When England walk out from the tunnel at St. Mary’s for this evening’s European Championships qualifier, they will do so alongside a Kosovo side which has emerged from nowhere as their closest challengers for top spot in Group A.
To onlooking English supporters, though, familiar names are likely to be few and far between.
Ex-Manchester City youngsters Bersant Celina and Ari Muric (currently of Swansea City and Nottingham Forest respectively), Huddersfield Town right-back Florent Hadergjonaj and Sheffield Wednesday cult hero Atdhe Nuhiu will probably spring to the minds of Football League regulars, whilst those with an eye for continental football may be familiar with Lazio’s Valon Berisha and Werder Bremen’s Milot Rashica. Apart from those, the eleven Kosovans striding out onto the pitch in blue and yellow will be doing so as relative unknowns.
Currently on a fifteen-match unbeaten run stretching back to October 2017, their dynamic, successful, free-flowing offensive style has earned them the nickname ‘Brazili i Ballkanit’, or ‘the Brazil of the Balkans’.
Perhaps, if Kosovo had been a nation-state in the 1980s and 90s, this title would fit rather well. But today, thanks largely to rampant wage inflation and the gradual separation of football from society, such a comparison now falls far short of capturing the true spirit of their national team.
The likes of Sócrates and Romario − the once rogue, radical yet articulate champions of the ordinary Brazilian − have long-since been replaced by a grey pall of God-praising, status quo-endorsing political ambivalence visible, or rather invisible, on any modern Brazilian footballer’s social media profiles.
In contrast, Kosovo as a nation and Kosovo as a football team are two truly inseparable concepts. For whenever its footballers partake in international competitions, the sovereign pride of a decade-old state still unrecognised by ninety-three UN member states is emphatically proclaimed.
Like the state they represent, the Dardanët are a youthful entity. Their average age of 24.8 is just three years younger than that of the country as a whole, whilst the governing body for Kosovan football, Federata e Futbollit e Kosovo, was only given full membership of FIFA and UEFA in 2016.
In spite of this relative youthfulness, however, Kosovo has a proud footballing history. Milutin Šoškić, Fahrudin Jusufi and Vladimir Durković, three regulars in the Yugoslavia side which won gold at the 1960 Olympics and finished as runners-up in the European Championships in the same year, as well as 1991 European Cup winner Stevan Stojanović, were all born in what is now Kosovan territory.
More recent would-be international stars − Xherdan Shaqiri of Liverpool and Switzerland, Granit Xhaka of Arsenal and Switzerland, and Adnan Januzaj of Real Sociedad and Belgium − all committed to the nations they fled to as refugees from the bloody 1998-99 Kosovo War before Kosovo had either achieved independence or received official recognition from FIFA and UEFA.
Such high-profile exclusions from Kosovo’s squad, as well as their limited international recognition and slender population of just 1.8m people, make the successes they’ve had in such a short time all the more remarkable.
Driven to a beautiful way of playing by love for a widely disregarded nation, they are the underdogs. The enviable underdogs.
Image by UN Women Europe and Central Asia via Flickr