Kosovo footballers to make home debut - in Albania

By Guy Delauney
BBC News, Pristina, Kosovo

Image caption,
The stadium is rough and ready but the Kosovo team attract a large number of well-wishers at a training session

The stands of the Rexhep Rexhepi stadium are not built for comfort. In fact, they are not completely built at all.

But hundreds of people perch on concrete overlooking the pitch regardless, waiting to welcome the Kosovo national team.

Before the players arrive, a convoy of dignitaries swoops in, led by Prime Mnister Isa Mustafa. After the team disembark from their bus, he offers his best wishes, and receives a training shirt in return.

The speaker of the national assembly, Kadri Veseli, goes one better. He promises each of the players a €100,000 (£88,000; $112,000) bonus if they manage to qualify for the World Cup.

It may seem a lot of fuss for a training session but this team is about to break new ground: playing its first competitive home match on Thursday, against Croatia in a World Cup qualifier.

Media caption,
Guy Delauney watches Kosovo's footballers in training

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The besuited general secretary of Kosovo's football federation, Errol Salihu, cannot resist a return to his playing days, booting stray balls from the side of the pitch with his shiny, formal shoes. And he admits he is finding it hard to contain himself.

"I'm very excited," he says. "Sixteen thousand tickets sold within two or three hours - you can imagine how excited everyone is."

Image caption,
Prime Minister Isa Mustafa (centre-left) is presented with a Kosovo football top

Only a few months ago, the idea of Kosovo taking part in the World Cup qualifiers would have been out of the question. Its unilaterally declared independence remains unrecognised by more than 80 United Nations member states.

Then, in May, first Uefa and then Fifa admitted Kosovo as a member, opening the door to international competition.

Crucially, the football authorities have also allowed players with Kosovo connections who have already represented other nations to switch allegiance.

Image caption,
Hekuran Kryeziu has switched allegiance from the Swiss under-21s to Kosovo's national team
Image caption,
Albania qualified for the finals of Euro 2016 and have a vociferous following in neighbouring Kosovo

"I had a nice time in the Swiss national team until under-21," says Hekuran Kryeziu, who plays his club football with Lucerne.

"Then I had so many calls from Kosovo's national coach - and then I wanted to try this. My parents are from here and I'm proud to play for this national team."

The decrepit state of Kosovo's football stadiums means that this first home match will in fact be played at Shkodra, in neighbouring Albania.

This is something of a vexed issue: many among Kosovo's ethnic-Albanian majority still spurn the official blue-and-yellow flag for Albania's black-and-red eagle.

But the team's long-serving coach, Albert Bunjaki, believes that football can help foster a sense of national identity beyond ethnic boundaries.

"When I see the flag, I'm thinking about the country, Kosovo. Of course we are very proud to represent the country now, it's huge for us."

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