The Dawn of Kosovo's Football Nation

A long and complicated journey from war to the World Cup has only just begun

By James Montague, Special Correspondent

October 4, 2016

Bleacher Report

TURKU, Finland — Six white stars lay on the grass as a wordless national anthem played. The 11 players dressed in blue, yellow and gold stood in silence, hands on hearts, as the camera passed across their faces at the Veritas Stadion. In the late-night last moments of a Nordic summer, the air began to turn cold.

The 8,000-strong crowd were as silent as the players as the music played. It was not that they did not know the words, nor that this moment wasn't of sufficient magnitude to warrant learning them. Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth was that there were no words to sing.

It was the first ever competitive game for the Kosovo national team, which had undergone a near-two-decade journey for recognition that had led to here, a World Cup qualification match against Finland for Russia 2018.

By the time FIFA made the decision to recognize Kosovo in May 2016, the World Cup qualification groups had already been drawn. Kosovo couldn't play in Group H with Bosnia and Herzegovina because of the potential political fallout. So they were placed in Group I, which had its own problems.

On Thursday, Kosovo play their first competitive home game against Croatia, a fixture that will raise the ghosts of the Yugoslav War. It will take place in Albania, as no stadium exists in Kosovo capable of hosting the match. Three days later they are due to play Ukraine, but Ukraine have refused them permission to play in Kiev, as the government does not recognize Kosovo.

But first there was Finland, in Turku. The six white stars on the grass, and the blue, yellow and gold of the jersey, are from Kosovo's flag, which could not be flown at a football match before FIFA's official recognition. The national anthem played without any words because it doesn't have any, a decision taken so as not to spark nationalist ire in a part of the world that has largely been defined by it in recent history.Image title

Kosovo fans outside the stadium in Turku, Finland.

The crowd in Turku were mostly made up of Kosovans who had fled the 1998-99 Kosovo War, which killed thousands and eventually led to the territory's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia, which maintains that Kosovo is its historic heartland.

The fans, like the players lining up for the match, had fled the war and found refuge in Finland, Norway, Switzerland and, like Kosovo's coach, Sweden.

Albert Bunjaki stood to attention in a suit with no tie as the wordless anthem played. He has been in charge of Kosovo for seven years, even though the team had spent most of that time in the international wilderness, unrecognised and tangled in the politics of bureaucracy and the bureaucracy of politics.

Behind him stood Fadil Vokrri, the president of the Football Federation of Kosovo (FFK). He was once Kosovo's greatest player and the only Kosovan to play for the Yugoslav national team. Next to Vokrri was his loyal general secretary, Eroll Salihu, whose playing career had been cut short by the war but who had started an illegal football league in Kosovo when the official one was banned by Serbian authorities.

Vokrri and Salihu had been pursuing an often fruitless and at times quixotic eight-year campaign for the world, which doesn't recognize Kosovo as a country, to recognise a Kosovo football team.

The national anthem finished and the crowd roared at its unfamiliar team. For months, if not years, the identity of the team at this moment had been wildly speculated on.

Image title

A fan wears a half-and-half flag to represent the nations of Kosovo (left) and Albania. Photo by James Montague.

What would happen to players like Arsenal's Granit Xhaka or Stoke City's Xherdan Shaqiri, who both had more than 40 caps for the Swiss national team? Shaqiri was born in Kosovo, Xhaka in Switzerland to Kosovan parents. Or to Adnan Januzaj, of Kosovan descent but a native of Belgium who’d played for the Red Devils? Would they be allowed to switch nationalities?

International football was faced with a unique set of circumstances, which had sparked a heated debate that went much deeper. It became a matter of nationality, identity and belonging, while asking important questions about the refugee experience: Who are you, and who do you truly belong to?

Bunjaki had been in the centre of this political maelstrom, and yet even he'd had no idea what his team would be until the very last moment, nor how they would play. The first time he saw them all train together was a few days before the Finland match.

They were ranked as one of the worst teams in the world by FIFA. Would they be the whipping boys of the group, or would they become more than the sum of their parts, driven by something bigger even than the World Cup, hosted in a country that still refuses to recognise them?

The referee blew his whistle. Bunjaki and the rest of the world were about to find out.

A fan holds a Kosovo flag in the foreground, while another displays the Albania flag in the background.

The House of Sports was eerily quiet despite it being 10 a.m. on a Monday in late August.

The down-at-heel building in the heart of Pristina, Kosovo's capital and largest city, is the nerve centre of competitive sport in the republic. Each floor is full of offices representing each of Kosovo's sports associations. A handmade sign hangs on every closed door marking its jurisdiction: judo, cycling, rugby and more.

The offices and corridors were silent and empty. Even the building's security guard wasn't yet at his desk. But up on the third floor, behind one door, a scene of chaos was unfolding. A dozen men had crammed into one of three tiny rooms. More pushed past, or hurriedly left clutching papers ready to be signed and taken elsewhere. One man tried and failed to feed a piece of paper into a fax machine.

For most of its recent life, the offices of the Football Federation of Kosovo didn't have many visitors. The three cramped rooms and one secretary were sufficient for a time when there were no international matches to organise, a league that wasn't recognised by anyone and no official transfer system to regulate.

Times had changed. Next door, Vokrri sat behind a large wooden desk that seemed to take up half the room. "We have too much to sort out," Vokrri said, inviting me to take a chair.

He sat underneath two portraits of himself that hung prominently on the wall behind him. Over his left shoulder, a younger Vokrri is greeting Sepp Blatter, the former president of FIFA, with a smile on both of their faces. Over his right shoulder was a more recent photograph. He's a little older, a little greyer, as he shakes hands with Blatter's replacement, Gianni Infantino.

"When we had our vote, he was the general secretary of UEFA. It was close,” said Vokrri of Infantino and the historic election in May that admitted Kosovo as a member of European football's governing body. That vote, won 28-24, paved the way for Kosovo to join FIFA a few weeks later, just in time to begin 2018 World Cup qualification.

There had been strong opposition, not least from Serbia and its ally Russia, as well as several other European countries that have regions with ambitions of self-determination to contend with—Spain, Ukraine and Greece chief among them.

Image title

Vokrri (right) celebrates confirmation of Kosovo's UEFA membership in May.

UEFA, too, had initially opposed Kosovo's membership. While Blatter had started to champion Kosovo at least being able to play friendly matches from 2012 onward, then-UEFA president Michel Platini, before being suspended and then banned from football in a corruption scandal, had voiced his opposition.

Infantino was Platini's general secretary, but Vokrri said he's been "very supportive" as head of FIFA. "He is a supporter of Kosovo," Vokrri said.

Like most things concerning Kosovo and the former Yugoslavia, the reality gets more complex the closer you look at it. In 1974, Josip Tito, Yugoslavia's charismatic communist dictator, granted Kosovo autonomy. Even though it wasn't one of Yugoslavia's six constituent republics (Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina), Kosovo enjoyed a measure of equality with its neighbours, including a legislature and judiciary.

Alongside the ethnically Albanian majority, there was a significant Serbian-speaking minority, and Kosovo was an integral part of Serbia's history, considered to be the cradle of its identity. Serbian Orthodox cathedrals and monasteries can be found across the territory, surrounded by Serbian communities who feel under threat in today's Kosovo.

Tito's death in 1980 began a decade-long decay that led to the Yugoslav War. When Slobodan Milosevic was elected head of Serbia's Communist Party in 1986, he began to reassert control over Kosovo with his brand of ultra-nationalism. At the time, Vokrri was a talented midfielder for FC Pristina in the Yugoslav First League.

"Everybody in Kosovo was behind the club and it was a symbol of resistance," he said when we first met in 2012. "It was the only sphere in life where Albanians could express their love for football and other things."

Vokrri made a handful of appearances for the Yugoslav national team, but he claimed that prejudice against ethnic Albanians cut short his international career. He later starred for Partizan Belgrade, where he is still regarded fondly.

Image title

"Treat us fairly," reads a slogan on the Kosovo-Albania border. Photo by Agron Beqiri.

The Kosovo War in 1998-99 finally saw matters come to a head. A Serbian-led crackdown against a separatist insurgency launched by the Kosovo Liberation Army, flush with arms from Albania, escalated into full-scale war.

Yugoslav forces were accused of an ethnic cleansing that brought NATO bombers into the sky over Belgrade. Almost 14,000 people were killed, the vast majority civilians, while 90 percent of Kosovo's Albanian population was displaced, creating hundreds of thousands of Kosovan refugees who were spread throughout Europe.

The Yugoslav War ended in 2001 with all of Yugoslavia's former republics eventually becoming sovereign states. Kosovo was left in limbo: self-governing but technically part of Serbia, its path to recognition blocked at the U.N. Security Council by Serbia's ally Russia as well as China.

In 2008, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence. A few months later, the FFK under Vokrri applied to join FIFA but was rebuffed for years until the decision to allow Kosovo to play friendlies, then this year's vote for full FIFA membership.

Serbia, meanwhile, had maintained its opposition, calling Kosovo's approval a political act that went against UEFA's and FIFA's own rules.

Yet membership was just the start. Now Kosovo had to build a team, and the question of who should play and whether high-profile players like Xhaka or Shaqiri would be allowed to switch nationalities  had dominated the buildup more than the political consequences.

FIFA's rules on nationality switches had been formed to deal with the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. But there had never been a situation like this before.

I asked Vokrri why the squad for the Finland game had not been announced. "We don't have a squad to announce yet!" he replied honestly. "The deadline was yesterday." FIFA, he explained, had said that decisions on switching nationalities would be made on a case-by-case basis. Federations like Switzerland and Albania, which stood to be affected the most by defections, were understandably angry that they might lose dozens of players.

"We have to get permissions," Vokrri said wearily before going back to the business of preparing for Kosovo's first game. "We will wait until the last moment."

Members of the Kosovan delegation celebrate UEFA membership in May.

Despite years of hard work culminating in perhaps the greatest day of his life, Eroll Salihu looked downbeat.

A few minutes’ walk from the House of Sports, the general secretary of the FFK sat in a cafe dressed in a smart navy blue suit and matching tie, thinking about how many players had been approved by FIFA to switch nationalities and play for Kosovo in their historic first match.


"We have a natural right for players from Kosovo to play," he said glumly. "A natural right!" He complained how unfair it was that he still had no idea what the squad would be for the Finland game.

We had first met—Salihu, Vokrri and I—in a motorway diner outside Zurich in 2012. It was a few days before Switzerland were due to play Albania in a 2014 World Cup qualification match. Of the 22 players likely to start the match, at least nine—including Shaqiri, Xhaka and Valon Behrami for Switzerland and Lorik Cana, the captain of Albania—were either born or had roots in Kosovo.

"It’s very special for me to see two different national teams with players born in Kosovo. It’s like watching Kosovo A team play Kosovo B," Vokrri had joked back then.

Salihu was sitting next to Vokrri in a booth. Like Vokrri, he was a former footballer, but the situation at home had deteriorated just when he was in his prime, taking away his chance of playing at a high level. He had a brief spell in Turkey but returned to help run the illegal Kosovo league in the 1990s, risking arrest and worse.

When Vokrri was elected federation president after independence was declared in 2008, Salihu joined too, organising the campaign to one day become a member of FIFA. Tall, youthful and fair-haired, he was Jay to Vokrri's Silent Bob.

That day in 2012, the two waited for a phone call to begin a daring mission: to procure the signatures of the Swiss-Kosovan footballers on a petition supporting Kosovo's right to play international football. The call came, and the three of us headed to the Swiss team hotel, where the players were waiting. They dutifully signed.

Image title

Granit Xhaka meets local fans on a charity trip to Kosovo in May 2014.

Shaqiri spoke about how proud he was of playing for Switzerland after everything the country had given him. Behrami shared the same sentiment. "Everything that I have today is thanks to Switzerland," he said.

Xhaka, meanwhile, was the most open to playing for Kosovo. "I don’t know when Kosovo will have a national team. Two, three or five years’ time," he said. "For now, we play for Switzerland, but later we will see what will happen."

Switzerland won that game, and Shaqiri scored. But the fact that a petition was the best option for the FFK made it feel that a recognised Kosovo national team was very far away.

Yet here we were, four years later. The problem, as Salihu now discovered, was that persuading players to switch nationalities was every bit as political as getting membership. Worse for Kosovo, no one knew if FIFA would even allow it. They had delayed a decision until after the European Championships in France, as several players would be appearing for Switzerland and Albania, the latter qualifying for their first major tournament with a spine of Kosovan players.

Now FIFA had decided that each player had to apply and it would be decided on a case-by-case basis.

"Imagine," Salihu said. "Each person had to declare they want to leave their national team? What happens if they aren't accepted? They can't go back. We have to think about the players' welfare.”

Several players, Shaqiri in particular but Xhaka too, had endured negative press coverage in the past questioning their allegiances and hinting they had been ungrateful given the help Switzerland had offered them in their hours of need. Rather than put any player in a tough spot, Salihu waited.

And waited.

Image title

Xherdan Shaqiri in Switzerland colours at Euro 2016.

And now, a day past FIFA's deadline to submit an initial squad for the Finland game, he was waiting on approval for 13 players to switch nationalities. Most had played for Albania, including goalkeeper Samir Ujkani, who had captained Kosovo's pre-FIFA-membership team.

Top scorer Albert Bunjaku (not to be confused with coach Albert Bunjaki) had represented Switzerland at the 2010 World Cup. Midfielder Perparim Hetemaj, the only Kosovan in the Finnish squad, pulled out of the game, citing a clash of loyalties.

One of the most controversial requests was for midfielder Milot Rashica, who had played a handful of times for Albania but is only 20 and was coming off an outstanding season for Vitesse Arnhem in the top Dutch league. After years of giving caps to Kosovan players, Albania were now losing their best young players in the other direction.

Midfielder Valon Berisha was also a tough case. Both Valon, who plays for Red Bull Salzburg in the Austrian Bundesliga, and his younger brother Veton, who's with Greuther Furth in Germany's 2. Bundesliga, had played for Norway. While Veton chose to stay, Valon requested a switch to Kosovo, despite playing 18 times for the Norwegian national team.

But all this was immaterial if FIFA's player-status committee didn't approve the switches. In that event, Kosovo would barely have 11 men to put on the pitch. "We'd win these cases if we went to CAS," Salihu said, referring to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. "But we don't have the time. We just don't have the time."

He left in a rush to check if there had been any more news from Switzerland.

Former Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga (centre, right) meets Kosovo players and officials before their first competitive match in March 2014. Photo courtesy of AP Images.

The coach of the Kosovo national team has often felt the world outside of football impinging on his work.

Teams would abruptly cancel matches after discovering their government doesn't recognise Kosovo, for instance. But at least Albert Bunjaki roughly knew what team he would pick if he'd had the chance to play them.

A week before kick-off against Finland, the opposite was true. Bunjaki knew the match would go ahead, but he had no idea who would actually play.

"I know better the Finland team than my own team. It is true!" said the 45-year-old coach, sitting in a hotel lobby on the outskirts of Pristina. It was the day before he was due to give his press conference to the local media announcing his first squad.

The biggest issue was with his captain and goalkeeper, Samir Ujkani. It is the position where Kosovo is most threadbare. Without the former Palermo player, now with Pisa in Italy's Serie B, what little chance Kosovo had of competing would disappear.

"We will be 50 per cent, it will not be a strong team," said Bunjaki. "He has been with me since 2014. I can't imagine if they say no. I can't."

Bunjaki has been the coach of the Kosovo national team since 2009. For most of that time it had been virtually impossible to organise any games at all, save a friendly against Albania in 2010. But in 2014, after a long battle in FIFA and UEFA, and two years after Blatter began supporting Kosovo publicly, Kosovo were finally cleared to play friendly matches.

Kosovo hosted Haiti in the northern city of Mitrovica, at the Olympic Stadium Adem Jashari. The game caused an outcry in Serbia, and not just for its partial recognition of Kosovo. Mitrovica remains a divided city, split by the Ibar River. The south is overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian and controlled by the Kosovan authorities. The north is Serbian, who refer to the territory as Kosovska Mitrovica.

Image title

Bunjaki (second from left) on the Kosovo bench alongside Tord Grip (far left). Photo by James Montague.

Although the stadium was the only one in Kosovo capable of hosting an international match, the Serbs saw it as a provocation. The stadium's namesake was the leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, considered a hero by Kosovans and a terrorist by Serbian authorities. The Kosovo flag was not permitted to be flown, but the 17,000 fans who arrived at the match filled the stands with yellow and blue, alongside the black and red of the Albanian flag. In freezing, driving rain, and on an atrocious, muddy pitch, the match finished 0-0.

Yet, even under the new dawn of FIFA membership, games have not been easy to come by. "In 2016 we only have had one game," Bunjaki said, referring to Kosovo's 2-0 victory against the Faroe Islands in June. "Finland have seven games."

He pointed out that Finland had been testing themselves against the best and managed a draw against Belgium. The day after the press conference, he would fly to Finland's final warm-up game, against world champions Germany.

"We meet next week," he said. "I'm thinking all the time, we know how they are playing. The problem is our team. I am thinking in a positive way. It will be good. But don't ask me today."

Bunjaki was born and raised in Pristina, and like Vokrri, he played for FC Pristina. But when he was 20 years old, in 1991, he received a letter from the Yugoslav army. The war had begun, and Bunjaki had been called up to the military.

"I said no," Bunjaki recalls. "I decided to leave everything and move. I felt I'll be back in a month as Europe would not accept the war happening. It was not so."

He landed in Sweden and was granted asylum. "If I count all my family, 36 people were killed," Bunjaki said. "Everyone has someone who was killed in the war."

Image title

Kosovo goalkeeper Samir Ujkani (left) alongside his team-mate Milot Rashica. Photo by James Montague.

Unable to return home, he built his career in Sweden. "It was a hard life," he said. "I knew no one in Sweden, nine years without seeing my parents. You feel alone." He took his exams so that he could coach and was hired as an assistant coach at Swedish first-division side Kalmar. It was in Sweden that he met Tord Grip, Sven-Goran Eriksson's longtime assistant coach.

Now 78 years old, Grip has become something of a mentor to Bunjaki. He sat on the bench next to him in Mitrovica during Kosovo's first official game, the friendly against Haiti. And he would be there too in Finland, in an unofficial capacity.

Bunjaki said he took the Kosovo job because "I want to know my family better and I want to know my people better." But that turned out to be a complex business too.

While Kosovo's refugee diaspora have got behind the team, support at home has been harder to build. Many people remain ambivalent toward the team and, more importantly, its flag.

A few days before I met Bunjaki, I had travelled down to the southern city of Prizren with the ultras group of FC Pristina, the Plisat. On the recommendation of Vokrri, I had come to see FC Pristina play Liria. Prizren is famous for being the birthplace of modern Albanian nationalism.

Many believe in the idea of an ethnic Albania, uniting Albanian populations in Macedonia, Kosovo, southern Serbia and Montenegro under the black eagle of the Albanian flag. Travelling around Kosovo, you will rarely see the Kosovo flag flown, while the Albanian flag is everywhere.

"We call it the 'petrol station flag.' It is not our flag," said Korab, a 23-year-old member of the Plisat, of the Kosovo flag as 30 or so fans drove down in a fleet of minibuses.

Image title

FC Pristina ultras watch their team. Photo by James Montague.

The Kosovo government held a an international design competition for a new flag in 2008. They received over a thousand entries, including seven from Serbia. Parliament voted for the winning design from a shortlist of three, shorn of any nationalist symbols that might antagonise its neighbours.

The six stars represent Kosovo's six ethnic groups, including Albanian and Serbian, but the flag remains wildly unpopular. Most Plisat members say they want to see a united Albanian team, under the red and black flag, and would not be watching the Kosovo game. Instead they would be travelling to watch Albania host Macedonia, another complex local derby.

Nor will they support Kosovo at this week's "home" game against Croatia in Albania. "We believe in a united Albania," said Atdhe, a 19-year-old student. "There is no 'greater Albania,' only ethnic Albania. The KLA didn't fight for an independent Kosovo, but to unite all Albanians." One fan joked: "We will go but we'll wear Croatian T-shirts!"

The disillusionment with even partial independence has been heightened by the perception of political corruption and a deteriorating quality of life. Youth unemployment stands at 60 per cent. The situation was so bad that when the Serbian authorities liberalised travel restrictions on Kosovans wishing to travel to Serbia in 2014, tens of thousands left in a mass exodus as they sought a better life in the European Union. Whole villages were emptied.

But for Bunjaki, Kosovo has come a long way from when he lived there. "Kosovo has never been as free as it is now," he said. "When I moved in 1991, they banned the Albanian language at my university and I couldn't study." Bunjaki was hoping to become a doctor at the time.

Image title

The Plisat flag is displayed by FC Pristina fans. Photo by James Montague.

"People ask me all the time, Albania or Kosovo national team?" he said. "They have a different feeling. In the heart of every Albanian is the Albanian flag. Of course, it is my flag too. I can't hate the Albanian flag. But it is time to work for the Kosovo flag. It is the symbol of this country. Some people are not understanding that. You cannot unite two football teams."

The Finland game was shown on a big screen in Mother Teresa Square in the centre of Pristina. But there were two screens. One showed Finland-Kosovo, the other showed the Albania-Macedonia match.

For Bunjaki, qualification for Russia 2018 is out of the question. "That isn't realistic at all," he said. “The most important thing is for the players to understand: Win or we lose, you give everything, people will accept it."

The next day, at his press conference in Pristina, Bunjaki announced Kosovo's first squad for a competitive game. As expected, the likes of Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri were not on the list. Xhaka even released a statement saying he would have considered the switch but had been given no clarifications. He claimed that FIFA had sent him an official document stating that if he represented Switzerland at Euro 2016, he would not be allowed to make the switch.

(Bleacher Report contacted FIFA, which denied the claim: "No communication was exchanged with individual players," they said in a statement.)

Instead, among the squad of 23, 10 players had an asterisk next to their name as they waited for FIFA clearance. "It was history when we played against Haiti and the Faroe Islands. And now against Finland. I'm happy to be part of history. But now I'm tired of talking about history," Bunjaki said. "I'm thinking about the future."

Kosovo fans cheer on their team against Finland.

Samir Ujkani sat in the cafe in the team hotel in central Turku, 24 hours before kick-off against Finland.

"After four or five years we will understand how important this moment is," Ujkani said. "No one is thinking clearly now. After a while we will say, 'F--king hell, we played the first game. We were part of that team.'"

Ujkani still didn't know if he would be playing in Kosovo's first World Cup match. His teammates, officials and fans all mingled together. The coach had ordered the hotel be open to everyone so that the thousands of Kosovo fans who travelled from all across Europe could feel part of the big day.

Ujkani, though, like the other players waiting on FIFA's approval, was a bag of nerves. "I feel sick to my stomach," he said. "I just want a yes or no answer."

He had been in this situation once before. A few days before Kosovo played its first FIFA-sanctioned game, against Haiti in Mitrovica, Ujkani decided to switch from Albania to Kosovo. He had been raised in the village of Reznik, near Mitrovica. His father worked in a textile factory in nearby Obilic. They had Serbian friends.

But with war coming, he left with his family in 1994, at the age of six. They resettled in the town of Tielt, Belgium. He was picked up by Anderlecht's academy and eventually played for Palermo in Serie A as well as becoming first choice of the Albanian national team.

But when he was offered the chance to play in Mitrovica, he knew what to do.

"When I was in Mitrovica I had tears in my eyes. It was my first game. I was in Kosovo. And near my city. My mum is from there," he said. "My father would walk 25 kilometres to go and see Trepca [a team in the old Yugoslav First League] in Mitrovica. I decided two days before to play. I didn't know if FIFA or the Albanian federation would let me. Palermo said, ‘Be careful, you could get a disqualification.’ But I didn't care."

Image title

Ujkani (top left) lines up for Kosovo's inaugural friendly against Haiti in March 2014. Photo courtesy of AP Images.

It was a common theme in Italy. Club officials, Ujkani said, had often put pressure on him not to play for Kosovo. "They said that I would be uninsured and would be on my own if I got injured," he said. "I would tell teammates I was going to play for Kosovo and they would say, 'It doesn't exist.' And I said it does. I was born there. My family lived there. I lost family."

Ujkani's father had four brothers. The families all lived close by and, after years of working, had built houses. As the Kosovo War approached, three families left. Ujkani's two eldest uncles stayed, not wanting to leave behind what they had worked for their whole lives. Both men and their wives, Ujkani says, were burned to death in their homes.

For Ujkani, playing for Kosovo wasn't a choice, it was a duty. "I lost respect from the clubs, but I am happy because they cannot take this back from me," he said. "They [the club officials] call me now and apologise that the time has come and you suffered two years. I didn't suffer. It was an honour. If you were born in a country and lost family, when a country needs you and you can help them it is an honour."

All around us, the Kosovan players were sitting in small groups. They had just finished their final training session, which had been open to the public. Over a thousand Kosovo fans turned up, flying both Albanian and Kosovan flags. The players were mobbed for selfies afterwards, with most wanting a picture with Valon Berisha, a star in Norway.

"They've been great," Berisha said when I asked how the Norwegian football association reacted to his decision. "They understand that this comes from the heart. And I think my brother's decision [to stay with Norway] helped too."

He was still worried that permission would not come through. Albanian and Kosovan media had been riddled with speculation based on unnamed inside sources. One website ran a story that Albania was so desperate to keep the rising star Rashica that they had blocked the switch.

Another rumour had spread that goalkeeper Ujkani—the one player Bunjaki said he needed above all else—was 99 per cent certain to be approved. Another tweeted that nine of the 10 players had been approved, but Valon Berisha had been denied as he had played too many times for Norway. I didn't mention it.

Image title

Valon Berisha of FC Salzburg and the Kosovo national team. His younger brother Veton plays for Norway.

"We have so much talent here, I am just waiting for tomorrow," Berisha said. He dropped his head in his hands.

Meanwhile, Bunjaki was trying to work out what to do with all the attack-minded players he had procured after having a rare chance to see them all train together. "They were attacking all the time. We had 23 forwards. Everyone was Ronaldo," he sighed. "We will never win the game if we are not defensive. But it is at least a good problem to have for once."

As everyone waited, Eroll Salihu, the Kosovo general secretary, darted around the hotel with a phone glued to his ear. "FIFA say they will let us know by 3 p.m. tomorrow," he said, midway through a conversation.

That was less than seven hours before kick-off. I asked if he believed them.

Salihu gave a what-can-I-do shrug. "Now we are waiting on only five players," he said. He stopped and asked the person on the other end of the phone in Albanian to confirm. "Yes, five players." Ujkani, Rashica and Valon Berisha were not on the list. They would have to wait a little longer.

On the morning of the match, the players, officials and their families waited in the hotel lobby.

Salihu and Vokrri buzzed around, calling FIFA and other contacts to try to glean any information, Vokrri used the French he picked up from his spell at Nimes Olympique. Ujkani had a bad night's sleep thinking about it.

Hours passed and still no news. The deadline came and went. Then, suddenly, there was movement, as if a scuffle had broken out. But it wasn't a fight. The players gathered around Salihu and Vokrri, who were on their phones, relaying what they heard.

Finally, the crowd of players erupted into cheers and song. Ujkani had tears in his eyes. FIFA's approval had come through, less than six hours before kick-off, and only four hours before the final teamsheets needed to be handed to the match commissioner.

Image title

Ujkani upon receiving the news he'd been cleared to play for Kosovo. Photo by James Montague.

Only one player, Valon Berisha, had not been approved. He stood glumly on his own as the players celebrated. But his approval would come through an hour later.

"I'm so happy, I went outside and cried!" Ujkani said amid the congratulations. "The relief came out of me. But now I sleep for an hour."

After months, even years, of speculation, Albert Bunjaki finally had a 23-man squad for a competitive game. Now came the hard part. He had to pick a team.

Joel Pohjanpalo of Finland (right) vies with Albert Bunjaku of Kosovo.

At 8 p.m., a guard of family and friends waited in the hotel lobby for the players to leave. One by one they passed to cheers and wishes of good luck. Proud mothers and fathers, many of whom had made their escape from Kosovo when their sons were too young to remember, cried as they passed on to the waiting bus.

Before it left, Tord Grip, standing nearby, took his protege Albert Bunjaki to one side and gave him some last-minute tactical insight. Grip had arrived a few hours earlier, eager to speak to Bunjaki.

"I'm going to give him some advice,” said Grip, who had made the short flight from Sweden. "I think Finland will play with three strikers. Two with one behind." He made shapes with his hands to illustrate, just in case I didn't understand. "Defence will be very important today."

The stadium was full, but not raucous. Outside, Kosovo's head of security had stood in front of a big crowd and informed them that no Albanian flags would be allowed in. The Finnish FA had earlier confirmed they would be banned as they constituted a "political symbol."

"Our flag is blue, not red!" the Kosovan official said through a megaphone, to groans.

Still, inside, when the match began, Albanian flags could be seen in the stands. Four of the six players who had been waiting until the last minute for permission to play started, including Rashica, Berisha and Ujkani.

They attacked. Rashica in particular terrorised Finland's defence as Kosovo pressed in the early stages. As was perhaps inevitable, there was little telepathy between the players. Passes frequently went astray. But when Kosovo's midfield got the ball, they ran into the heart of Finland's defence, pinging balls across the penalty box. Five or six excellent chances arose. One volley hit the crossbar.

Image title

Paulus Arajuuri celebrates giving Finland the lead.

But, as Grip had predicted, the defence proved key. Without the right preparation and drills, Kosovo were shaky at the back. One mistake gifted Finland a one-on-one chance. Ujkani pulled out a stunning fingertip save to his left to prevent a near-certain goal. But, from the resulting corner, Finland bundled the ball in the goal and Kosovo were 1-0 down by half-time.

The second half showed what might be to come from Kosovo. They attacked almost constantly, with verve and speed, cutting through Finland at will. Inevitably, Finland's defence could not hold on. A penalty was awarded and Berisha, who only a few hours earlier had not known if he would be allowed to play, stepped up to the ball.

Finland's fans behind the goal, flying huge flags, tried their best to put him off. Everyone breathed in and then exhaled when the ball hit the back of the net. Berisha had scored Kosovo's first-ever World Cup goal.

They could have had more too, with Rashica starring. But Kosovo would have to make do with a 1-1 draw.

Image title

Berisha (right) celebrates scoring Kosovo's first World Cup qualifying goal.

After the game, Finland's Swedish coach, Hans Backe, was shocked, and effusive. "Kosovo was very lively. Full of energy. They could run for 90 minutes. A brave team. They are very dangerous," he said.

Bunjaki was equally as enthusiastic. "There was a lot of people in Kosovo looking at us and I am very proud of the team," he said.

It had gone midnight by the time the team got back to the hotel. A crowd of cheering fans were waiting to applaud the players off the bus. Inside, the players cut loose. They sang and danced, hugged and screamed. Vokrri and Salihu were there too. The players would later take over a Turku nightclub, only to have their celebrations dampened somewhat by the arrival of several of their parents.

It is unlikely the nationality switches will be the last controversy for Kosovo. Ukraine maintained their refusal to host Kosovo on political grounds. In the end, they decided the match would be played in Krakow, Poland.

And what of Thursday's match, their first home World Cup game, against Croatia? Will Kosovo's fans get behind the team, or will they—as the ultras of FC Pristina told me—wear Croatian jerseys to support their vision of a greater, ethnic Albania? Will the blue and yellow flag and the six white stars across it, which meant so much in Turku, mean anything to them at all?

But those questions were still a long way off as the players celebrated in Turku.

"We showed everyone that we can play football," shouted Samir Ujkani over the noise of Albanian pop music blaring from the mini speaker tucked under his arm alongside his goalkeeper gloves. "Tonight, we enjoy."

All sources gathered firsthand unless otherwise stated. Photos courtesy of Getty Images unless otherwise stated. For all media enquiries pertaining to this story, including requests to interview the writer, please contact