FK Kukësi's remarkable rise from the second tier of Albanian football to the European stage will be complete on Thursday when they make their continental debut against Estonia's FC Flora Tallinn in the UEFA Europa League first qualifying round.
Just over 12 months ago Kukës were celebrating promotion to the Albanian Super League, but now, having finished second behind KS Skënderbeu in their first season in the top flight, the club are preparing for European football. Coach Armando Cungu may be concerned by his team's lack of match practice, yet he is confident they have what it takes to cause a stir against Flora, starting with the first leg in Estonia.
"We will be ready," he said after the team's two-week training camp in Ohrid in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. "It will not be easy, but we like our chances. We have had good training sessions even though I would have loved to have played some additional friendly matches. I am a little worried about our level of competitiveness right now. We have played a couple of friendlies, but I am worried about the rhythm of our team."
Although this is Kukës's European debut, captain Rrahman Hallaçi has experience at this level having featured for KF Partizani and KF Vllaznia. Indeed, the defender is hoping his team can build on the progress they have made of late. "It was a very prosperous year for us," said Hallaçi, born locally in Kukes. "We hope to continue our success on the international stage as well."
Kukës official Sulejman Starova, who has participated in multiple European campaigns in the last four decades as a player, coach and manager, echoed his captain's sentiments. "We have a great team, great leaders and many players who have played in European Cups previously," he said. "We will be ready."
Kukës were the only side to remain unbeaten at home in the league last season and, despite playing their matches at Qemal Stafa in Tirana instead of Zeqir Ymeri, president Safet Gjici thinks home backing could be the difference in the second leg. "Not playing at home will be difficult, but we will still have the support of our fans," he said. "It is important for us to have a good first game in Estonia and get a positive result that will give us a chance in the return match."
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