The Blizzard: Standard Bearer

Morina and the Red and Black at a war grave in Kosovo
Ismail Morina, visiting a KLA war grave in Kosovo before Albania v Serbia, October 2015 ©James Montague

Back in 2015 I tried to track down a man who had become infamous for one of the most memorable moments in European Championship qualification history. During a qualification match between Albania and Serbia in Belgrade – two countries with a long history of antipathy, to say the least – a drone was flown in to the Partizan Stadium covered in Albanian nationalist symbols.

It sparked a riot, the match was abandoned and the Albanian dressing room was searched. The Albanian prime minister’s brother was briefly held too. But the culprit was someone much more unexpected.

Ismail Morina, a young crane operator living in Italy, had planned the whole operation, an operation that would seem to have had almost a zero chance of success normally. But, somehow, the planets aligned for Morina and he managed to escape.

I ended up making a film with Copa90 about that trip….

But that was just the start of the story. I tracked him down to Kosovo before Serbia was due to travel to Albania for the return leg. I spent a few days with him, before it all went crazy. He was later arrested before the game setting off a chain of events that would have seemed comic if they hadn’t been so serious.

I wrote about the whole experience ahead of Euro 2016, which The Blizzard has now put online. You can read the full story here.

Bleacher Report: Kosovo’s Rise

A FK Gjilani fan during the Gjilan Derby, October 2016. ©James Montague


The Dawn of Kosovo’s Football Nation

Back in 2012 I met two men who seemed to be on an impossible mission. Fadil Vokrri and Eroll Salihu were, as they are today, the president and general secretary of the Football Federation of Kosovo.

We met in a roadside cafe outside Zurich. Switzerland was playing Albania in a 2014 World Cup qualification match. The majority of the players on show had Kosovar roots and the two men wanted the players to sign a petition calling for Kosovo to be allowed to play against other FIFA teams.

Up to then the Kosovo association, like the self-declared republic, was largely unrecognised by the world. So we snuck into the team hotel and met Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Valon Behrami, who all signed.

It seemed a long, long way away from happening. But in May this year Kosovo was recognised by FIFA and UEFA, just in time to join 2018 World Cup qualification. I met up again with Fadil and Eroll and went on the road for their first ever competitive game, against Finland in Turku.

It was a historic match that was reflective of the still sensitive political situation in the Balkans. I wrote this long read for The Bleacher Report about the build up to the game.

A month later I headed back to Kosovo as they prepared for their next two games, and travelled on the road with them to Poland. You can hear that story on the BBC World Service’s World Football show.


Kosovo’s Long Road Towards Recognition

Football Federation Kosovo
An Albania fan wears an FFK jacket before Switzerland played Albanian in a 2014 World Cup qualification match. ©James Montague

Back in 2012 I met two Kosovan men in a diner on the outskirts of Zurich. The two men were well known in Pristina. In fact one of them, Fadil Vokrii, was particularly famous. He was the only Kosovar player to ever represent the Yugoslav national team and was considered the best player ever to come from Kosovo. He was now the president of the Football Federation Kosovo [FFK] and was sitting at this small diner with Erol Salihu, another former player who was his general secretary.

The two men were on a mission. They wanted recognition for Kosovo at both UEFA and FIFA. But this wasn’t going to happen. Russia and Serbia were opposed to any such move and they had got nowhere in recent years. But around a dozen Kosovar players DID play international football, usually for countries their parents had fled to during the war. Finland, Albania, Belgium and, of course Switzerland.

Albania and Switzerland were playing each other in a 2014 World Cup qualifier, and over half of those players had Kosovar roots. Fadil and Erol were in town to meet those players and get a signature from them for a petition, asking that Kosovo be given the right to play international football.

So the three of us, Erol, Fadil and I, snuck into the Swiss hotel and met Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Valon Behrami, amongst others. Who all signed the petition. I wrote about the encounter in my book Thirty One Nil, but I thought again of that day when Kosovo was recently admitted into both UEFA and FIFA.

Back in 2012, membership seemed far, far away. And yet Kosovo is now likely to be included in qualification for Russia 2018, a country that does not recognise it.

There are still some barriers. Serbia, understandably given that they see Kosovo as a historic part of their own territory, is livid and will be taking the decision to CAS. Then there is the issue of who plays for Kosovo? Will Swiss and Albanian players be allowed to switch nationality, for instance?

Over the past few days I tried to answer a few of these questions. Here’s a BBC World Service report for the World Football show where I revisit that meeting in a diner in 2012. 

And here are two New York Times pieces, one on Kosovo and the other detailing FIFA’s other new member, one no less controversial: Gibraltar.






New York Times: The Drone Heard Around the World

I’ll always remember where I was on October 14 2014. Well, October 15 2014.

I’d woken up in Sydney, Australia, and checked my phone. There were dozens of messages about a football match in Serbia.

It was a 2016 European Championship qualification match between Serbia and Albania, at the FK Partizan Stadium in Belgrade.

Ever since the draw was made it was clear that tensions would be high for the game. The two countries shared a fraught history, most recently over the 1999 Kosovo War. Serbs view Kosovo as an inviolable part of of their state; the ethnic Albanian Kosovars that make up over 90 percent of the territory want independence.

The Albania national team had never qualified for a major tournament before, and hadn’t played in Belgrade for over 50 years. The match, as expected, was played in a febrile atmosphere.

And then, in the 42nd minute, the drone appeared, carrying a banner covered in Albanian nationalist messages.

What followed made headlines around the world. There was fighting on the pitch, fighting off the pitch and, finally, the match was abandoned. It created a political meltdown between the two countries.

But the question was: Who flew the drone? At first the brother of the Albanian PM was blamed. The Albania players even had their bags searched.

In fact, the pilot was a 33 year old crane operator called Ismail Morina who had been holed up in the cupola of a near by cathedral and was making his escape to Kosovo.

Ismail Morina in Kosovo.

I managed to track Ismail down and spent a few days with him and the Albanian national football team’s supporters group the Red and Black, first in Kosovo and then in Albania. I wrote this feature about him for the New York Times ahead of the rematch against Serbia in the Albanian city of Elbasan.

But that is when it started getting weird. After I filed the story a crew from YouTube channel Copa90 arrived to do a story about the match. We drove to the city of Durres to meet Ismail for another interview. He was welcoming and open, showing us the death threats he got regularly on Facebook. He also showed us his gun, which he kept for protection.

Morina and the Red and Black at a war grave in Kosovo

He dropped us off at our apartment. The next morning I got a message from my girlfriend. Ismail had been arrested. The police had searched him a few minutes after we had seen him last and found his guns, as well as a host of tickets for the game (the Albanian FA had told me that UEFA instructed them to ban him for the game, despite him being a national hero).

For the next three days his arrest was the main story on Albanian news. But every story (falsely) claimed that he had been arrested because of the NY Times interview, even though it had been published after his arrest. Cue frantic phone calls from angry Albanian fans demanding to know why I had written about Ismail’s gun! In the end, I had to go on Albanian TV to clear things up before it emerged that the police had been following him for weeks, fearing another stunt if Serbian PM Vucic turned up to the game (in the end he didn’t).

The Red and Black

Albania lost the game against Serbia 2-0, but beat Armenia three days later to secure their first ever qualification to a major tournament. But Ismail wasn’t there. He’s is still in jail. It was a crazy few days. You can hear more about it in this BBC World Service World Football report.

Thousands took to the streets or Tirana, Paris and Pristina to celebrate Albania’s qualification.

Members of the Red and Black in Kosovo

The Red and Black are campaigning to have Ismail released. Albania were awarded the three points over the drone match in Belgrade. For many he remains a national hero who believe he played an important role in Albania’s qualification. After all, if that drone had not flown, would Albania be preparing for a Euro 2016 play off against Sweden, instead of preparing for France?

BBC World Service: Macedonia Cup Final

The Macadonia Cup FinalEthnic Albanian kids playing football in Kumanovo, MacedoniaTeteks fans celebrate a goal.
All photos © James Montague

Back in May I was in Macedonia covering the on going political crisis (well, crises). There is now an impasse, with pro and anti government camps outside various buildings. The EU is trying to mediate, but seems to make no one happy.

To understand something of what is going on in Macedonia I decided to visit two football clubs from Tetevo. This is the heartland of Macedonia’s minority ethnic minority population and the only majority Albanian city in the country. The city has two teams: the wealthy Shkendija (who represent the Albanian population and whose fans are hardcore Greater Albanian nationalists) and Teteks, who represent the city’s shrinking minority Christian Orthodox population.

I visited Shkendija’s training ground, met one of the leaders from the club’s hard core ultras and then went to the Macedonian Cup Final, where Teteks were playing Skopje based club Rabotnicki, and filed this report for the BBC World Service’s World Football Show.

Politico: Bombs Over Skopje

Macedonian children's paintings17 Posters for the anti government march19 Roma, Macedonian, Turkish, Albanian flags all together plus Gurevski as a criminal
All photos © James Montague

Macedonia has found itself embroiled in a huge political scandal. Over the past few months prime minister Nikola Grievski has been rocked by a series of revelations — from alleged leaked wiretaps — which appear to show his government involved in some unsavoury business.

Threats to journalists, the cover up of a young man’s murder, corruption and the loading of the judiciary are just some of the allegations. There have been huge anti and pro government protests as the opposition has released regular snippets of the recordings.

At the same time, a terror raid in the city of Kumanovo left eight policemen and 10 alleged pro-Albanian separatists dead, reviving ethnic tensions between the minority ethnic Albanians and the majority Slavic Macedonians not seen the country almost tipped into civil war back in 2001.

I went to Macedonia and spoke to both sides for Politico, and found a country on the brink.