While the Kosovo players get on the bus that will take them on a tourist route through Seville, the coach, the Swiss Bernand Challandes, who has decreed the morning off for his boys, walks in shorts through the bright hall from the concentration hotel. After lunch, and before going to the La Cartuja stadium for the press conference and official training prior to the duel with Spain, Challandes eats a digestif with members of the Kosovar delegation.
The tranquility and routine that Kosovo lives in Seville have nothing to do with the anguish and tension experienced by its leaders when in September 2016 they were preparing to play their first official match against Finland. At that time, recently admitted as a full federation by FIFA and UEFA, and only a few hours before the match, they did not have enough players to face that first official appointment corresponding to the qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. FIFA, by means of an exception, it allowed players who had been internationals with other countries to play for Kosovo. “At the beginning it was difficult to convince players that they were called up with other teams and had already played for them. The game was just a little short and we didn’t know if we would have players to start with, ”recalls Bajram Shala, delegate of the Kosovar expedition.
The warlike conflict between Serbia and Kosovo in the late 1990s marked the majority of Kosovar internationals. The forced emigration of their relatives caused most of them to be born in the various European countries that welcomed them. Some like Lazio striker Vedat Muriqi were direct witnesses to the horrors of war. “I was a child and when I asked my mother for food, all we had was just an onion and a little bread. We ate it three times a day. Sometimes our families drank tea and gave us sugar. It was like this for almost two years. We had to emigrate, ”recalled Muriqi, the great star of the national team along with wingers Rashica (Werder Bremen) and Zeneli (Stade Reims).
Before and during the conflict with Serbia, football was a symbol of resistance. The Serbian authorities were doing their best to prevent the Kosovars from practicing it. A game in the street or in a clandestine stadium was a way of rebelling and reinforcing national sentiment.
Dual nationality, especially Albanian and Swiss, abounds among Kosovar internationals. “Although they were born abroad, they are deeply rooted in our country. His parents have transmitted their feelings to him and have kept our traditions and culture in their homes, ”adds Shala.
Since being inducted into FIFA, Kosovo’s leaders believe that once young talents emerge and the team gains experience in international competitions, the future may hold a solid evolution. “In Kosovo there is a lot of passion for football, you just have to see how the stadium fills up when we play. We are one of the few countries in Europe where children play in the street all day long, ”reflects Shala, the delegate.
The Kosovo Super League only has 10 teams and the development of the structures continues. Shala abounds: “It is difficult to develop a championship and football when for 30 years you can only play games within your country. In the beginning, developing players was not as important as being able to establish an internal championship that worked regularly. But since 2016, when we were recognized by FIFA and UEFA, we are growing a lot and we hope to be able to do more ”.
The Kosovar team, under the leadership of Challandes, tries to play a joyful football, with the ball as a tool of a daring style that tonight will try to complicate the life of Luis Enrique’s group. “We like to play football, to have the ball, but against Spain it will not be easy. We must look for other things. Our philosophy is to attack, but I think we will have to defend a lot against the Spanish ”.