The rain is coming down harder now. Not that anyone seems bothered. It’s gone midnight and there is little by way of attraction to keep anybody out at this hour in this utterly modest town. Shkoder, together with its punishing weather, is a typical patch of provincial Balkan habitat; quaint, quiet, and seemingly somehow just a little off centre. The rain falls through the awnings of cafes and shops having long since eaten its way through the gutters. This only amplifies the patter of the drizzle. The air is hellishly cold.
I’d arrived in Shkoder exactly 12 hours earlier. It’s only an hour and half by road from Tirana, the Albanian capital, but the change is seismic. Tirana is a noisy, bustling metropolis, quite western in its themes and its intentions. It’s also scorchingly hot, even in October. The drive to Shkoder is like a pothole-ridden journey back in time, maybe 20 or 30 years, although the emphatic views of the rolling Balkan outback make it an undeniable pleasure. One could get lost in those hills, in every sense of the word.
On October 6th, Shkoder is alive with colour and noise. All along the main strip that runs through the town, the trees are decked out in flags. The imposing black eagle on the red flag of Albania is everywhere, but so too is a more serene blue and yellow motif. The Kosovan flag, uniquely in Europe, maps out the republic’s territory beneath a row of six white stars, representing the country’s six racial groups. Nothing could be more fitting. Wars have been fought here to the twin tunes of ethnicity and territory; they are at the beating heart of the tragedy of Kosovo.
Today the national team play their first ‘home’ international in competitive football, though the reality is that this is just one more ‘first’ in a chapter which has been full of them. Even so, this is big. For the first time, fans who for 25 years have been denied the chance of a national football team of their own will come together to support their side on home soil. 16,000 have made the trip, though tickets for the game sold out within minutes of going on sale and thousands more will be watching on a big screen in Mother Theresa Square back in the capital Pristina.
The caveat is that the game is taking place not in Kosovo but in Albania, as the two major stadiums back across the border, the City Stadium in Pristina and the Adem Jashari Stadium in the northern city of Mitrovica, are undergoing renovation. It hardly seems to matter. Kosovans and Albanians share a language, a culture and a common ethos, and the two nations identify with one another almost fully, even outside of the marginal nationalist movement which supports political unification under the banner of ‘Greater Albania’.
The combined weight of history bearing down on this celebration has given the city a charged atmosphere, and this is represented in the armed police presence here. However many Kosovan police have made the jaunt, it’s more than a thousand, all of them decked out in full riot gear, which makes for a peculiar tableaux as they seem to spend the whole afternoon relaxing serenely in the coffee bars which pepper the area surrounding the stadium, drinking dangerously large looking espressos. If anything does go off, it’s going to be a seriously caffeine-charged riot.
The Loro Borici Stadium sits just off the strip. As kick-off approaches and the streets fill out with supporters, a police cordon is set up to separate the fans from the ground. A Catherine Wheel spits into life somewhere further down the crowded street, followed by maybe half a dozen more, crackling loudly as their sparks spin away into drizzle. The air begins to turn thick with blue and yellow smoke, as the air horns which have been a constant accompaniment to the pageantry continue to hum beneath the soundtrack to this chaotic street party.
48 hours earlier, I was sat in a bar in central Pristina with a living legend of Kosovan football, Kushtrim Munishi. Munishi played a major role in another ‘first’ for Kosovo, when on Valentine’s Day 1993 he scored the country’s first ever goal, a late consolation in a 3-1 defeat to Albania in Tirana. This wasn’t the republic in the recognisable form it takes today, though. In 1993 Kosovo was an autonomous province of Serbia, which itself still sat within a shrunken federal Yugoslav state.
Kosovo was always unique within the old Yugoslavia, in that it was the only territory in the federation in which Slavic peoples weren’t the ethnic majority. It is and always has been a place where Albanian is spoken as the dominant language, and where Islam rather than Christianity is the dominant religion. In 1991, as four of Yugoslavia’s six republics declared their independence amid varying degrees of bloodshed, Kosovo too set up an independent government of its own, operating underground and in parallel to the Serb authorities sitting in Belgrade.
To Serbia, any suggestion of Kosovo as a separate, independent entity is anathema. The ancient Illyrian lands which are now sit within Kosovo’s borders are the mythical origins of the Serb people, their birthright. Throughout the Yugoslav wars of succession, many destructive myths and half-histories served as due cause for some of the most sickening violence Europe has ever known. Central amongst them was Kosovo.
From the end of the 1980s through to the civil war of 1998/99, Serbia battered the Albanian people of Kosovo into submission with a barrage of obscenely punitive political and social measures. Albanian schools and universities were closed, people were thrown out of their jobs, and football clubs were ejected from their stadiums. Eventually, ethnic Albanian clubs left the Yugoslav league structure altogether. “It was the hardest thing you can imagine” says Munishi, although on my travels through this period in Kosovo’s football history I have heard many more harrowing tales than anything discussed tonight at this quaint bar in Pristina.
Munishi mostly wants to talk about the present, but that isn’t much more cheerful. Until two weeks ago he was head coach of FC Pristina, having guided the country’s best-supported club to the top of the autumn Super League standings. Just a few days ago though, he walked out. “We are supposed to be professional now” he explains. “I told [the club] ‘I want to be on a contract or I will go’. They didn’t do it, so I went.” It’s the kind of unprofessional approach that dogged the country’s football league during the days before UEFA recognition, when money was sparse and regulations loose. It isn’t the first sign that the future might still be uncertain for Kosovo.
In Shkoder, kick-off is getting close, and the rain by now is torrential. The roar that greets the Dardanet as they trot out onto the pitch to warm up would put many Premier League grounds to shame, and the weather is doing little to discourage an atmosphere from building as the place begins to fill, despite three sides of the ground being uncovered.
Down on the touchline, on the one sheltered side, Football Federation of Kosovo (FFK) General Secretary Eroll Salihu is being interviewed for TV by a sharp-suited man with a microphone in his hand. No-one has done more for the cause of football in Kosovo than Salihu. Back when civic life was collapsing at the start of the 90’s, it was he who led the movement for Kosovo’s footballers to break away from the league system in federal Yugoslavia and start again on their own.
Fittingly, he scored the league that he helped create’s first goal, for FC Pristina against Flamutari on a grey afternoon in September 1991 on some un-commemorated scrap of marshland just outside of the city. He was an outstanding player in his day, though his career was cut short by the outbreak of the war. His is the face of unity and of freedom for Kosovan football. It is fitting that it is the last thing viewers will see before their team makes history here in Shkoder.
How Kosovo could have done with a player like Salihu tonight. The 6-0 defeat dished out by Croatia is a fair reflection of the limits of this team, but not of the country’s ability to produce players. Without the last 25 years of bureaucratic attrition between Kosovo and UEFA which rendered the republic a non-entity in football terms, tonight’s team would have looked quite different.
It’s well-documented that Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka are of Kosovan heritage; since the vote in May that brought Kosovo into the UEFA fold, both have been vocal about their keenness to switch allegiance, even if Shaqiri’s declaration is tainted by the falling-out over the Switzerland captaincy that sparked it. UEFA, though, despite consistently failing to lay down a hard and fast ruling over which players may and may not change their colours, have ruled out a switch for either of these stars of the European game, since both represented Switzerland at Euro 2016 after the Kosovo ruling had been made.
This is not the limit of Kosovo’s lost generation. Etrit Berisha, on loan at Atalanta from Lazio, is a fine, experienced Serie A goalkeeper; Lorik Cana, who captained Albania in France in the summer and was a public ambassador throughout the struggle for recognition, is one of the best players to ever emerge from the southern Balkans; Taulant Xhaka, Granit’s brother, will achieve great things in European football when he inevitably moves on from FC Basel; Valon Behrami has had a rich and varied career in Europe.
Instead most of the Kosovo side turning out at the Loro Borici Stadium are drawn from the middle reaches of the Turkish, Dutch and Swiss leagues. Still, there is genuine talent in this team. Fanol Perdedaj is accomplished at right-back, Milot Rashica is a daring midfielder, and Bersant Celina might still make a name for himself at Manchester City once his loan spell at Vitesse Arnhem is up. When they go forward, this looks like a team that can cause even a side of Croatia’s calibre problems, although tonight Domagoj Vida and Vedran Corluka offer a reminder of why central defence has long been considered this team’s Achilles heel.
At the back, Kosovo’s central defensive partnership fare far worse, something which Salihu is quick to lament when I run into him in the car park after the game. “Our two central defenders were so slow tonight” he says with a tired shrug. “It wasn’t a 6-0 game I don’t think. But it wasn’t good at all.”
Kosovo boss Albert Bunjaki is also keen to point out that the scoreline flattered Croatia. “I don’t think you can say this was a six zero” he tells the post-match press conference. “But this team is young, the players are young. It was only our second game.” There are rumours already that the FFK might consider replacing Bunjaki, in his post since 2009, if the team’s next two qualifiers against Iceland and Turkey don’t go well. Certainly the 3-0 defeat against Ukraine four days after Croatia have done little consolidate his position.
It’s an added layer of uncertainty that this team could do without. After the euphoria of the UEFA vote the FFK are finding out quickly that, far from being the end of the struggle, this all represents just the beginning.
The game against Ukraine took place in Kraków, Poland after the government in Kyiv refused to sanction a game against a country which, they say, was founded illegally and on a separatist ticket. Ukraine are not the only country in Europe who reject Kosovo’s right to exist, and this is unlikely to be the last time that matches have to be moved across borders.
The Croatia thrashing showed just how much ground the FFK has to make up in terms of its infrastructure, having run its operations on an almost amateur basis for so long. Meanwhile, they face a similar struggle domestically. “He’s a great guy”, says Salihu sympathetically when I mention my conversation with deposed Pristina boss Munishi days before. I wonder how he feels the done so far in bringing the domestic game up to the professional standards expected by Munishi, and by UEFA. “There are still problems”. This is all he is prepared to share.
As the rain falls harder and Shkoder welcomes the early hours of a new day, the lights of the Loro Borici Stadium remain lit, and it’s tempting to wonder what the coming days, months and years hold for Kosovo. The lights flicker out, suddenly.
Robert is @hoovesonfire.