It is simply soccer, some say, however for Kosovo, one match means a lot greater than that.
Not solely can Thursday’s sport in Skopje take Kosovo a step nearer to the re-scheduled Euro 2020 however it is usually being seen as an opportunity for the Kosovar folks to face up and be seen as an unbiased nation.
Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, meet neighbouring North Macedonia within the Euro play-off semi-finals, understanding that victory in Skopje will edge them nearer to a spot at sport’s prime desk for the primary time.
“I stay for our flag to be raised among the many 24 flags of the very best nations in Europe,” mentioned 23-year-old psychology pupil Besart Morina.
The sport has been dubbed by the media as “crucial match in Kosovo’s historical past”, and even head coach, 69-year previous Bernard Challandes sees the Skopje showdown as “not only a soccer sport”.
“We’re within the new nation of Kosovo and the soccer group is so essential for the folks,” the Swiss-born boss mentioned in a press convention.
– Refugee squad –
Sports activities are a frequent area for tensions with Serbia. The scars nonetheless run deep after the bitter conflict between the 2 which ran from February 1998 to June 1999.
The Serbs tried to dam Kosovo from becoming a member of UEFA and FIFA in 2016 however their failure on that rating makes the Kosovars the latest facet within the qualifiers.
The truth that not one of the 24 gamers chosen for the match play within the home league is a remnant of Kosovo’s violent previous — a majority of the squad are descendants from ethnic Albanian refugees that fled the violent regime of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic throughout Nineteen Nineties.
Numerous the gamers born after the bloody battle began their careers scattered from Sweden to Swizerland, however opted to play for the yellow-and-blues.
A few of them are ok to play in Europe’s prime leagues.
Captain Amir Rrahmani is at Napoli whereas Samir Ujkani and Mërgim Vojvoda each play for Torino.
One other in Serie A is Lazio’s Vedat Muriqi — he’s within the squad for Skopje though a latest optimistic Covid-19 take a look at makes him a uncertain starter.
Others play within the France’s Ligue 1, the Dutch Eredivisie or Germany’s Bundesliga.
“Numerous gamers obtained good contracts, however they have to always remember their roots and what it means to play within the Kosovo shirt,” mentioned Challandes.
The European newcomers struggled throughout qualifying for 2018 World Cup, scoring solely three objectives and recording only a single level — a 1-1 attract Finland — in 10 matches.
Regardless of being labelled as outsiders in Euro qualifiers, Kosovo have been a revelation.
They put collectively a outstanding 15-game unbeaten run, together with friendlies, earlier than falling to England 5-3 in September 2019. However they completed third of their group, forward of Bulgaria and Montenegro, to safe their place within the play-off.
“Challandes introduced sustainability. He unified them with self-discipline and self-confidence,” mentioned Eroll Salihu, secretary basic of the Soccer Federation of Kosovo (FFK).
– Health woes –
Nonetheless, the facet journey to Skopje plagued with health points, as 4 of the squad are anticipated to overlook the sport by means of harm.
The coronavirus has additionally affected health ranges with some gamers not having performed since earlier than lockdown.
“Now we have waited greater than two years for this match, and now we’re on this state of affairs,” mentioned Challandes.
“We do not have loads of various choices.”
The historic match will solely be performed about 100 kilometres (62 miles) from Kosovo’s capital Pristina however due to of the virus no followers will probably be allowed into the stadium.
Kosovo additionally face a decided opponent — North Macedonia have waited 30 years to get this far.
“We are going to give everthing to work out their weaknesses so we are able to win,” mentioned North Macedonian ahead Vlatko Stojanovski.
However Kosovars are happy with their nationwide group it doesn’t matter what occurs. Posters of the gamers are dotted across the streets within the bars and the outlets are full of duplicate kits.
Arsim Mehana, a 41-year-old taxi driver, advised AFP the group was doing extra for the worldwide standing of the nation than all of the politicians.
“They’re younger however higher and contribute extra to our recognition on the worldwide stage than our diplomats,” he mentioned.
If Kosovo win on Thursday they’ll nonetheless have another hurdle earlier than they attain the Euros — a play-off ultimate towards both Georgia or Belarus.