From Chaos to Playoffs: The Meteoric Rise of the Kosovo National Team.

“Kosovo loves and lives for football, and you can feel the people’s pride wherever you go. We want to use that quality, composure and passion to make progress, but it won’t happen overnight.” Bernard Challandes’ call for caution after picking up back-to-back victories in his first two games in charge of the Kosovo national team was a sensible piece of expectation management. After all, his new charges had only beaten Madagascar and Burkina Faso in a pair of friendlies. Accomplished opposition no doubt, relative to the young nation’s standing in world football, but hardly a marker of forthcoming success.

Unlike his current employers, Challandes isn’t exactly wet behind the ears. At 67, he’s enjoyed half a century in the game, turning out for a host of amateur clubs in his native Switzerland before chancing his arm in management. A Swiss Super League title with FC Zurich in 2009 remains his one major honour, while a nine-match stint in charge of Armenia provided little joy. Former Kosovo manager Albert Bunjaki had left big shoes to fill after eight years at the helm, steering the nation through the choppy waters of politically sensitive bureaucracy to claim their place as FIFA’s 210th official member. After their maiden qualification campaign for the 2018 World Cup ended in abject disappointment, Bunjaki decided it was time for a change. If results since his departure are anything to go by, his was a martyrish exit.

Had Bunjaki and his team somehow qualified for the tournament, it would have opened a whole new can of worms. Though 113 members of the United Nations have declared recognition of Kosovo as an independent state, Russia is not among them, thanks to an agreement made between themselves and Serbia. That they were even in with a chance of defying the host nation is remarkable in itself. Beyond South Sudan, Kosovo is the youngest nation state in the world, declaring independence from Serbia in February 2008 and putting an end to more than twenty-five years of violence, chaos and bloodshed.

The Kosovan region was unique within Yugoslavia. It was the only area in the federation in which Albanian was the most widely spoken language, Islam the most widely practiced religion, and Slavics the ethnic minority. Upon the break-up of the country in 1991, and spurred on by President Slobodan Milosevic’s increasing oppression of the ethnic Albanians in Serbia,  Kosovo set up its own underground government. Having declared independence in 1992, only to be left frustrated by a lack of recognition from the UN, the guerrilla paramilitary group Kosovo Liberation Army launched attacks against the Yugoslav and Serbian authorities stationed in the region, resulting in the sixteen-month conflict labelled the Kosovo War. Over 13,000 people were either killed or went missing during the dispute, the majority Albanian, before a NATO bombing campaign drove Serbian forces out of the region. In the aftermath of the violence, between 1.2 and 1.45 million Kosovan-Albanians were displaced from the region, fleeing across Europe to seek refuge. It was from this diaspora that the Federata e Futbollit e Kosovës had to find players to represent the Kosovan national team, a far easier task than being recognised by the game’s governing bodies.

The nation’s first applications to UEFA and FIFA were filed months after gaining independence, but were immediately rejected on the grounds that the country was not universally recognised. Undeterred, the FFK returned to FIFA in 2012 appealing the decision and, after to-ing and fro-ing with the Serbian FA and the intervention of a group of high-profile ethnic Kosovars including Xherdan Shaqiri, Valon Behrami and Lorik Cana, granted them permission to play friendlies provided prior permission was gained from their neighbours, and no overtly nationalistic symbols were displayed. In 2013, the unlikely figure of Sepp Blatter hovered into view and cooled tensions between Kosovo and Serbia, encouraging the latter to relax their rules on the FFK’s participation in friendlies. The involvement of FIFA’s president suggested the clearing of a path for Kosovo to finally become a member of the organisation and, just over two years after their first official match, they were welcomed into the fold following a secret ballot.

The drama didn’t end there, however. Ahead of their first competitive fixture, the opening match of the World Cup 2018 qualification campaign in Finland, five members of Bunjaki’s squad were made to wait until the day of the game to find out if they’d been granted clearance to play, having all previously represented Albania in qualifying. Valon Berisha, the Lazio midfielder who has since become the national team’s talisman, wouldn’t find out whether his request to switch from Norway, the country in which his family found refuge at the turn of the century, had been granted until hours before kick-off. Not only was Berisha named in the starting lineup, he would also score Kosovo’s first competitive goal from the penalty spot to earn a creditable draw in Turku. That point would prove to be the one positive from a disappointing qualifying campaign, as Croatia arrived at Kosovo’s temporary home of Shkodër a month later to hit the new boys for six, and a further eight defeats followed.

Now, however, things look far brighter. Between the end of Bunjaki’s reign and the beginning of Challandes’, Latvia were beaten in a thrilling friendly to mark Kosovo’s first win on home soil since becoming a member of FIFA. Combined with those two victories over African opposition in their new coach’s first games in charge, and a thumping 3-0 win over neighbours Albania, the Dardanët came into the inaugural UEFA Nations League on an unprecedented four game winning streak. The opportunity to play similar sized nations, with the prize of a playoff for a place at the European Championships at the end of it, was now an enticing prospect for a rejuvenated team.

Challandes would first have to bolster his options as, with the likes of Shaqiri, Behrami and the Xhaka brothers opting against declaring for their country of birth, the nucleus of his squad would need to be pulled from the developing domestic league. Using his network of contacts in Switzerland, the new manager was able to convince a raft of promising youngsters to turn their back on the Swiss youth set-up in favour of their native Kosovo. Idriz Voca and Gjelbrim Taipi possess the talent to run Challandes’ midfield for the next decade, while Shkelqim Demhasaj has established himself in FC Luzern’s frontline in the Swiss Super League. The new manager has also been extending olive branches to the Kosovan diaspora across Europe, successfully encouraging Manchester City prospect Arijanet Muric to defect from Macedonia. In the lead up to this week’s crucial Nations League fixtures, he revealed that Bayern Munich’s Meritan Shabani and Wolfsburg’s Elvis Rexhbeçaj were considering his invitation to join the national team set-up. Regardless of his work on the pitch, Challandes is clearly putting in the hard yards off it to secure a bright future for the team.

There’s also a sense of excitement surrounding the nation’s youth teams, with the under-17s currently in pole position to qualify for next year’s U17 European Championship in Ireland, topping the group ahead of Switzerland, Scotland and Croatia. Meanwhile, the under-21s picked up a respectable twelve points in their Euros campaign, holding eventual group winners Germany to a draw. For now, though, focus rests solely on the seniors’ hopes of Nations League promotion.

A goalless draw in the opening game in Azerbaijan might have broken Kosovo’s winning streak, but it also represented an excellent result against the only side likely to challenge the Dardanët for top spot.  Followed up by back-to-back home wins against the Faroe Islands and Malta, with FC Zurich winger Benjamin Kololli playing a starring role at left-back, Kosovo took control of the group, with a disappointing draw in Tórshavn offset by the news that the Maltese had nicked a point in Baku.

Challandes’ success has been driven by his ability to use the tools at his disposal, whilst instilling his own philosophy on the team. First choice centre-back Amir Rrahmani, at 6’2”, towers above most of his team-mates, and has acted as a repellent against any kind of aerial threat. Hekuran Kryeziu, Kosovo’s midfield enforcer, patrols in front of the back four to snuff out any danger on the ground. To steel, Challandes has added silk, encouraging a calm, possession-based approach to his team’s playing style. Next to Kryeziu in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Herolind Shala acts as a deep-lying playmaker, recycling the ball and picking out long range passes for Kosovo’s pacy wingers Milot Rashica and Arber Zeneli. Berisha, naturally, is the fulcrum of the side’s attack, and along with Kololli has proved the star of this campaign. Excitingly for Kosovan supporters, an average age of 23 suggests that this squad will be around for some time to come.

“Players should understand how important the next two games are. They should play like it’s the game of their life. That’s how we can make this young country proud”
Bernard Challandes

The target heading into this round of fixtures was simple. Win the next two games and they’ll enter the playoff competition for a place at Euro 2020. Whilst the trip to Malta on Saturday wasn’t exactly a foregone conclusion – the Falcons had held Azerbaijan to a draw in Ta’ Qali back in September – it provided the ideal opportunity to head into the final showdown with Gurban Gurbanov’s side knowing a draw would see them top the group. Not only did Kosovo take all three points, they recorded their biggest win since becoming a member of FIFA and posted a display that confirmed suggestions they’re no longer one of Europe’s minnows.

In a match that played out like an exhibition of everything Challandes has drilled into his team, Vedat Muriqi settled the nerves of the visitors in the 15th minute, slotting past Andrew Hogg to give Kosovo the lead. Though Malta would hold out for another 55 minutes, the roof began to cave when Kololli, on another of his trademark forays forward from full-back, charged into the penalty area and made the most of a bobbling ball to lift it over the ‘keeper and double the visitors’ advantage. Then, two goals in two minutes  from Donis Avdijaj turned the match from a routine win into a rout, before man of the match Rashica raked a long-range effort into the bottom corner to put the icing sugar on the cremeschnitte.

Attention now turns to that crunch match with Azerbaijan on Tuesday, where Kosovo just need to avoid defeat to book their place in the playoffs. With Georgia, Macedonia and Belarus likely to lay in wait, there’s little for them to fear. Regardless of how this campaign pans out, Kosovo’s rise from unrecognised state to international upstarts has been remarkable. It’s reflected in the nation’s leap from 190th to 137th in the FIFA rankings, in their introduction to the Euro 2020 conversation and, most importantly, the ever increasing pride felt by those supporters raised on fear, poverty and conflict.

Should they overcome Azerbaijan, Kosovo could be in the process of writing the greatest football story of all. That they have the opportunity to write it is extraordinary in itself.

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