Kosovo's remarkable rise: How a country formed in 2008 is on the verge of reaching Euro 2020
PRISTINA, Kosovo -- As soon as Arber Zeneli received the ball, electricity filled the air. That's hardly unusual: The left winger is one of the players tasked with lifting Kosovo above the mean, and just when they needed it, he did it again. Kosovo had been frustrated by a dogged Bulgaria and, with half an hour to play on Monday, stood on the brink of a chastening defeat. Then, via the sharpest of runs from the left, a swerve past his defender and a whipped shot into the far corner, Zeneli raised the roof, and any tension dissipated into the sky.
"Dream on, Dardanians" had read the Tifo displayed around Fadil Vokrri Stadium as the teams emerged before kickoff. As they filed into the night, Kosovo's fans could keep believing in what had, for so long, been literally unbelievable.
Nobody would have dared suggest five years ago that Kosovo, a war-scarred state that declared independence only in 2008, would produce one of the most talented young football teams in Europe. During the 1990s, as tensions with the Serbian regime intensified, it was deemed too dangerous to play the sport in public. Now the team is unbeaten in 12 games, seemingly unable to stop scoring and playing with a maverick style that feels like a throwback to a bygone era.
The "Brazil of the Balkans" tag that has playfully followed them around no longer looks fanciful.
"I will tell England that Kosovo is not going to be easy," Christian Eriksen said last Thursday after his Denmark side scraped a 2-2 friendly draw in Pristina.
Kosovo are the dark horse in England's Euro 2020 qualifying group. Their 1-1 draw against the Bulgarians sets them off and running, but they were already just two games from making history. Should they beat Macedonia and then Georgia or Belarus in next March's Nations League playoffs, Kosovo will qualify for the European Championship without need for the more conventional route, and one of modern football's most remarkable stories will break improbable new ground.
"We came together, but we didn't know each other"
Samir Ujkani remembers the rain teeming down in Mitrovica and moisture of a different kind blurring his vision. "I had tears in my eyes when I saw all the people in the stadium," he said. At 30, Kosovo's captain and goalkeeper cannot quite be considered a "veteran," but nobody else in the squad has been there since it all began.
"We came [together], but we didn't know each other," Ujkani said of the squad that faced Haiti on March 5, 2014, in northern Kosovo, playing on a quagmire of a pitch that made the goalless draw barely watchable. They were not yet members of FIFA, but after a battle stretching back more than half a decade, they had been granted permission to play friendlies. A rag-tag bunch, largely culled from relatively low-profile sides in Scandinavia and central Europe, had been summoned for a fixture whose symbolic value far exceeded the need to get a result.
"Before the game, we had two training sessions and didn't even know each other's names," he said. "It was, like, 'Hello' one day and 'What's your name again?' the next. But we had this feeling, directly, that we were brothers."
Those pre-match drills were carried out at a training facility in Obilic, just outside Pristina.
"The pitch wasn't great. It could give you ankle and knee problems," Ujkani said of the surfaces on which Kosovo were forced to play in the beginning. Looming overhead was a notorious power plant run by KEK, the Kosovo energy corporation, that pumped pollution into the air.
"They were not easy moments," he said, remembering the early days.
Back then, they were managed by Albert Bunjaki, who sowed the seeds of Kosovo's success and took the team as far as he thought he could. He worked for just €600 a month from 2009 to 2016 and sometimes even paid the expenses of his assistant. The genial, Sweden-based Kosovan coach led the team into its first World Cup qualifying campaign after FIFA and UEFA finally gave Kosovo the green light in May 2016.
Kosovo drew their first qualifier, away against Finland, but lost their next nine in a fiendish group that included Iceland, Turkey, Ukraine and Croatia. Bunjaki resigned; patience was not a commodity in those early days, and Ujkani points out the low base from which Bunjaki had to work.
"Albert created this team," he said. "He brought us together and didn't have an easy job. We didn't have pitches. We didn't have a suitable stadium. We'd ride for hours in the bus to Shkoder in Albania to play our home games in the World Cup. Nowadays, the organisation of the federation is perfect. Kosovo needs to always thank Albert.
"We lost those games, but we grew stronger together because we knew that was the way to get out of this bad moment. It was a hard start, but we had to fix it and get through it. The guys fought. They grew up. The mentality was so strong."
Bunjaki's successor, the well-travelled Swiss coach Bernard Challandes, was appointed in March 2018 in an attempt to reset the team's trajectory. "I accepted this job because I had the feeling there was some potential," he said while sitting in the bar of the Emerald Hotel just outside Pristina, where the team has been based since day one. "We are like a little baby, a few years old. We must still learn everything."
"We want to give everything for the people"
Under Challandes, Kosovo have blossomed. They scored 15 goals in their six Nations League games and looked a class apart from Faroe Islands, Malta and Azerbaijan in group D3. Many of the coach's conversations with the Kosovan media are focused on the need to keep calm and not get carried away. He is, however, aware of the treasure trove at his disposal and detects progress in his team's ability to balance offensive flair, which has been a constant in local players since the Yugoslavia days, with a more pragmatic approach.
"We have now found a good mix between defence and attack," Challandes said. "The Kosovo player is more [attack-minded], and I must sometimes fight that. But we must also use the qualities of the player and use our identity as the Kosovo team. The Kosovo team must always be one that tries to play football."
Challandes admits he has had to let certain things go since his arrival. The stream of friends, family, agents and media in and out of the national team lodgings sometimes exasperates him, but he also knows there is little chance of demanding the kind of lockdown that an established power such as England or Germany might impose. Many of the players were born outside Kosovo, almost always due to their parents' escapes from the war; the downtime between games and training is a chance to make fundamental connections with their roots.
"It's nice to see everyone. You also meet up with family, and it gives you energy and motivation," said Zeneli, the Reims winger.
Kosovo's improvement in attack owes plenty to Zeneli, who tormented the Danes and has scored seven international goals since early 2018. He and Milot Rashica, of Werder Bremen, are two of the continent's most exciting wide players. They are the vanguard of this new, explosive Kosovo side and the vast array of diaspora-based talent that has signed up since that scrap against Haiti to give it formidable strength in depth.
Arijanet Muric, the promising Manchester City goalkeeper, was born in Switzerland but signed up last year and is currently preferred to Ujkani in Kosovo's starting XI. Valon Berisha, the Lazio playmaker who was capped 20 times by Norway, "debuted" against Finland and is an influential presence. The pair from FC Zurich, Benjamin Kololli and Hekuran Kryeziu, both sat out the Denmark game because of injury but are indispensable when fit.
Most of these players were petitioned in person by the tireless Bunjaki, who toured Europe out of his own pocket to keep in contact with players and their families. Challandes continues to work on securing the commitment of other, slightly younger players based elsewhere, such as Bayern Munich's Meritan Shabani and the Barcelona starlet Labinot Kabashi. The pool of potential players across the continent seems endless; as Kosovo become an established force, the likelihood is that more will answer the call.
"I made the decision with my heart," said Zeneli, who was born in Sweden and was in their squad when they won the UEFA U-21 Championship in 2015. He didn't sign up for Kosovo in time to start their World Cup campaign. His paperwork was still coming through when, amid emotional scenes in the Finnish city of Turku in September 2016, five of Kosovo's side received clearance to represent their country competitively within hours of their first qualifier. Zeneli made his debut the following month and says the improvement since then has been profound.
"In my opinion, we have a name now," Zeneli said. "People are aware that the national team is not just here to play the games and that we want to win every game. It took us a little time to get the players at first, but now we are settled in.
"At first, it seemed more individual, but now I think we've built up the team like a family. Everybody is playing for each other now, and I think that's the biggest difference in this team compared to the beginning. I can't speak for others, but I felt people were playing a bit more for themselves. Now everyone works for each other. You do all the small jobs for the team, and positive things will come."
Perhaps it is simply down to maturity. Kosovo's team has an average age of 23; some of them were, as Ujkani points out, still in their teens when they faced the likes of Croatia for the first time. They were tasked with handling top-quality opponents and the weight of an excited, expectant homeland. Sunday marked exactly 20 years since NATO began a bombing campaign aimed at forcing Serbian leader Slobodan Milosovic to withdraw his forces from Kosovo amid the devastating conflict of the late 1990s. The past now serves as motivation to shape the future.
"Maybe not everyone out there knows the history of Kosovo, of the war, but we just want to give everything back to the people," Zeneli said. "The emotions, the support we get from everyone, are massive. You just come into this part of yourself where you want to give everything for everyone. I feel such great happiness every time I come here, and it all just comes so naturally."
Where do Kosovo go from here?
There have been tears of pride along Kosovo's journey, but there have been tears of profound sadness, too. Eroll Salihu is sitting in Fadil Vokrri Stadium, now the national team's home, as the team trains ahead of the Bulgaria game. Opposite him is displayed a banner reading "Vokrri, our shining light."
Vokrri was the Football Federation of Kosovo's president throughout the effort to be recognised by the game's governing bodies. By his side throughout was Salihu, its general secretary. One would rarely be seen without the other as they travelled the world to garner support for their cause. They made an extraordinary double act, and when Vokrri died suddenly last June at the age of 57, the country of Kosovo mourned one of its most remarkable servants.
"Many times I've cried and tried to hide it," Salihu says of his reaction while sitting inside the refurbished stadium, which was given Vokrri's name after his death. "Even now it's difficult when I mention him. It was 10 years ago. Ten years. You know how hard the affiliation process was."
Vokrri, as Ujkani says, "died a hero ... he created a miracle." It is a source of comfort, though, that Kosovo have honoured Vokrri's memory so marvellously with their performances in Fadil Vokrri Stadium. They blew each of their Nations League opponents away and came within seconds of a win over the Danes. This arena, which Vokrri used to grace as a player for FC Pristina in the Yugoslavian league, has an aura about it even if it has lost the raw, slightly ramshackle appearance of its past.
"I remember the game against the Faroe Islands last year [the stadium's first national team game and first with its current name]," Ujkani says. "Their [Faroe Islands] captain came and said to me, 'I want to thank you because it's one of the most emotional games of my career because of these fans and this atmosphere.'"
The stadium is a symbol of Kosovo's new outlook.
"It's been step by step, but we didn't really expect to have such fast improvement," Salihu says of the country's football infrastructure. "We're seeing the benefits of being full members of FIFA and UEFA. We can invest in youth, the women's game and the men's national team, and the results are very encouraging."
Six of Kosovo's top-flight teams can now use artificial pitches, and the level of the organisation is a far cry from the pre-FIFA days, when clubs in the Super League would pay players in cash. Where Kosovans used to play games in secret to avoid enemy Serbian forces as the risk of war grew, now their football team faces the world more proudly than ever.
"We can dream," Challandes says of their prospects of crowning it all at Euro 2020. "In my head, and perhaps here with the team, we must dream. I've always said that everything great has begun with a dream. So why not?"