After receiving a thrashing from Croatia in a historic World Cup qualifier in Shkodër, Robert O’Connor takes a look at the past and uncertain future of football in Kosovo.
Midnight in Shkodër. It’s peaceful, almost deserted.
The Catherine Wheels that had shed their sparks all along the main street earlier in the day have burned out, and the blue and yellow smoke that clogged the air has dissipated into the night. As the sun went down on this ramshackle township, air horns glued to the mouths of a thousand revellers had made the streets alive with pageantry. They’re silent now, replaced by the soft thrumming of the drizzle.
A few hours from now heavy storms will rack the city, topping up the grey puddles that have been collecting steadily since mid afternoon. Just off the strip, the Loro Borici Stadium stands empty, its floodlights still lit despite the party having long since fizzled out. After the dance comes the hard hangover.
In the stadium car park a tall, broad-shouldered man makes gentle chat with two reporters in the dark before waving them off into the night with a smile. It’s a polite smile, almost apologetic, and it would have fooled no-one, had there been anyone left in town to see it. He is Eroll Salihu, General Secretary of the Football Federation of Kosovo (FFK). He has had a chastening night.
“Our two central defenders were so slow tonight,” he says shaking me by the hand, finally allowing his face to drop, along with the pretence. The previous time I had met Salihu, in March at the offices of the FFK in the capital Prishtina, the mood was very different. He was excited that day, agitated even, as the UEFA ruling which would determine whether Kosovo would be granted entry to the European football family after a 25-year wait approached. On May 3rd, that passage was granted, and tonight Kosovo have played their first competitive match on home soil, a World Cup qualifier against Croatia. It has not gone well.
6-0, in the end, to Croatia, and not even Croatia at their strongest. Kosovo had expected a difficult night but few people, neither inside the sold-out Loro Borici Stadium in Shkodër or watching in their thousands on the big screen in Mother Theresa Square back in Prishtina, had seen this coming. It has been an embarrassment, a thrashing. No-one feels this more than Salihu. He expects so much of his countrymen. “It wasn’t a 6-0 game I don’t think,” he says, tired. “But it wasn’t good. Not at all.” Tonight has not been about pageantry. It has been about football. But Kosovo have been found wanting.
It isn’t hard to trace the origin of the General Secretary’s exacting standards. They go back to the first declaration of independence declared by Kosovo, not the one recognised by a host of countries including the UK, France, Germany and the US in 2008, but the one pronounced in 1991 as Yugoslavia first began to perish.
Kosovo had two governments then, an authoritarian Serb-led one directed from Belgrade and an underground counter-movement in Prishtina. One sought to crush the Albanian majority in the autonomous province, the other to liberate it. It was in the cause of the latter that Salihu, then of FC Prishtina, led a breakaway football league for Kosovo’s clubs, recently exiled from their stadiums and forced to play their games in the woods and on the rough marshlands.
The man who now heads up day-to-day operations at the FFK’s House of Sport scored the new independent league’s first ever goal on a grey and wet September day in 1991, having been the first amongst his peers to say no to his club’s continued presence in the federal Yugoslav system as the Serb authorities bit deeply into Albanian life.
Things have come a long way since those days. But for Salihu it was never enough simply to gain recognition and make up the numbers. This, after all, is proud football country, where good play is expected from good players.
Against Croatia they showed moments of promise, but it never looked like being enough. Their opponents had gained their own independence at the moment that Kosovo’s struggles were just beginning, and have had two decades now competing at the top level of international football. Conversely, Kosovo have suffered a lost generation of players during their time in the football wilderness, so whilst Croatia’s Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic was helping himself to a first-half hat-trick in Shkoder, the Dardenat were without the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, stars of the European game and of Kosovan heritage, but who have been forced to make international careers elsewhere.
There is talent in this team, though most of the squad have been drawn from the lower reaches of Europe’s smaller leagues in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Turkey. The right full-back Fanol Perdedaj of German second-tier outfit Sandhausen put in a promising showing against Croatia, as did midfielder Milot Rashica of Vitesse in the Dutch league, who showed himself to have been far from overawed by the occasion. Up front, Bersant Celina showed flashes of the skill that saw him make his first-team debut for Manchester City last season, although Croatia’s dominance meant he had few sights of goal.
The feeling around the Kosovo camp after the game was that, after a long fight, a fresh set of problems are just beginning to present themselves. The national team set-up here has been run on almost amateur basis for so long that it will take time for the infrastructure to catch up. In the meantime there could be more chastening nights like the one in Shkodër for Salihu and his colleagues to endure.
External forces continue to be unkind to Kosovo. Prior to last month’s World Cup opener against Finland in Turku, half a dozen of the squad didn’t receive clearance from FIFA to represent the team until a matter of hours before kick-off, having already represented Albania prior to Kosovo’s recognition. Sunday’s 3-0 defeat against the Ukraine was staged in Poland, after the government in Kyiv refused to sanction the team’s entry into the country, which is still beset the chaos of separatism. Kyiv was reluctant to bestow legitimacy on a republic that many in Europe still maintain does not have a right to exist. Meanwhile, Kosovo received yet another blow.
Domestically things are little better. Salihu’s old club Prishtina sit at the top of the country’s Super League but two weeks ago saw their manager Kushtrim Munishi walk out on them, after the club refused to formalise his relationship in the form of a contract. “We are supposed to be professional now,” he told me back in Prishtina, two days before the Croatia game. “I said ‘I want to be on a contract or I will go’. They didn’t do it, so I went.”
It felt as though the conversation should have been full of optimism, at the start of a historic week for the young republic. Instead, the self-inflicted implosion of the country’s best-supported club dominated the agenda.
Crossing the car park at the Loro Borici Stadium, I enquire into Salihu’s take on the situation at his old stomping ground, and with the domestic game at large. “There are still problems, yes,” he says hesitantly. Perhaps understandably, he is reluctant to impart much more. By now though, his cheerful demeanour has completely evaporated, and his exhausted tone is filling in the gaps.
The rain is coming down harder now. I wave the General Secretary off and take one last look at the piercing lights of the stadium before they are switched off, leaving just the dark and an uncertain future for Kosovo.
Cover photo credit: Aleksandr Zykov/flickr/some rights reserved