From missing papers to a memorable draw: Inside Kosovo's World Cup debut
TURKU, Finland -- It is Monday afternoon and something, at last, is afoot. There's a clamour in the lobby, quickly clarifying into yells and applause.
Those in the Hamburger Bors hotel bar move en masse; everybody thinks they know what has happened but, until they see for sure, they dare not hope too much. And then, once the scene has opened up, everyone piles in. There are embraces, hands are clasped and squeezed hard and at least a few tears.
"I went outside and cried," Kosovo goalkeeper Samir Ujkani will say later. "All of the relief just came out of me."
Just seven hours remain until Kosovo begin their first-ever competitive match, a World Cup qualifier in Finland, yet this feels like a battle won already. The wait has kept the visiting party on tenterhooks and now, at last, thoughts can turn to what may happen on the football pitch at Turku's Veritas Stadion.
That is because five of Kosovo's players have, after a long administrative hold-up, been given clearance by FIFA to switch nationality and take their places in the state's football team, which was admitted to the governing body in May.
It has been no way to prepare for an occasion whose significance runs far beyond sport, but what's done is done; Kosovo's coach Albert Bunjaki must now prepare his team at the shortest possible notice, though not everyone has yet been cleared.
When Kosovo's place on the world football stage became official, any player of Kosovan birth or heritage, who had already played for other countries, was allowed to apply to FIFA's players' status committee for a one-time nationality switch.
Ujkani, Herolind Shala, Alban Meha, Amir Rrahmani and Milot Rashica are the quintet whose last-gasp approvals caused such glee. They have all been capped in the past by Albania, a neighbour of Kosovo with which it shares strong ethnic ties.
By contrast, the status of Red Bull Salzburg playmaker Valon Berisha remains uncertain. Capped 18 times by Norway, the 23 year old has yet to receive the relevant paperwork. The clock is ticking.
It is nothing short of a farce that the situation has dragged on this far and Ujkani, speaking the previous evening, had summed up the stress it put on the players' preparations.
"It's killing me inside," he said. "A letter the Albanian FA needed to send came rather late. But FIFA promised they would fix everything as they know how important it is to me, the country and everyone."
Ujkani, who is now 28 and plays his club football for Pisa on loan from Genoa, emigrated to Belgium with his family in 1994 with the spectre of civil war looming between ethnic Albanians and Serb.
He was one of the lucky ones; two of his uncles -- his father's older brothers -- decided to stay in Kosovo despite warnings that the situation was worsening, in order to protect properties they had worked many years to build; they were burned alive in those homes.
"I said to my father: 'I'm going to play for Kosovo' because we cannot forget what happened," Ujkani said.
The story is just reason why the emotions came flooding out in the hotel foyer. For some of these players, representing Kosovo goes beyond simply playing football and, instead, is the fulfillment of a lifetime's quest.
A COUPLE OF HOURS later, at just after 4 p.m., Berisha's smile is positively glowing. His confirmation has finally arrived and Kosovo's pieces are all in place.
"I have my players, I know my team, it feels good," beams Bunjaki, who had plans A, B and C in his head during the squad's training camp in the serene, lakeside surroundings of Eerikkila, about 90 km away from Turku.
The coach's biggest concern had been the availability of Ujkani, his captain. Kosovo's defence requires a calming anchor and Bunjaki has been exasperated with his players' inability to retain shape during training sessions. Another onlooker also has concerns.
Tord Grip, who assisted Sven Goran Eriksson during his England reign, has a long-standing friendship with the Sweden-based Bunjaki and worked with him during Kosovo's first official friendly against Haiti in 2014. Now Grip is back, although he modestly states he is in town purely to watch the game.
There are few coaches in the world who can rival his depth of experience and it is little surprise to see Grip, now 78 years old, and Bunjaki together on several occasions in the 24 hours leading up to the match.
"I am sure Finland are going to play three in attack," Grip says as the Kosovo players, many of whom have taken a few hours' sleep to shake off the earlier tension's mental toll, file onto the team coach at 8 p.m. "One central and two wide, all high up. They will need to be stopped."
As the vehicle waits to depart for Veritas Stadion, Grip nudges Bunjaki discreetly and the two retreat into the hotel bar for one last, brief conference. When that is done, Bunjaki and his Kosovo players are on their own. "Milot Rashica! Milot Rashica!" The Kosovan supporters, who account for around half of a crowd that does not reach 8,000, bay for their team to emerge from the tunnel and reserve particular attention for one of the new recruits.
Rashica only turned 20 in June and is the one player Albania were genuinely horrified at the thought of losing; the winger's rise last season, after joining Vitesse Arnhem from Kosova Vushtrri, caught eyes all over Europe and he is certainly Kosovo's gain.
While fanciful hopes are still held in some quarters of Switzerland's Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri joining Kosovo's cause -- the former claimed in an Instagram post to have received a letter from FIFA saying that appearing at Euro 2016 would disqualify him, although this has not been substantiated -- it is more likely that Rashica will be the star turn for the time being and his reception reflects that status.
Having been roared onto the pitch, Kosovo's players begin the match ravenously and just nine minutes have passed when left-back Leart Paqarada dips a half-volley onto the cross bar. Meanwhile, the speedy breaks of Rashica and Bernard Berisha force a lumpen-looking home side onto the back foot.
Finland, though, are practiced opponents and, after 18 minutes, their centre-back Paulus Arajuuri capitalises on defensive confusion to open the scoring. The smart money is on the hosts seeing the game out and Kosovo, bursting with energy and pride, run the risk of being picked off once the wind is out of their sails.
Not quite so. Bunjaki's players get to half-time, missing a number of half-chances in the process, and then emerge like men possessed after the break. Rashica is everywhere, beating his man time and again on the right and scampering to recover the ball whenever possession is lost. Paqarada and right-back Fanol Perdedaj are playing as ancillary wingers and, if Kosovo can only find a decent final ball, you would expect the pressure to tell.
A minute before the hour it does when Bernard Berisha is fouled inside the box by Thomas Lam. Kosovo have a penalty and the scenario is a picture book one. Valon Berisha, who seven hours earlier feared he would be watching from the stands, places the ball on the spot. For a reason nobody can quite put their finger on later, nothing seems to be in doubt. The game will end 1-1.
IT IS WELL AFTER midnight when the team bus returns to Hamburger Bors. A crowd of Kosovo supporters, many based in Finland, is already in situ and the loudest cheer of all amid the near-chaos is reserved for Valon Berisha, who kept the coolest of heads when many might have lost theirs.
"It was my dream to score," Berisha said. "We didn't win but I'm happy, because my family asked me to be Kosovo's first scorer."
The lobby is once again taken over by a pulsating mass. Kosovan songs are playing; a group of players crams into a lift but the doors will not shut, such is the perpetual motion in front of them.
"I think we showed everybody that we can play football," says Ujkani, although he can hardly be heard. "I think we need to keep a level head, but the important thing is that we have talent. We'll just enjoy this."
Some of the squad head out to celebrate further; others are utterly spent. When the dust has settled, the serious point to make is that no World Cup qualifier should be prefaced by such doubt; it is grossly unfair to all involved and the mind boggles that no process was put in place to rule on Kosovo's nationality switches as soon as their place at FIFA's top table was confirmed. In the event, they rose above everything.
"I think, after four or five years, we're going to understand how important this situation was," Ujkani had said while he was still agonising over getting the green light to play. "After a while we're going to say 'f------ hell, we played the first game; it was that big."
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.