The Pride of Pristina: The Invincible Kosovo
Preston North End. Arsenal. Celtic. Porto… and Kosovo? The young nation might not have been playing FIFA recognised football for long, but they’re adapting quickly. They’re two matches away from having an unbeaten season.
Kosovo has formally been granted independence from the United Nations. It’s disputed by some, but officially the world should be viewing it as its own state. With that, of course, comes the right to represent itself with a national football team. Already accepting of their existence, FIFA, and UEFA, Kosovo’s FIFA membership stretches back to 2016.
Sure, the international football campaign isn’t as busy as the league and yes, there’s a much lower sample size to analyse but that also brings its own splendour. Players at this level usually have to perform to keep their place. The pressure can make even the ‘easiest’ games challenging - winning game after game or even going unbeaten can be hard at this level.
Yet, that’s exactly what the Dardanians are dreaming of. Seven games played this year, five wins, two draws and no losses. Sure, we would expect the likes of England/Spain/Brazil to do this in their post-World Cup campaigns too - but we must remember our subject matter. Kosovo. There’s no long lineage of Kosovan footballers, this is bronze-silver-golden generation because it’s the only generation to date.
This seven-game run has been fronted with a tendency to score. They’ve struck in all bar one of their games with a multitude of different scorers. Zeneli, Zhergova, and Muriqi might not be the biggest household names in world football, it's unlikely their success with Kosovo will catapult them to the first teams of the Arsenal, Real Madrid or Juventus. Yet it will make for remarkable history in this country’s sporting legend.
At the other end, there’s Ukjani, the keeper. He’s been ever-present in the net since May, he’s been more than amicable. He’s kept three clean sheets out of a possible five - even when he’s conceded it’s never been more than one in this particular run. He’s one of the senior players in the Kosovan setup, being the most capped player in the nation’s history (23) in addition to being the captain. This is a very important player in the Kosovan football genesis.
Their performances have allowed the team to ascend the FIFA rankings throughout this unbeaten year - now sitting at 130th in the world. Not bad, not bad at all things considered.
To add some context let’s take Montenegro who shares a similar story to Kosovo. They too separated to form their own country. By 2009 they were embarking on their third year of playing professional FIFA recognised football, exactly where Kosovo is now. By comparison, they had a woeful year. They won three games and followed it up three straight losses in 2010. Going further back, Slovakia at the same part of their arc in 1995 hadn’t seen anywhere near this level of Kosovan success.
What’s standing in their way then? Two more fixtures in the inaugural UEFA Nations League. An away day to Malta before the final showpiece/what should be the deciding game in the League D Group 3, the home game against Azerbaijan.
The trip to Ta’Qali should be straightforward given that in the reverse fixture they won comfortably with a 3-1 scoreline with over 12,000 supporters in Pristina. It’s the same destination, the Fadil Vokri stadium, which will welcome the Azerbaijani contingent, in what is set to be a grandstand finish in this specific division and their last game of the year. The first meeting in Baku was a quiet 0-0, but with promotion to League C on the line - the game should bring out the best in both sides.
The elephant in the room is that Kosovo, has played who again? Well, the full fixture calendar for the year reads like this: Madagascar, Burkina Faso, Albania, Azerbaijan, Faroe Islands, Malta, then the Faroe Islands again. Sure, this is not the highest calibre in world football and it’s not often we name drop players for these countries; yet Kosovo is holding its own. 40 years there was no Kosovo. 20 years ago it was only an idea. Ten years ago it was assembled, and now we are two years into its footballing efforts and we are talking about invincibility.
It’s not only the country doing everything right. Football collectively must tip its hat to UEFA and any other participating confederation with the advent of the Nation's League. I’m a longtime supporter of providing quality games for lower ranked sides. Pairing similar nation teams in competitive games will stimulate performances, belief, and desires. Kosovo is a country already embodying all those attributes; now they are taking them from the political world to the football pitch.
Next week is a big week for Kosovo as they seek to complete an undefeated 2018. They continue the sequence with that away game in Malta on Sunday at 5 pm GMT and then participate in the group showdown with Azerbaijan 7:45 pm in the capital city.