Written by Jack Vines
20 years ago, the autonomous region of Kosovo was reeling from the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Fast forward to February 17th 2008, the country declared its independence despite protests from the Serbian minority in the government. The process was cemented through the 2013 Brussels deal, involving both parties and the European Union. Now in November 2019, the men’s football team is just two games away from qualifying for their first-ever major competition.
Despite their 2008 independence declaration, Kosovo’s international sports profile became significant in 2016. Not only had they scored a gold medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, but Kosovo was also accepted as a member of UEFA and FIFA in May of the same year.
As a result, Kosovo made their full competitive international debut during the Qualification stages for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, being assigned to Group I since the draw had been made. They played out a 1-1 draw to Finland in the 1st round of group games on the 5th September 2016, which was to be the only point they would register. However, in a group that also included Iceland, Ukraine, Croatia and Turkey, Kosovo was not going to be a world-beater.
The 6th of October 2018 saw the commencement of the first edition of the UEFA Nations League, designed to replace the series of International friendlies that are the bane of many football fan’s existences. Since Kosovo was still in their international football infancy, they were assigned to Division D and drawn into Group 3 consisting of Azerbaijan, the Faroe Islands and Malta.
Despite ranking the lowest according to UEFA coefficients, Kosovo won four of their six games to top the group and recorded a 5-0 victory away to Malta, their biggest victory in competitive football. Their results sealed promotion to Division C for the 2020-21 edition and therefore facing a higher calibre of opposition. In a change to the qualification format for UEFA Euro 2020, this also guaranteed Kosovo a play-off position unless they finished in the top two of their qualifying group.
Moving on to UEFA Euro 2020, Kosovo entered qualifying ranked 42nd and was therefore consigned to Pot 5. Despite drawing another tough qualifying group: England, Czech Republic, Montenegro and Bulgaria; Kosovo was the surprise package. The minnows finished a comfortable 3rd in the group with 3 wins and gave England an almighty scare at Wembley after scoring 3 goals in a 5-3 defeat back in September.
Their form in qualifying should give Kosovo every confidence heading into the playoffs in March. Since the playoffs are decided on Nations League rankings, Kosovo’s path of the draw includes the other 3 group winners from the competition: Georgia, North Macedonia and Belarus. Two games stand between Kosovo and a place in their first international competition, and it cannot be underestimated how far the team have come in the three years they have been competitively playing.
Whilst on the field Kosovo is continuing to defy the odds to be on the field shoulder to shoulder with countries like England, the country still has a long way to go to have their sovereignty appreciated. Only 99 of the 193 United Nations member states fully recognise Kosovo, and they are also the subject of friction between neighbours Albania and Serbia. This was most famously highlighted by the throwing of missiles, burning of flags and a drone flying the flag of ‘Greater Albania’ during a Euro 2016 qualification game between the two countries, causing its abandonment.
The fragile relations resulting from Kosovo’s independence is a headache that UEFA has struggled to cope with, but the organisation has prevented them from playing Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Russia in competitive fixtures. Only time will tell if Kosovo will be fully recognised across the globe, but their football team continues to shine a beacon for a country that is still healing from the cracks caused by the political fallout of the former Yugoslavia.