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.