In-depth | Sports

Preparing to introduce Kosovo football to the world

By - 03.06.2016

National team manager Albert Bunjaki ready for historic role.

Tonight (Friday, June 3) at 20:00, the Kosovo national football team will play their first match as a full member of FIFA. Leading his team will be Albert Bunjaki, the man whose name will be immortalized by virtue of being Kosovo’s first ever head coach, both pre- and post-FIFA recognition. It is a fitting reward for a man whose dedication to football in Kosovo has been resolute, despite the challenges presented by politics, war and forced migration.

Bunjaki was born and raised in Prishtina’s Ulpiana neighborhood. Even when remembering his childhood, the joys of playing football intermingle with a darker world created by a tense political situation. His main recollections are of a quiet but sociable life with his friends, and football matches in the streets of Ulpiana. But Bunjaki also has vivid, photographic memories of the student protests in Prishtina in 1981, which featured violent clashes between protesters and police.

Bunjaki didn’t only play football on the streets, at the age of eight he joined the youth team of FC Prishtina, and remained with the club at every level of youth football. His time there coincided with Prishtina’s best ever years. A team starring current chairman of the Kosovo Football Federation, Fadil Vokrri, won the Yugoslav second division in 1983 and the club remained at the top level of Yugoslav football for the next five seasons.

The first time Prishtina ever played Partizan Belgrade, Bunjaki’s youth side provided the pre-match entertainment by taking on their counterparts from Partizan. “In the stadium there were around 30,000 spectators,” Bunjaki recalls. “For a 10-11 year-old boy, it was a simply amazing and unbelievable feeling. I still remember that game every time I walk on that pitch, with a full stadium and a lot of noise and support for us. It was great motivation.”

By the late 1980s, Bunjaki’s football career was beginning to flourish. After attending a training camp, he was selected to join up with Prishtina’s first team, one of only four players out of 74 hopefuls that day. However, the tense political situation in Kosovo was already beginning to cause problems. Bunjaki remembers a cancelled trip to a tournament in Lausanne in 1989, for which the team had been preparing for over a month. “Two days before traveling to Lausanne our travel was canceled for political reasons,” says Bunjaki. A few days later Slobodan Milosevic gave his now infamous speech at Gazimestan in Kosovo, in which he appeared to serve notice of the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia that would follow.

It wasn’t just Bunjaki’s football career that was progressing well in Prishtina, he was also doing well at university. A medical student at the University of Prishtina, he was elected head of the Student Union in his first year. He also had a girlfriend. Describing his life at that time, Bunjaki says it was, “simply excellent, but also dangerous.”

There was one danger that eventually became inescapable: mandatory military service. On three occasions, his family had helped him to avoid conscription but in autumn 1991 the military police were seeking Bunjaki. His call up was to join the Yugoslav People’s Army’s operations at the Battle of Vukovar in Croatia. These operations turned into an 87-day siege that, according to official figures, claimed the lives of almost 2,000 soldiers and over 1,000 civilians.

“I didn’t have much time,” Bunjaki recalls. “So we decided that I must leave quickly. I was naive and I didn’t understand that this road would change my life. From fear, I remember not properly saying goodbye to my family. I took off not knowing where I’d go, or for how long. I had a completely broken heart.”

In the end, it was a refugee camp in Sweden where Bunjaki had to attempt to reconnect the dots of his life, with football naturally being a large part of the process. He was joined at the camp by a few other players from Albanian side Flamurtari Vlore; the footballers all shared a room together and filled their days with football. As Bunjaki puts it, “football was what helped me remember my life as it was before.”

The anguish of leaving his family behind in Kosovo and the tough life of a refugee prevented Bunjaki from reaching the same levels in Swedish football as he’d enjoyed in Prishtina, but he managed a modest career, playing for five sides in the lower leagues. Football also opened a number of doors in Sweden, helping Bunjaki make friends, find employment and slowly build a life.

Towards the end of his playing career, Bunjaki became interested in coaching, developing his leadership skills and being involved in player development. He took advantage of the opportunity Swedish clubs give to players to educate themselves and completed every UEFA coaching licence up to the highest available, UEFA Pro. University days also beckoned for a second time, with Bunjaki choosing to study an academic diploma in football coaching at Orebro University.

With his diploma and coaching license, Bunjaki found employment at a number of Swedish clubs, most notably as assistant manager at Kalmar, who during his time there won both the Swedish cup in 2007 and the Allsvenskan — Sweden’s highest league — the following year.

Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 coincided with Bunjaki’s reputation as a coach peaking. His role in Kalmar’s success had attracted attention. “Many Swedish clubs started showing interest in me,” Bunjaki remembers. “As even though I was young and I was the assistant coach, I had a lot of responsibility and a lot of freedom to develop players at the club. I was on the rise.”

So when Kosovo’s nascent football federation approached Bunjaki with an offer in 2009, he was slightly reticent to accept. He had never forgotten his homeland, despite his success in Sweden. As he puts it, “I dream about my country in my sleep, I think about it every day.” He hadn’t only helped his mother country from Sweden in dreams. In 2001, he was part of a project fostering relations between Kosovars and the Swedish football federation, in which 30 Kosovar coaches were educated in Sweden and awarded a UEFA ‘B’ licence.

However the timing of the offer was awkward. “For me it was hard to go from a successful club, both in terms of sporting success and economically, to Kosovo,” Bunjaki explains. “It was a time of statebuilding, and the economy was very limited.”

What eventually persuaded Bunjaki to take on the position was his desire “to create a healthy platform that would later serve all generations.” He was also keen to keep the job out of other, less benevolent hands. “I knew that when Kosovo would be accepted by UEFA and FIFA, many ‘patriots’ would come to Kosovo and by pretending to help they would try to claim the national team coach role for personal interests,” Bunjaki explains. “This made me think and act. Kosovo deserved a healthy basis which could later change and develop further, but it was important that the foundations be genuine and healthy. I think we achieved this, even though we needed seven years.”

Photo: Kushtrim Ternava.

Photo: Kushtrim Ternava.

Those seven years between Bunjaki’s appointment and FIFA’s recognition of Kosovo in May 2016 haven’t always been easy. One of the early issues was finding players. With Kosovo’s diaspora spread so widely across Europe, compiling a database of eligible players has taken time and effort but has now been rewarded. “Today we have a system of following players,” explains Bunjaki. “We have created communication networks in almost all countries in which we have players. Our work is easy now.”

This emphasis on the diaspora has also been an issue. Of the 18 players selected to represent Kosovo against the Faroe Islands, only four grew up in Kosovo and came through the domestic system. The other 14 were all either born or raised abroad and have all played international football at youth level for other countries.

As a member of the diaspora himself, the head coach is resolute in his position on this. “From my first day of work, we concentrated on a local way of working,” Bunjaki proclaims, pointing to a 1,000 page report produced by the FFK detailing the requirements and the work needing to be done to improve the Kosovo league.

He also draws attention to the annual selection camp created by him and his team, a project aimed at developing Kosovar players. “From the first day we had 142 players at our disposal,” the coach explains. “From [that group], 92 players were from the Kosovo league; more than 62 percent. So facts and statistics show that the local league was our priority, but when quality players came — like Samir Ujkani, Loret Sadiku, Albert Bunjaku, Manchester City’s Besart Celina, Mainz’s Besar Halimi — it was naturally harder for [those playing locally] to get into the team.”

Bunjaki is clear that his policy is that the best players must be selected, especially with competitive fixtures on the horizon. “Regardless of where they are, they are Kosovars,” he states. “Some might not like this, but they cannot influence my decisions. Professional processes must be implemented in Kosovo.”

It hasn’t all been dilemmas and problem solving for Bunjaki; there have of course been moments of pride and happiness in those seven years too. Bunjaki describes being in charge of Kosovo for their first FIFA recognized friendly against Haiti in 2014 as ‘a special feeling.’
The coach is also happy with the football his side has played in the friendly matches he has taken charge of. He points to a strong record — only four defeats in 13 matches — and is proud to have given debuts to players like Enis Alushi and Celina at such young ages, 16 and 17 respectively.

He has also pulled off a relative coup by bringing Tord Grip with him from Sweden, the veteran Swede joining as his assistant in 2014. “He is unique with his experience at seven World Cups and three European Championships,” says Bunjaki. “So I have the best assistant in the world.” Grip has been head coach of the Norwegian national team and the Swedish under-21 side and has been the assistant manager with the Swedish, Mexican, Ivorian and English national teams, as well as at Lazio and Manchester City.

The two heavy defeats that Kosovo suffered in 2014 — 1-3 against Senegal and 1-6 against Turkey — Bunjaki considers as important lessons. “We learned a lot from them,” he says. “And after those games we have been continuously rising. But our journey has just started and we will need time and patience, and naturally support as well. Kosovo has a good future.”

Kosovar football’s future is now looking brighter than ever before, after acceptance into FIFA and UEFA. Bunjaki believes his selection headaches may intensify, as more and more players become available, especially from the diaspora. “I am convinced that after Euro 2016 there will be movement on the players’ part,” he says. “They will want to represent their state, and I think this right should be respected by all, although for some federations it will be painful.”

There is also the question of which group Kosovo will enter for qualification to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, an issue that is expected to be resolved by UEFA soon. Initially it was anticipated that Kosovo would join Group I alongside Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey and Finland, with pre-qualified Russia playing a series of friendly matches against teams from the other group with only five members, Group H. However, Gibraltar’s acceptance into FIFA at the same time as Kosovo’s has complicated matters.

The head coach though seems more concerned about who will be playing for Kosovo rather than who they will be playing against. “Do you understand how difficult it will be for us?” asks Bunjaki. “Three months before the start of the qualifiers for the World Cup, and we still don’t know if players [that have already represented] other national teams will have the opportunity to come or not.”

Twenty-five years after he was forced to leave his home due to a war between Serbs and Croats, Albert Bunjaki is still facing problems caused by disputed nationalities. That he now does so as the manager of an international football team is a testament to his perseverance. Both the manager and his team are optimistic about the footballing future. “Nothing scares us,” Bunjaki proclaims. “As now we at least know that we are equal, and with time we will prove that Kosovo has talent and players who want to work. Kosovo has a long road ahead of it, but I am sure that with time and patience we will have great success.”K