As England prepare to host Kosovo in Tuesday’s Euro 2020 Qualifier, we look at the ‘Brazil of the Balkans’ emergence as a footballing nation and how they became Europe’s in-form international side.
The emergence of a nation
Kosovo, which has a population of 1.8m people, had to campaign for nearly a decade before they were admitted as FIFA and UEFA members in 2016 following their declaration of independence from Serbia in February 2008.
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Some countries, including Serbia, still do not recognise Kosovan sovereignty and the issue continues to rear its head in football.
Officials said police in Kosovo arrested eight Czech fans who were allegedly planning to fly a drone with a pro-Serbia banner during Saturday’s Euro 2020 Qualifier between the two sides. Six men and two women were arrested near the capital of Pristina and police seized a drone, a Serbian flag and a banner that read “Kosovo is Serbia,” and also fireworks and a knife.
Having played unofficial friendlies since 2010, Kosovo began playing FIFA members in friendlies in 2014, with their first official match a goalless draw with Haiti.
Kosovo played their first competitive international football match in September 2016 – a 1-1 draw against Finland in a World Cup 2018 qualifier and have since taken part in the UEFA Nations League and now Euro 2020 qualification.
Bernard Challandes may not have been a household name until this passionate news conference, but he has the golden touch when it comes to managing Kosovo.
The 68-year-old was handed the reins in 2018 and has turned results around. He had no real playing career to speak of, playing in the Swiss lower leagues, but has had a lengthy managerial career.
He has been in charge of a host of Swiss teams, including Young Boys, has taken charge of Switzerland’s U21s and has also managed Armenia but resigned after failure to qualify for Euro 2016.
He won the Swiss league with FC Zurich in 2009 and the club made their debut in the Champions League group stages the following season. He also won the Swiss Cup with Sion in 2011.
Challandes’ arrival as Albert Bunjaki’s successor in 2018 has turned Kosovo’s fortunes around. They are unbeaten in 15 games, winning 10 of them, and are in with a real shot of making next summer’s finals, with fans dubbing them the ‘Brazil of the Balkans’.
Their fine form allowed them to top their Nations League group, which means they are guaranteed a play-off spot, and they are also dark horses in England’s Group A, having already beaten Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.
A 2-1 home victory over the Czech Republic at the weekend made it 15 games unbeaten, the longest such run in Europe.
They are currently 120th in the FIFA world rankings, while, for context, Czech Republic are 43rd and Bulgaria are 60th.
One of the most recognisable names is that of Sheffield Wednesday striker Atdhe Nuhiu, who is a useful target man with his 6ft 6ins height and brute strength.
Bersant Celina will also be a familiar face. He plays for Championship side Swansea having started out at Manchester City.
Reporter’s view – Kaveh Solhekol and Mark McAdam
Sky Sports News reporter Kaveh Solhekol was at Bernard Challandes’ pre-match news conference: Here are his thoughts…
The significance of Kosovo playing against England cannot be overestimated. There is a special bond between the countries ever since UK-backed NATO bombing against Serbian targets in 1999 led to independence for Kosovo.
Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is still a revered figure there and for a while Tony and Tonibler were some of the most popular names for baby boys in Kosovo.
Manager Bernard Challandes was asked about the special bond between the UK and Kosovo but he only wanted to talk about football. He is hoping his game plan will “disturb” England and he believes his players will not be underestimated by their opponents.
There should be no danger of that. Gareth Southgate is expecting this to be his side’s toughest test so far in qualifying. Kosovo have not lost for almost two years and their 15-match unbeaten run is the longest in European football.
Whatever the result, spare a thought for the man who will sit next to Challandes again at the post-match news conference to translate his words into Albanian. Challandes speaks English so much and so fast his translator has to frequently stop him in order to have a chance to translate his words. Let’s hope England’s defenders have a quieter night at St. Mary’s.
Sky Sports News reporter Mark McAdam also spoke to Kosovo players Bersant Celina and Elbasan Rashani to get their thoughts ahead of the England clash…
Three years ago, there was not a Kosovo national side, now there is. And boy have they announced themselves to the world. Unbeaten in 15 games over two years, their meteoric rise on the international stage is nothing short of miraculous. Up next a game the players describe as their “biggest ever” – England.
They will be facing a team filled with superstar players they watch every week in the Premier League. Daunted? No. Worried? No. Excited? Yes. But for them this is just another game.
I met two of their stars, Bersant Celina, currently top of the Championship with Swansea, a player dubbed the brain of the Kosovo team, and his roommate Elbasan Rashani, known as Elba, currently playing in Norway.
They were relaxed and focused on the job at hand. Their notes for the game from the manager left on the coffee table featured scribbled diagrams to the side like it was school homework. You would not have thought they were 24 hours away from playing in the biggest game of their lives.
We chatted about everything from family life to club football and their charismatic manager, who they say is the same in front of the media as he is in the dressing room. Passionate is an understatement. Who would dare to argue with him right now? He is masterminding the unthinkable.