During Kosovo’s first World Cup qualifying campaign, a feeling spread through their squad and delegation that they were not being treated with enough respect. They could sense it, sometimes, through little things in an opponent’s body language before a game or a disparaging comment during it. Although they took a single point from their attempt to reach Russia 2018, their performances against teams such as Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine and Turkey had merited more; the belief inside the dressing room was that they were not far off and if outsiders wanted to patronise them they had been through enough not to care.
They were right. Kosovo arrive in Southampton unbeaten in 15 games, fresh from a pulsating 2-1 win over the Czech Republic and with genuine hopes of reaching the European Championship at the first time of asking. It is the most exciting story on the continent’s international scene; a tale of how a nation that declared independence in 2008, and did not join Uefa or Fifa until May 2016, has been able to express itself through a team whose possibilities currently appear limitless.
“The dream keeps going,” Samir Ujkani, the captain and long-serving goalkeeper, says. Few have lived that dream more intensely than him. On a filthy day in March 2014 he stood in a bog of a goalmouth in Mitrovica, a city in the north of Kosovo, as a hastily assembled Kosovo side prepared to face Haiti in their first Fifa-sanctioned friendly and could not keep the tears from his eyes.
Two and a half years later, after an unbearably tense wait in a hotel lobby in Turku, the emotions bubbled up again as he and five teammates were cleared to play in Kosovo’s competitive debut against Finlan a matter of hours before kick-off.
“I thought it would take four to six years for us to be ready but now, after three, we’re already living these fantastic achievements,” says Ujkani, who played 20 times for Albania before Kosovo were given permission to play official games. “If we can make [qualification] a reality then it’s incredible, but the main thing is that we are a team that wants to grow and make the future beautiful for our country.”
That is exactly what drives Kosovo’s players, whose attacking, technical approach is underpinned by a ferocious intensity rarely seen on this stage. “Me, my teammates and all the staff, are ready to die on the field,” the centre-forward, Vedat Muriqi, said after Saturday’s victory, in which he scored Kosovo’s equaliser. “We’ll try to give 1,000% for this shirt and for this country.”
In other places words like that, offered breathlessly to the television cameras within minutes of a famous result, would be passed off as hyperbole. For Kosovo they are a mantra to live by. These are, as their Swiss coach, Bernard Challandes, said after the win against Bulgaria in June, “not like other players”.
Every Kosovan has their story of what happened to family, friends or themselves during the brutal war against Serbian forces in the late 1990s. During that decade the ethnic Albanian majority of the population had to play in secret, wild locations. Memories of the past, many of them horrifying, motivate the shaping of a hopeful future.
Many of the Kosovans at St Mary’s on Tuesday count themselves among the war diaspora or are descended from those who do. The 2011 census recorded almost 30,000 Kosovan-born residents in the UK and the squad have been inundated with requests for tickets. Almost half the players were born in other European countries to parents who had, under differing degrees of stress, left Kosovo for a better life. Some have described emotional tugs of war between the country of their heart and the nation that developed them as a player. Thanks largely to the exhaustive efforts of the much-loved Football Federation of Kosovo president, Fadil Vokrri, who died last year, their general secretary, Eroll Salihu, and the previous manager, Albert Bunjaki, those tussles nowadays tend to end in Kosovo’s favour.
Ujkani admits that, before the Czechs visited Pristina, he “would have signed directly for a draw”. Kosovo lacked five of their most important players and will do so against England. The key wingers, Arber Zeneli and Milot Rashica, are injured; so are the midfielders Hekuran Kryeziu and Herolind Shala, as well as the left-back Benjamin Kololli. But England must handle Muriqi, a gladiator of a striker who is on flying form for Fenerbahce, as well as the Swansea playmaker Bersant Celina and Lazio’s Valon Berisha. The Manchester City keeper Aro Muric will probably keep Ujkani out of a team whose likely starters are almost all 25 or under.
“It’s just important to try and play our football against this big, big team and have fun,” Ujkani says.
Kosovo’s default setting is to play a risky, front-footed game and that is unlikely to change now. “Our idea was to create this young group with many talents and they are becoming men now.”
Even if the dream does suffer a minor jolt, Kosovo are here to stay.