Kosovo: The underdogs heading to England on a fairytale run

Paul Wilkes
Kosovo fans will head to Tuesday's game in Southampton in confident mood. (Credit: Getty Images)
Kosovo fans will head to Tuesday's game in Southampton in confident mood. (Credit: Getty Images)
  • England play Kosovo in Southampton on Tuesday

  • Kosovo declared independence in 2008, made competitive debut in 2016

  • Kosovo’s 15-game unbeaten run is the longest of any team in Europe

Kosovo head to England for Tuesday’s Euro 2020 qualifier just three years after their competitive debut.

The World Cup qualifier - a 1-1 draw with Finland in September 2016 - was obviously a landmark moment for the country, but their existence as a football team dates back much further.

The break up of the former Yugoslavia saw a number of independent nations form which are known today as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia and Kosovo. The latter only declared their independence from Serbia in 2008 and tensions still remain high.

Albania’s relationship with Kosovo helped the fledging team make their first steps in to international football. A Kosovan side played an unofficial match in 1993, another followed in 2002, and a further fixture took place in 2010.

In 2012, Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka and Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri signed a petition that was sent to then FIFA President Sepp Blatter asking permission for Kosovo to be allowed to play in friendly matches, which was finally granted 18 months later.

Their first recognised friendly was a 0-0 draw with Haiti in March 2014, in the cold and wet Adem Jashari Stadium in Mitrovica.

“The stadium was full because people were so hungry to see a match of their national team,” says Arben Berisha, a football commentator, who has worked for the Kosovan national broadcaster for the last 18 years. “It was a great day. People would do anything to get a ticket.”

In May 2016, Kosovo won a vote to join European football’s governing body, UEFA, although it was close.

They may have been victorious by 28 votes to 24, but there was strong opposition from Serbia and Russia along with countries such as Spain and Ukraine, who have their own individual states which wish for separation.

Valon Berisha scored Kosovo's first competitive goal in 2016. (Credit: Getty Images)
Valon Berisha scored Kosovo's first competitive goal in 2016. (Credit: Getty Images)

A UEFA Emergency Panel has forbidden Kosovo from playing Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia for security reasons.

It’s obvious friendlies alone aren’t sufficient to progress a side and the introduction of Kosovo to official UEFA and FIFA competitions has improved them significantly.

This is their first attempt at qualifying for a European Championship, but they are already proving able competitors.

The growth of the team has been significant in a short period,

They lost nine of their 10 matches in qualification for Russia 2018. “We had a very good team, but we lacked the experience. That’s why we didn’t get the results,” adds Berisha, who was separated at the age of 17 from his family when Serbian police forced them to move.

Their former manager Albert Bunjaki spent eight years at the helm and helped lay solid foundations. “He did a lot to bring together many players from abroad,” says Kosovo General Secretary Eroll Salihu.

“We have very strong opponents from Switzerland, Germany and especially Albania. They took our best players and it was very difficult to have a good team. After a few good results, you can see that we have many players that want to join us immediately.”

Under the guidance of new boss Bernard Challandes their record has been enhanced beyond recognition. The Swiss coach hasn’t lost since he took charge in March 2018, despite the fact that the majority of the squad has remained the same. Kosovo are now unbeaten in 15 games - the best run of any country in Europe.

Challandes’ charges conceded just two goals in their UEFA Nations League group and kept four clean sheets, which means they will be involved in a play-off for Euro 2020 should they not progress from their qualification group. The level of opposition was of a low standard, but they have continued their fine form against better sides.

They drew 2-2 with a Denmark team that contained Kasper Schmeichel, Thomas Delaney, Andreas Christensen and had Christian Eriksen for the final half-hour. Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Czech Republic is arguably their greatest individual result to date, temporarily take them to the top of Group A, although a last-minute win against Bulgaria is certainly a close second.

Swansea City's Bersant Celina is a key player for Kosovo. (Credit:Getty Images)
Swansea City's Bersant Celina is a key player for Kosovo. (Credit:Getty Images)

“It was unbelievable. We were under pressure and missing five players,” says Salihu. The federation had 150,000 ticket requests for the match at the Fadil Vokrri Stadium, which has a capacity of just 13,500.

It helps Kosovo that the majority of their players have international experience with other countries, although switching their registrations was a complex task.

Many players born in Kosovo or who have Kosovan parents, including Shaqiri and Xhaka, are still playing for another country, whether by choice or not.

Challandes has managed to blend attacking creativity with a solid defensive unit within his 4-2-3-1 system. He also relies on the nous of the older players in his squad, while nurturing a number of talented youngsters in the ranks.

Captain and goalkeeper Samir Ujkani is an important figure and their most capped player, with 25 appearances since he switched allegiances from Albania.

He is currently being kept out of the team by Arijanet Muric, the Manchester City youngster who is on loan at Nottingham Forest.

Lazio midfielder Valon Berisha scored in that first competitive game with Finland and his experience for old club Salzburg in counter-pressing has been massively beneficial for the coach in implementing his philosophy.

Florent Hadergjonaj is a left-back at Huddersfield Town and Bersant Celina plays as an attacking midfielder for Swansea City. Striker Vedat Muriqi joined Fenerbahçe in the summer and his ability to hold-up the ball, apply pressure to opposing defenders and finish chances is a valuable commodity.

The future is bright, too. The win over the Czechs saw them field a team with an average age of just 23. Many were born in Switzerland and Germany, as their parents were forced to leave their homeland all those years ago.

It’s a fairytale rise and few would bet against them making further dreams come true.

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