SKOPJE (Reuters) - Kosovo's dream of qualifying for Euro 2020, less than five years after being accepted into international football, ended with a 2-1 away defeat by neighbours North Macedonia on Thursday.
Darko Velkovski's 33rd-minute header won the semi-final playoff for the hosts, who are themselves aiming to qualify for the first major tournament in the team's 27-year history. They face Georgia next month for a place in next year's tournament.
Kosovo's players collapsed onto the pitch in anguish as the final whistle blew, while home team coach Igor Angelovski rushed onto the field carrying a Macedonian flag.
Despite an outpouring of emotions after steering North Macedonia to a shot at reaching their first major tournament as an independent nation, Angelovsk warned his players to keep their feet on the ground.
"We are euphoric right now and we deserve to celebrate, but we must also keep in mind that we haven't accomplished anything yet," he was quoted as saying by the Balkan nation's media.
"We can celebrate tonight but it's back to work tomorrow because we don't have much time to prepare for the crunch game against Georgia."
Kosovo, a country of 1.8 million people which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, was finally accepted as a member of European soccer's governing body UEFA, and world soccer organisation FIFA, in 2016 after a long campaign.
They enjoyed a remarkable 15-match unbeaten run in 2018-19 to win their Nations League group and qualify for the playoffs which offer a back door to the Euros.
Given a rousing send-off by flag-waving supporters who also let off firecrackers when they left Pristina for the 90-kilometre road trip to Skopje on Wednesday, Kosovo were missing key players and it proved a bridge too far.
Their Napoli defender Amir Rrahmani was not released after his club's squad were ordered to isolate following two positive COVID-19 tests while midfielders Hekuran Kryeziu and Milot Rashica plus striker Vedat Muriqi were injured.
North Macedonia were without Elif Elmas who was also among the Napoli players to test positive for coronavirus.
Kosovo made a bright start but fell behind in cruel fashion when Stefan Ristovski's mis-hit shot deflected off defender Benjamin Kololli and crept inside the post for an own goal after 16 minutes.
But the visitors capitalised on a defensive mishap to level in the 29th. North Macedonia goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski charged out of his area to clear but lost possession and Florent Hadergjonaj chipped the ball into the net from 25 metres.
The hosts regained the lead four minutes later when Velkovski rose to head in from a free kick.
The second half was increasingly scrappy, although Kosovo nearly snatched a stoppage-time equaliser when Fidan Aliti's shot was blocked by Dimitrievski at point-blank range.
(Writing by Brian Homewood; addiional reporting by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Ken Ferris and Ed Osmond)