To describe England’s welcome in Pristina as warm is like describing the Arctic as cold. When the English delegation first stepped foot on Kosovan tarmac outside the airport, greeting them was a huge specially-commissioned billboard displaying Kosovo’s Atde Nuhiu (also of Sheffield Wednesday) and Marcus Rashford either side of the prosaic phrase ‘Welcome Brothers’.
Driving into Pristina – Kosovo’s capital city – the ceremony continues. English flags draped from lamp posts, banners adorned with remembrance poppies reading ‘Welcome and Respect’ and the locals in the city’s pubs and bars eager to facilitate English fans’ merriment; it’s pageantry done Kosovan style.
But the fanfare runs deeper than the buzz of seeing world-class footballers come to town – England’s players, fans and media have been treated to the kind of reception usually reserved for war heroes. Given the history between the two counties, this is unsurprising. The intense and genuine goodwill stems from the UK’s intervention on behalf of the Kosovan Liberation Army during their fight for independence from Serbia in 1999. And for this, the fiercely patriotic locals’ gratitude is palpable.
Admirable too is the concerted effort to negate any of the nauseating racism England have experienced in their other Euro 2020 qualifiers in nearby Montenegro and Bulgaria. Lorik Jashanica – a young sports journalist for Kosovan outlet Gazeta Blic – spoke with infectious pride about the anti-racism video he had compiled featuring dozens of Kosovan fans, musicians, celebrities, politicians and journalists. It is a cause to which he, and seemingly Kosovo at large, is earnestly committed.
The nation’s football and its politics, as with so many other places on Earth, are inextricably linked. Following defeat to Group A rivals Czech Republic on Thursday evening, Kosovo know they cannot qualify automatically for Euro 2020. And yet this game still seems like a victory lap. Though the Fadil Vokrii stadium only accommodates roughly 13,500, hundreds of thousands more applied for tickets to witness this historic international showpiece.
Bernard Challandes’ side’s expeditious growth since they were officially recognised by FIFA in 2016 has been nothing short of extraordinary. They have risen 76 places in the FIFA rankings in that time and, although they cannot now qualify via the conventional route, there is still a place waiting for them at next summer’s pan-European tournament should they navigate the play-off path afforded to them courtesy of their exceptional Nations League performance in 2018.
In the most complimentary sense of the word, Kosovo are an anomaly of a football team. Should they manage to sneak into the European Championships via the backdoor it will be, without hyperbole, one of the great romantic football stories.
There is something soul-stirring about this wonderful city. Visibly, it still bears the scars of war but its superficial blemishes are more than offset by its vibrancy and snappy yet warm-hearted milieu. Should they beat England, it will be a night that will pass into Kosovan mythos. And, in all honesty, it would be exceedingly difficult to begrudge them it.