Leaving behind a difficult past during which it had to develop outside football's governing bodies, Kosovo has experienced a true revolution since being admitted as a UEFA member association in 2016.
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Thanks to a period of rapid growth and a wealth of talented young players, Kosovo can look forward to a very bright future, with recent success in the UEFA Nations League allowing it to dream of qualifying for EURO 2020.
A new page in the Balkan country’s history was written on the coast of Finland in September 2016. At the Hansa stadium in Turku, the Kosovan national team was preparing to play its first-ever competitive match, a qualifier for the 2018 World Cup.
The country’s president, Hashim Thaçi, had made the journey and was enjoying the company of Kosovan football legend Fadil Vokrri.
For the president of the Football Federation of Kosovo (FFK), it was a crazy day. With just a few hours until kick-off, Kosovo still did not have a full team to put out.
“We were waiting for FIFA’s permission to field a number of players who had previously represented other countries,” explains Eroll Salihu, a former FK Prishtina stalwart and now the FFK’s general secretary. “We didn’t even have 11 players the day before the match.”
One by one, the players received the all-clear. With five hours to go, FIFA gave the green light for six more players and coach Albert Bunjaki finally had a full squad to choose from. And so the magic began.
After 60 minutes, with Finland in the lead, Valon Berisha rifled home his country’s first-ever competitive goal from the penalty spot. The former Norwegian international had put Kosovo on the world football map.
The battle for accession
Football has been part of the national culture in this small Balkan nation for over 100 years. But war, the break-up of Yugoslavia and then the country’s unresolved status forced Kosovan football to develop in the shadows until independence finally arrived in February 2008.
The FFK applied for membership of UEFA and FIFA in spring that year, but had to wait before being admitted to the international football family. Not all countries recognised Kosovo’s independent status and its application was rejected on the grounds that it contravened FIFA’s statutes.
“Fadil Vokrri battled away for years,” recalls current FFK vice-president Predrag Jović. “He argued that our country loved football, that our supporters were exemplary and that there was no reason to prevent thousands of Kosovans living out their passion for football.”
In 2014, FlFA gave Kosovo permission to play international friendly matches, albeit without a flag or national anthem, but still refused to admit the FFK as a member association.
Then, at the Ordinary UEFA Congress in Budapest on 3 May 2016, the clouds parted as the majority of member association delegates voted in favour of the FFK’s accession to UEFA. The FFK became a member of FIFA in Mexico City ten days later.
“From that moment on, everything changed very quickly and very positively,” says Eroll Salihu. “We were able to organise our own league, play in international competitions, sell TV rights and access funding from UEFA and FIFA.”
Urgent need for pitches
This financial assistance enabled the FFK to tackle one of its main challenges: the development of sports infrastructure.
“It’s one of the shortcomings in our country,” says Sanije Krasniqi, head of grassroots football and assistant coach of the women’s national team. “For a long time, some clubs have only had one pitch for all their teams, from the juniors to the Superliga.”
There is an urgent need for more pitches in a country where demand for football is growing day by day.
“More and more players are joining our youth teams every year. We had 150 players in 2014, but now we have more than 300,” says Arton Hajdari, training centre director and U19 coach at KF Feronikeli, a historic club based in Drenas, some 20km west of Prishtina. “We had to build more pitches so we could accommodate everyone.”
The FFK got the message and since 2016 has been working to improve the situation in all seven regions of the country.
“Things have changed very quickly. We built six artificial pitches in 2018, while six more will be installed in the near future, with even more in the pipeline,” says Jović.
The facilities for the national teams will also be improved, since the ministry for sport has also approved the construction of a new 30,000-capacity national stadium approximately 20km from Prishtina, which is due to open in the next two or three years.
“Kosovo currently play in the Fadil-Vokrri stadium, which can hold 13,000 spectators, but the demand for tickets is very high. This new stadium will accommodate more fans and bring in more ticket revenue,” says the FFK vice-president.
Coaching the coaches
The ultimate aim of this improvement programme is to provide sufficient pitches and facilities to enable players to reach their full potential.
Another piece in the jigsaw is the training of competent staff. This is the responsibility of the FFK’s technical director, Michael Nees, who came to Kosovo as part of the international sports development programme run by the German ministry of foreign affairs.
“We want to create a sustainable training structure, in other words to develop technical teams to look after Kosovo’s young players in the near future,” explains the coach, who has also worked in the Seychelles and Rwanda.
“We were lagging behind in many areas. We didn’t have a development programme for fitness coaches and we still don’t have any analysts,” says Nees, “whereas all the big teams have two or three. But we are getting there step by step and we are now training technical teams, because coaches are the key.”
The German strategist has drawn up a timetable that will see the FFK, with the help of UEFA instructors, train coaches at C, then B, then A licence level, with the ambitious target of increasing the number of coaches from just over 120 to 500 by 2021.
Sanije Krasniqi works very closely with her technical director. Before taking charge of the FFK’s football academies, she worked as a teacher and refereed in all categories of youth football. She is well aware of the potential of Kosovo’s up-and-coming players.
“We have lots of talented young players,” she says, “but it’s mainly up to the coaches to help them go far in the game. If we do our work properly, the future will be very bright.” The former referee was the first woman to officiate at a men’s Superliga match in Kosovo.
“In Kosovo, 60% of the population is under 30. We are a young country, but it’s difficult without professional staff. Young players are in good hands up to the age of 14, but once they reach adolescence they need skilled coaches to help them get to the top level.”
Patience is required: the seeds planted by the FFK are already bearing fruit at youth level, where Kosovan teams are faring very well on the international stage.
“In terms of progress in the last two years, we are among the best teams in the world,” says a delighted Michael Nees. “The Under-21s, playing in their first-ever EURO qualifying campaign, have resisted Germany, the current world champions (0-0 in Prishtina last September). The Under-17s qualified easily for the elite round coming up in March, and the Under-19s have also been excellent.”
Girls answer the call
Football is not just for boys, of course. Kosovan girls love their football just as much, and the development of the women’s game has been one of the FFK’s priorities since it became a UEFA member in 2016.
Before any teams could be set up, however, it was crucial to make it easier for them to join clubs.
“Some girls live in villages and it’s very difficult for them to play because they don’t know who to talk to or how to find a club,” says Valbona Gashi, FFK women’s football director, who has been running a huge recruitment programme for girls aged 9–12.
This UEFA-backed initiative is a source of great pride for the FFK. “We invited schools from all over the country to take part in regional tournaments,” explains Gashi. “Every school entered at least one team and the winners qualified for the finals in the capital. Coaches from Kosovan clubs attended the matches and the national Under-16 and Under-19 team coaches were also there to see the talented youngsters in action.”
One thousand girls from 99 schools all over the country took part, including some who played on a proper pitch for the very first time.
“I was very emotional,” says Valbona Gashi, “because I saw girls crying when they lost a match. They were so determined to win. Some of them absolutely love playing football and dream of playing for clubs, or even representing Kosovo one day.”
At senior level, the women’s national team played their first competitive international match last year, a 2019 World Cup qualifier. A difficult campaign opened with a rather special fixture against Albania.
“It was both very tough and very emotional,” says Sanije Krasniqi. “We grew up with the same flag, we share the same history. Many of the Albanian players came from Kosovo. And now we wanted to beat them!”
Like the men’s team, most members of the women’s national team play abroad. It is natural that they should want to be near their families, who were scattered all over Europe before or during the war. “We have very close links with our diaspora, even though we don’t have any scouts or paid talent-spotters,” says Krasniqi. “We are usually in regular contact with fellow Kosovans who are involved in football abroad. And it’s even easier with the internet.”
Nations League success
With the likes of Valon Berisha, Benjamin Kololli, Milot Rashica and Enis Alushi, the spine of the Kosovan national team is made up of players who were born or grew up abroad. The team’s recent success owes much to these players’ experience of top-level football in Europe.
Since their inaugural World Cup qualifying campaign saw them finish with one point in a difficult group, Kosovo’s record has been impressive, initially in friendly matches and then in the Nations League, where they won their group. The fact that they were able to play home matches at the Fadil-Vokrri stadium in Prishtina was crucial.
“Previously, we played our matches in Skhodër in Albania, which was difficult for our supporters to get to. Playing in Prishtina after the stadium was renovated in 2017 was a real boost for the players and supporters,” explains Diturie Hoxha, FFK communications director. “All the tickets for the match against the Faroe Islands sold out within a few hours. There were so many people outside the stadium ticket office, it looked as if there was some kind of demonstration going on.”
Undefeated at the Fadil-Vokrri stadium, Bernard Challandes’ men are now on a ten-match unbeaten run.
“The Nations League was a huge step forward for us. Thanks to our results, we will have two chances to qualify for EURO 2020, which is our next objective,” says an excited Predrag Jović. “I think we will finish second behind England in our qualifying group, but even if we don’t get through that way, we will have another opportunity to qualify through the play-offs.”
There are no limits to Kosovan football’s ambitions. The FFK is taking the game forward step by step, supported by the game’s governing bodies and driven by the passion of those contributing to the rise of football in Kosovo, whether at federation, national team or club level.
“I’ve been here for 18 years now and I won’t be leaving until we win the Champions League,” laughs Isak Smajli, general secretary of KF Feronikeli. He and his friend Elmi will never forget the past, but they see football as a means of recovering from it and moving forward. “The area around Drenas had been decimated. The bombing had destroyed 80% of the town. Everything had to be rebuilt brick by brick: the houses, the football pitches … Elmi was there every day to rebuild the club and it’s thanks to people like him that KF Feronikeli is alive today. It’s something we’re very proud of and it promises a brighter future for our town.”
In Drenas, as in the rest of Kosovo, football is more than just a sport.
This article originally appeared in UEFA Direct 183