Kosovo – from war-torn state to a nation proud of its dream team
'Brazil of the Balkans' will be no pushovers as they face England after Bulgarian and Czech victories
In the words of their manager, the Kosovo players who will face England in Southampton tomorrow night are nothing like "other" footballers.
"I have spoken to them about the history of Kosovo, which has suffered a lot," said Bernard Challandes.
"I told them they are not like other players, considering the sufferings of their parents and of past generations in Kosovo."
Challandes was speaking after his side had come from behind to score a last-minute winner in Bulgaria in June. It was a remarkable victory and a reminder that Kosovo will not be pushovers in the race for Euro 2000.
They provided another warning this weekend. As England were strolling to victory at Wembley on Saturday, Kosovo were celebrating a 2-1 victory over the Czech Republic which cemented their place as the primary challengers to Gareth Southgate's side in their qualifying group. Kosovo are now undefeated in 15 matches, a run stretching back to October 2017, despite receiving Uefa and Fifa recognition only three years ago.
Their rise is hard to believe, given the footballing resources at their disposal, and their story is one of great significance within sport and in the wider world of international politics.
Fifa's decision to grant membership in 2016 prompted wild celebrations within the country's football federation. Only eight years had passed since Kosovo had declared independence from Serbia and the champagne flowed in Pristina as the country's officials - and its people - allowed themselves to enjoy the moment a sporting dream became reality.
"In terms of Kosovo itself, this is about state recognition," says Dr David Webber, a senior lecturer in football studies at Solent University. "The broader story is one of recognition and the recognition of a state that has been under extreme pressure from other states.
"All of this gets played out in normal politics, in terms of diplomacy and statecraft, but Fifa is an important actor. Fifa affords countries something that the big institutions of global governance do not often provide to states, and that is recognition. Recognition of their sovereignty, recognition of their independence."
Fifa and Uefa's acceptance of Kosovo, in short, has reaffirmed the country's sense of identity on an international scale at a time when Serbia and its allies continue to show political hostility. A match against England, even if it is taking place at St Mary's rather than Wembley, will only strengthen those feelings of self-worth, and justification, for Kosovo.
In terms of the calibre of their opposition, this is without doubt the highest-profile match of their short existence as a footballing nation.
"On Tuesday night there will be a great sense of pride," says Webber.
"Being there, being recognised, playing football in England - that's something many of the Kosovan people will want." The "Brazil of the Balkans" tag, given to Kosovo by supporters as a result of their youthful, attacking football, is an indication of the excitement that surrounds this team at home.
The average age of the team that defeated the Czech Republic was just 23, and they are already guaranteed a play-off place for Euro 2020 thanks to success in last year's Nations League.
The more familiar names are Bersant Celina, the Swansea City attacker, Huddersfield Town defender Florent Hadergjonaj and goalkeeper Arijanet Muric, who is on loan at Nottingham Forest from Manchester City. Many of their players grew up abroad, the children of the estimated 1.45 million Kosovo Albanians who were displaced during the horrific conflicts of the 1990s.
In 2016, on the day of their first competitive match, Kosovo had six members of their squad cleared to play despite having already represented other international teams.
There are other high-profile players who would have been eligible, such as Adnan Januzaj, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri. Most were simply born too early, committing themselves to a nation before playing for Kosovo had become a genuine prospect, and the hope is that more and more of the top footballers from the region will wear Kosovo blue.
There is a fierce sense of pride at their achievements so far, and also a feeling that they are honouring the memory of Fadil Vokrri, the former player who became president of the Kosovo football federation. Vokrri, who was a force in their fight to be recognised as a footballing entity, died suddenly last year, at the age of 57. When England play Kosovo away this year, they will do so in the Fadil Vokrri Stadium. They will also do so against a backdrop of political strife.
At the weekend, police in Kosovo arrested eight Czech Republic supporters who were carrying a drone, a Serbian flag and a banner stating "Kosovo is Serbia".
Police also seized fireworks, and a knife. It should not be forgotten that only five years have passed since a qualifier between Serbia and Albania was abandoned after a drone was flown with a nationalist flag that said Kosovo was part of "Greater Albania".
A hotbed of footballing talent and political tension, Kosovo is still finding its place in the world after just 11 years of independence. The national team have played - and will continue to play - a crucial role in its journey.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)