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.

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?