in Plzen even briefly lifted the side back into the top two spots in the penultimate match before two Czech goals saw the dream finally die.

After the defeat to England, Challandes highlighted the team’s creativity, teamwork and determination as part of the reason they have been so embraced by the public. But perhaps the most admirable aspect of this campaign has been their response to adversity.

In the first half of the year, the team’s undeniable star was attacking midfielder Arber Zeneli, who had lit up the 2018 UEFA Nations League with four goals and then scored in both of Kosovo’s March fixtures against Denmark and Bulgaria. But in June, Zeneli fell to the turf in Podgorica clutching his leg. He hasn’t played a minute of football since. 

The sight of Zeneli being carried off the pitch injured could have completely derailed Kosovo’s run, but the side continued to perform in his absence. The win in Bulgaria came with four of Kosovo’s five first choice midfielders missing – Hekuran Kryeziu missed the entire campaign, while Herolind Shala also managed less than 150 minutes in total.

Milot Rashica scored twice in June, but he was then absent through injury for September’s fixtures, when Vedat Muriqi and Valon Berisha both rose up to give monumental performances against the Czech Republic in Prishtina and England in Southampton.

The resilience the side have shown to key absences meant that even after the news broke that Muriqi would miss the final two games, many fans still showed optimism that they could beat the top two sides in the group and get the points required to qualify.

Devotion to the team has connected Kosovars living across Europe throughout the year. Thousands of Kosovo diaspora traveled to Plzen without tickets to show their support, while demand for tickets in Kosovo has often been twenty times the capacity of the Fadil Vokrri Stadium, which can hold 13,500 people.

In Southampton, members of the Kosovo diaspora that settled in England arrived at the stadium hours before kick off, many wearing the colors of both countries. One fan told me that it was a game he could tell his children he attended, another said that he had been waiting half his life for a match like this. 

Valon Berisha’s first minute goal in the game saw an explosion of Kosovar joy from Southampton to Prishtina, taking in many cities across Europe in the process. For a few moments, Kosovo were top of Group A and everything felt possible.

But the campaign was not without its low points. On the pitch, while the results are understandable, the performances in November’s matches felt underwhelming. In Plzen especially, the team seemed to freeze at the most crucial point, losing the focus, determination and intensity of the games earlier in the autumn. The team are still riding on a wave of positivity, but a similar performance in the play off with North Macedonia in March might start to test the bond that has been created.

Off the pitch, ticketing for matches in Prishtina has become an opaque and disorganized mess. The move to online sales seemed inevitable after ugly scenes broke out in four-hour queues for tickets last year, but the new system is distrusted and failed to function properly before the England game. 

That the state prosecution launched two investigations into ticket sales for the England and Montenegro matches tells its own story, while the use of the team in promotional videos for leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, Kadri Veseli in the buildup to the election also raises concerns over politicisation. It is crucial to keep the team both universal and accessible to all.

Kosovo’s qualifying group has also been played out against a swirling cycle of political backdrop, and the side have not, and may never entirely transcend the country’s political situation internationally. 

Montenegrin manager Ljubisa Tumbakovic was fired for refusing to take charge of the team in the side’s home match with Kosovo after reportedly being pressured by Serbian authorities not to participate, while a drone and a flag bearing the message “Kosovo is Serbia” was confiscated before the Czech Republic played in Prishtina. 

The flag was visible when Kosovo visited Plzen, where some fans also reported being attacked by groups of Czech ultras. Violent scenes between fans also broke out in Prishtina when Kosovo hosted Montenegro, with the stadium’s security struggling to control the situation before riot police arrived.

But perhaps the biggest off-the-field stories in Group A came from England’s visits to the Balkans, with both Bulgaria and Montenegro receiving strong sanctions from UEFA after England’s black players were racially abused in Podgorica in March and Sofia in October. 

While attempts to welcome the abused players to Kosovo were well intentioned, their execution often felt clumsy, and raised questions about why such efforts aren’t made to tackle racial discrimination within the country. Members of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities are rarely made to feel as welcome.

But regardless of the outside world’s creeping influence into the stadium, inside it 2019 has been a joyous year for Kosovo football. What is perhaps most exciting is that this is only the beginning. Regardless of whether Kosovo qualify for Euro 2020 through March’s play offs, international football will return, first through the 2020 Nations League and then a qualifying campaign for the 2022 World Cup. 

More fans will visit Kosovo, more matches that connect Kosovars across Europe will take place, more unforgettable goals will be scored, and Kosovo will continue its fight to show it belongs at a major international tournament. I can’t wait.

The opinions expressed in the opinion section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

18 November 2019 - 14:00

Jack Robinson

18/11/2019 - 14:00

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Prishtina Insight is a digital and print magazine published by BIRN Kosovo, an independent, non-governmental organisation. To find out more about the organization please visit the official website. Copyright © 2016 BIRN Kosovo.