How war-torn Kosovo can stun England...
England are expected to continue their European Championship qualification cakewalk on Tuesday when they welcome Kosovo to St Mary’s – but the visitors should not be underestimated.
Despite their infancy on the international stage, Kosovo have already established themselves as worthy opponents for any nation.
In fact, Bernard Challandes’ men briefly overtook England at the top of Group A on Saturday before the Three Lions beat Bulgaria 4-0 at Wembley.
Earlier that day, the Kosovans stunned the Czech Republic with a 2-1 victory to record the most significant win in their short history as a competitive nation.
The team were only accepted by UEFA and FIFA three years ago, due to the ongoing political tension in the former Serbian province.
Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, a move which Serbia still rejects, and relations remain tense.
At the 2018 World Cup, Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, both of Kosovar Albanian descent, performed a nationalist ‘Albanian Eagle’ gesture after scoring for Switzerland against the Serbs.
Kosovar Albanians were the victims of cultural oppression from the Serb-led regime throughout the nineties, which culminated in the Kosovo War of 1998/1999.
More than 13,000 people were killed and millions of ethnic Albanians displaced during a bloody civil war which brought the country to its knees and eventually saw NATO intervene.
Serbia still does not recognise Kosovo as an independent nation, nor do several United Nations members – or many within UEFA.
Arsenal’s Xhaka and Liverpool’s Shaqiri helped bring a petition to FIFA in 2012 asking permission for Kosovo to compete in friendlies, and 18 months later they played their first recognised match, a 0-0 draw with Haiti in March 2014.
Two years after that, Kosovo were narrowly accepted into UEFA, by 28 votes to 24. There was strong opposition from Serbia and Russia, as well as countries such as Spain and Ukraine, who have their own individual states which desire independence, like Catalonia.
As recently as Saturday, eight Czechs were arrested for flying a banner which read ‘Kosovo is Serbia’ in protest against their UEFA membership.
Kosovan football is the very product of the country’s violent recent past. Most of the squad which will line up against England on Tuesday are former refugees, raised outside their homeland, while none of them play domestic football in Kosovo.
The match-winner against the Czech Republic, Mergim Vojvoda, was brought up in Belgium after his family fled from the conflict, while the team’s star player, Swansea forward Bersant Celina, grew up in Norway.
Xhaka and Shaqiri have both previously suggested they would play for Kosovo, rather than Switzerland, if the team existed earlier in their careers.
Who says politics has nothing to do with sport?
The Kosovans now embark on their first attempt to qualify for the Euros, and unlike their disastrous World Cup qualifying campaign, this is going rather well.
Two wins and two draws see them enter the clash with England just one point behind their hosts, although they have played a game more.
But their unbeaten run extends way further than the qualifying campaign, all the way back to October 2017.
Kosovo are undefeated in their last 15 international matches – a run which saw them top their Nations League group in the lowest tier of the competition.
It could be argued that, on form, Kosovo represent England’s toughest opponents in Group A.