When Arbnor Morina became sporting director of KF Flamurtari last year, one of his first big decisions was also one of the easiest. Morina, a veteran of Kosovo’s football scene and a former national under-21 coach, knows a prospect when he sees one and a graceful center-back in the youth team immediately caught his eye.
Ilija Ivić was tough, had a sweet left foot and showed the kind of attitude needed to rise far above the ordinary. Word gets around rapidly in football and the time had come, after steady progression through Flamurtari’s youth teams and a successful integration into the senior setup, to tie him down.
“I made him a professional contract and brought him to Turkey for a training camp with the first-team in January,” Morina says. “We want to give him a chance to be a professional player because that is his dream.”
In almost every other situation, that would have been both the beginning and the end of it. The fanfare would have been minimal for now and Ivić, like any other promising 17-year-old, would have his chance to sink or swim. But, in rewarding Ivić’s talent, Morina and Flamurtari had taken a step without precedent since Kosovo was part of Yugoslavia.
The clue, of course, was in the youngster’s name.
“Kosovo has always been a mixed population and, before the war, there were Serb players in our football teams,” Morina says. “I can think of players at Flamurtari but also at my other clubs — Ferizaj and Gjakova for example. But Ilija is the first guy of the younger generation who has come forward and played in the national league.”
What happened next illustrates the tensions that sport — and society — in Kosovo has yet to overcome in the dozen years since independence.K
Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.