Are Kosovo The 2018 UEFA Nations League`s Biggest Success Story?
Admittedly, Kosovo’s history in European football only dates back to 2016, but last night’s 4-0 victory over Azerbaijan stands alone as their finest hour.
The UEFA Nations League has caused something of a stir in its first iteration. For the big teams, it has provided a welcome relief from the usual drudgery of friendlies and exhibition matches, so often lamented by fans as a tedious distraction from the important business of the Champions League and domestic football. For some of the middle class of European football, it gives an opportunity to play meaningful matches against similar opposition, as well as providing a potential route to the European Championships in 2020. And for one small team, it might just have provided the greatest moment in their footballing history.
Admittedly, Kosovo’s history in European football only dates back to 2016, but last night’s 4-0 victory over Azerbaijan stands alone as their finest hour. The country, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, fought long and hard to get themselves accepted into UEFA and began life with no players, no stadium and little more than hope. Now, they stand a good chance of qualifying for Euro 2020.
Due to their low rank, Kosovo were placed third last in the seedings for the Nations League, which features four leagues split into four groups, with all group winners guaranteed at least a playoff place - and against other nations from their leagues too, ensuring that at least one country from the lowest ranked League will qualify. After their victory last night, Kosovo will join fellow minnows Belarus, Macedonia and Georgia in a four-way fight for that place.
The system may be convoluted, but everyone in Pristina was well aware how it worked. They entered last night’s game knowing that a win would guarantee their progression and the stadium was full. The noise when their goals - all four of them - hit the net displayed just how much it meant to locals, as did the emotion shown by the players. One man who was there was Arber Loxha, Editor-in-Chief of Kujtesa Sport, Kosovo's largest TV sports show. “Through UEFA Nations League, Kosovo has a chance to go through as the level of competition in our League looks favorable. UEFA is applying this system of competition as a chance for smaller countries to advance to the European Championship Finals,” he said.
A consequence of a successful Kosovo team, aside from the obvious sporting benefits, is that a good team could potentially lead to an even stronger player pool in the future. One of Kosovo’s problems has been convincing the best Kosovo-qualified players to turn out for them, especially from the nation’s huge diaspora community.
Indeed, at the match at Euro 2016 between Switzerland and Albania, half of those playing could have also played for Kosovo, split fairly evenly between the two sides. Stars of the caliber of Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri and Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka, as well as ex-Manchester United star Adnan Januzaj, qualify for Kosovo, among hundreds of others spread across top leagues in Europe.
For a nation that saw mass emigration during the late 1990s due to the Kosovo War, a new generation, made up of migrants who moved as children or were born shortly after their parents moved, could provide a huge boost in talent.
“When there are good results, chances of Albanians doing well at European clubs to accept the invitation to play are higher. I hope that young players, like, Toni Domgjoni at FC Zürich, for example, will decide to come and play for Kosovo,” said Loxha. There is a generation of kids born in 1998, when the war began, or shortly after, lurking around some of the most elite youth academies in Europe. While Shaqiri and Xhaka did not have the option of playing for Kosovo when they were first available for senior international football, this next group, who have had the benefits of some of the best facilities and coaching available, will be eligible.
Of those that took the the field last night, the majority were raised abroad, including the two biggest stars: Arber Zeneli of Dutch club Heerenveen and Milot Rashica, of Bundesliga giants Werder Bremen. “Kosovo now has a very good pool of players and anyone stepping in is doing well,” said Arber Loxha. “ I am very glad that Arber Zeneli and Milot Rashica decided to play for Kosovo when they were very young. Both were in the developing phase of their career and playing for Sweden or Albania would have looked much more rewarding for them at that time.’
“Despite this, some players like Rashica and Zeneli grasped a chance of demonstrating something that is beyond the game of football. Now such decisions are paying off for both of them. I hope Rashica and Zeneli will serve as an example for others to declare for Kosovo. What pleases me more after these great results - I guess like everyone in Kosovo - is that our domestic league players will look to improve even more and have a chance to be part of this great group.”
The prospect of qualification is the biggest carrot possible for a country that has already come so far. On the morning of their first match, away to Finland in September 2016, they had just 12 qualified players. For their second match, they were forced to play in Albania as no stadium in Kosovo was deemed fit for international football. For their third, the team were denied entry to Ukraine, which does not recognize Kosovo’s independence, and their game had to be played in Poland. To have come from that to the brink of qualification is an astounding achievement. Even at the start of the Nations League, they were the fourth-ranked team in a group of four. They ended it unbeaten and outscored their opponents 15 to 2 across six games.
“Qualifying for Euro 2020 would be a dream come true,” concluded Arber Loxha. “ Everyone in Kosovo suffered a lot through these last decades, especially sportsmen. Most of the international sports organizations kept their doors closed for Albanians in Kosovo and were never given a chance to prove that we can play, fight, and compete hard in almost every sport. Qualifying for the Finals would make everyone in Kosovo proud and give every kid a dream to work hard towards for their chance.”