The rapid rise of the Kosovan Eagle

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On 5th September 2016, eleven Kosovans stepped out into the Veritas Stadium in Turku, Finland’s second-largest city to play a game of football. This game against the land of greats such as Jaari Litmanen, Sami Hyppia and Lukas Hradecky was the opening fixture to the 2018 World Cup qualification campaign. For those eleven Kosovans, it was a match they must have thought would never come – the first competitive game their country had ever played.

Ruled by the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 20th century, the region was ceded to Serbia and incorporated into Yugoslavia following its formation after World War I. Tensions between Serb and Albanian communities resulted in the Kosovan War from 1998-99. Kosovo declared independence in 2008. Serbia does not recognise Kosovo as independent and retains its claims over its entire territory, resulting in Kosovo’s applications for UN membership being rejected.

In 2008, Kosovo had their application for FIFA membership rejected shortly after their declaration of independence. The team was only playing unofficial matches around this time. However, two assets Kosovan football has always been blessed with came together to forge the country’s path to footballing independence – diaspora and talent. Albanian international, Lorik Cana, and Swiss internationals Valon Behrami, Xherdan Shaqiri, and Granit Xhaka, formally wrote to FIFA, urging them to reconsider and allow Kosovo to play friendly matches.

For those eleven Kosovans, it was a match they must have thought would never come – the first competitive game their country had ever played

All four players were of Albanian-Kosovan descent and were playing in one of Europe’s top five leagues at the time. Xhaka’s father spent three years as a prisoner-of-war for his support of Kosovan independence, while Shaqiri and his family emigrated to Switzerland from their native Kosovo as refugees.

Such influence appeared to pay off, with Kosovo being granted permission to play friendlies a matter of months later. Finally, in 2016, Kosovo was voted in as a UEFA member with a vote of 28-24, and subsequently into FIFA with a 141-23 sway. The Republic of Kosovo was on the footballing map.

In the aforementioned game against Finland, they made sure to let the world know of their lofty intentions. A 1-1 draw may have proved to be their solitary point in qualifying, but it was nevertheless a positive stepping stone towards a competitive campaign. Despite qualification failure, the new country left their mark on that summer’s tournament in Russia.

With Switzerland and Serbia going toe-to-toe for the final last sixteen spot behind Brazil in group E, the match between the two was bound to define their fortunes. Both Xhaka and Shaqiri were prominent members of the squad.

Remarkably, both players scored as Switzerland sealed a dramatic 2-1 win thanks to Shaqiri’s finish in the 90th minute. Both players celebrated with an eagle gesture, referring to the national symbol of Albania and their Kosovan-Albanian ethnicity.

The Swiss winner was celebrated wildly in Kosovo. But the Kosovan team themselves were about to have a moment in the limelight.

Placed in a group with England, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Montenegro, Kosovo were bottom seeds and expected to be a pushover but they, in fact, beat every team except England.

Recent campaigns have brought a stagnation in performances, but Kosovans continue to excel at club level

The 2-1 success against the Czech Republic in the Kosovan capital city, Pristina, remains the most impressive result in the country’s history nearly four years later. Sadly, a defeat to the same opposition in the final fixture in Prague left their hopes hanging by a thread. Losing to eventual tournament debutants, North Macedonia, snuffed out their remaining hopes.

Recent campaigns have brought a stagnation in performances, but Kosovans continue to excel at club level. Vedat Muriqi has hit double figures for Real Mallorca in La Liga this season and earned May 2022’s Player of the Month award. Amir Rrahmani is Napoli’s starting centre-back as they romp to the Serie A title and are still in the Champions League at the time of writing.

By scoring for Norwich against Liverpool in the 2021-22 season, Milot Rashica represented the 105th different nation to boast a Premier League goalscorer.

Even players such as Bersant Celina and Arijanet Muric play 90 minutes every game in the Championship – with Muric proving key to Burnley’s extraordinary success this season. Muric was born in Switzerland and represented Montenegro at youth level but is the first high-profile recruit from Kosovo’s diaspora.

With an ever-increasing player base and a competitive enough national team to lure the diaspora to represent Kosovo, Europe’s newest country may just have all the ingredients to bridge the gap to a major tournament sometime soon.

They may cherish the ability to simply compete, but their ceiling is a much higher one. Their footballing success may even gain them more traction in the UN summits.

Image: Drenisa via Wikimedia Commons

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