In-depth | Sports

Blue, yellow, white — football, politics, identity

By , Halim Kafexholli - 16.02.2019

How sport is affecting nation-building and identity in Kosovo.

On May 3, 2016, among the tears and excitement of its delegation members and sports journalists, Kosovo received the news that it had been accepted as the 55th full member of UEFA during the organization’s Congress in Budapest. Just 10 days later, far from Budapest, Kosovo was also granted full membership of FIFA at the world governing body’s Congress in Mexico City, bestowing Kosovo with the right to compete in the 2018 World Cup Qualifiers.

Former Football Federation of Kosovo president, the late Fadil Vokrri, was in Mexico City to see Kosovo finally admitted into FIFA in May 2016. Photo courtesy of the Football Federation of Kosovo.

The first qualification campaign did not go well for Kosovo, who finished with only one point in the group, coming in its very first match in Turku, Finland. One particular problem was that no stadium in Kosovo had been licensed according to international standards to host qualifying matches, and consequently Kosovo was forced to play its home matches in Shkodra in northern Albania.

The weak results and the fact that matches were being played far away, made it seem as though Kosovo’s engagement in international football competitions would not compete with Kosovar Albanians’ passion for the national team of Albania — Kosovo, it seemed, would remain as simply a sympathy team, constantly under the shadow of the crazy passion for the first love, Albania.

The reasons for the deepheld affection for neighbors Albania are steeped in history.

Ethnic Albanians today make up over 90 percent of the population of Kosovo, which in 1913, when Albania gained independence from the Ottoman Empire, remained under Serbia as it did later — after 1918 — under the various forms of Yugoslavia*. Throughout the decades, Kosovar Albanians, who felt their national rights had been denied, followed the time-honored tradition of finding the “forbidden apple” the most desirable.

As a reaction, many Kosovar Albanians organized through the Kaçak guerrilla movements during the 1920s, which launched an insurgency against the Serbian administration. After World War II, organization came mainly in the form of clandestine political organizations, which reached their peak during the 1980s. All these movements — from the 1920s to the end of 1980s — had a clear and enduring goal of joining Albania.

When the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) became prominent in the 1990s, the axis of the oath of its soldiers was the “liberation and unification of Albanian lands.” This helped to make the emotions surrounding unification with Albania strong and vivid, feelings that have also found expression through affection for the Albanian national football team.

The national team of Albania was in a downturn -- but there to fill the void were Kosovar Albanians, eager to visit Albania and to sing for its football team.

Even after the end of the war in Kosovo, the debate on the national identity of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo continued to be intense and even affected daily political developments. While Ibrahim Rugova, the first president of Kosovo, had proposed a flag that would potentially be the future flag of Kosovo, his political opponents, mostly KLA-born associations, burnt it publicly. Though the “Dardanian flag” — as Rugova referred to it — had exclusively Albanian national elements, his political opponents considered the very idea of having another flag, that differs from the Albanian national one, as a national betrayal.

When the Kosovo War ended in 1999, the national team of Albania was in a downturn, both in terms of results and interest from Albania’s citizens in following its matches. But there to fill the void were Kosovar Albanians, eager to visit Albania and to sing for its football team.

The Albanian national team ultras group, ‘Tifozat Kuq e Zi’ (‘Red and Black Fans,’ TKZ), was soon organized, with young people from Kosovo as its fulcrum. Before long, fanatically following every one of Albania’s matches became mainstream, and thousands of Kosovars traveled full of passion, everywhere the national team of “Mother Albania” was playing.

Kosovo formed its own national team around the same time, but since it didn’t have regular international matches, it produced little emotional attachment, and the vast majority of Kosovar Albanians were instead fully concentrated on Albania’s team.

Indeed, the idea of an independent Kosovo was still something relatively new to Albanian national semantics. This idea had begun to take shape during the 1970s, when the Autonomous Province of Kosovo gained constitutional competences under the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. But the idea of a possible separate Kosovar nation faced strong resistance, both from dissident nationalist circles and among the Kosovar Albanian communist nomenclature.

Given the changes in global geopolitics with the fall of socialist systems in Eastern Europe at the turn of the ’90s, many Albanians began to see Kosovo’s independence as a realistic political project, some of them enthusiastically, some more reluctantly, accepting it as a compromise given the real-political impossibility of joining Albania.

The Kosovar Albanian elite had begun to seriously consider the idea that Kosovo’s independence could become the goal of its political movement when it began to become clear that the end of Yugoslavia was approaching at the end of 1980s. In 1989, Kosovar Albanian intellectuals established the Democratic League of Kosovo, the first non-communist political party in Kosovo, headed by Rugova, the head of the Kosovo Writers’ Association.

Rugova proclaimed the idea of an independent Kosovo and in many ways became the figurehead of the struggle, though by the mid 2000s, in the new context of post-war Kosovo, he would also make reference to independence being a “compromise” in relation to Kosovar Albanians’ national aspirations.

After the 1999 war, and especially after the much-celebrated Declaration of Independence in 2008, it became quite clear that for those with “dreams” of national unification, they would remain just that — not only because of the international impossibilities but also because of intra-national uncertainties. Despite this, the new state’s symbols, from its flag to its anthem, still received strong opposition from some quarters, with many unwilling to accept what they felt was an identity being imposed from abroad.

Meanwhile, with independence secured, and with Kosovo now as an independent political entity, the idea of Kosovo having an independent national football team was also underway — though it developed slowly.

Success reinforcing identity

Eight years passed between Kosovo declaring independence, and the team playing its first competitive match in Finland due to a long battle for acceptance into football’s international governing bodies.

After the disappointment in qualifications for the 2018 World Cup, last autumn, Kosovo began competing in the inaugural UEFA Nations League. The team performed much better in these games and managed to finish as group leader. In six matches, the side won four and drew two, not losing a single game.

Kosovo’s excellent performance in the UEFA Nations league, rounded off with a 4‐0 win in Prishtina in which Arbër Zeneli scored a hattrick, has ignited a strong passion for the team. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

The good performance produced euphoria among Kosovar Albanians. Besides the success, the fact that Kosovo started playing its matches in Prishtina for the first time, after the city’s stadium was deemed up to international standards, also had an impact. On one occasion, the endless crowds of people waiting to buy limited tickets even led to physical fights.

It was clear that Kosovar Albanians had started to feel passion for Kosovo — its national team, as well as its flag.

Albert Mecini is a sports sociologist who thinks that Kosovo has seen a major change in the perception of the people in relation to its state symbols, but also vis-à-vis the emotional connection that is devoted to the idea of the state of Kosovo.

However, he feels that there is a difference between generations. “For example, the middle and the older generations respect the symbols of the Kosovo state,” Mecini states. “This was also seen during sports matches — whether in football or other sports — when [those generations] manifested a dignified behavior in relation to those symbols and statehood.”

But, according to the sociologist, among the older generations there is another sociological connection when it comes to the [Albanian] national flag. “Their connection with this symbol is more specific: as a memory, as a kind of relationship with the nation they belong to,” he says, adding that, on the other side, the younger generation identifies with state symbols without any qualms or emotional burdens.

National symbols of both Kosovo and Albania have been common at Kosovo’s matches. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

But the growing love for the symbols and idea of an independent Kosovo is also manifested in other respects. The successes of Kosovar athletes have been evident in other sports, especially in judo. The successive medals of Peja-based judokas including Majlinda Kelmendi, Akil Gjakova, Nora Gjakova, Distria Krasniqi, which have seen the triumphant rise of the Kosovo flag at the Olympics and the European and World Championships, has strengthened this feeling of pride.

Celebrations on February 17 — the anniversary of Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence — various civic protests, marches by the Kosovo Security Force, and the more recent interventions by the Special Police Unit of Kosovo in the north of the country — previously effectively off limits — have also had an influence on the Kosovo flag becoming more and more popular among the Kosovo people.

“Symbols are central metaphors of national identities,” says Sibel Halimi, a professor of Sociology at the University of Prishtina. “Nations do not exist, they are not visible, if there are not symbols. For societies that have emerged from war, symbols are much more powerful than for a society that lives an everyday life without these conflicts, without any external enemies.”

According to Halimi, the more “external enemies” are defined, the more symbols become the primary identity of certain nations. She also believes symbols most often appear when they are in competition between various countries, and this most often happens through sport.

Moments when the waving flag is displayed by figures from the arts, such as world-famous singers from Kosovo — like Rita Ora or Dua Lipa — also serves as a catalyst to building a sense of respect, love and pride for the flag and state symbols.

Kosovo’s flag is also often displayed by other Kosovar athletes representing different Western countries where they have grown up — from numerous fighters from across the combat sports world to the Albanian football players in the Swiss national team.

But, perhaps above all, the focal point of cultivating a sense of pride for Kosovo and its state symbols continues to be the national football team and its recent successes.

The Kosovo national team now has its own ultras group called Dardanët (Dardanians), named after one of the tribes of the ancient Illyrians who are thought to have lived more or less in what is today the territory of Kosovo.

The Albanian nationalist narrative is based on the claim that Albanians are descendants of ancient Illyrians, meaning that, the name of the ultras group expresses an (un)conscious tendency to emphasize the specific Kosovo identity in the framework of the Albanian general identity.

Indeed, one debate that has accompanied the whole process of the development of the Kosovo football team has been whether it should be called a “national team” (kombëtare) at all — or rather a “representation” (përfaqësuese).

Lorik Berisha, the general secretary of Dardanët, believes that the very name of the Nations League shows that UEFA considers it as a league of nations and does not recognize the term “representation.”

General secretary of the Kosovo fan group Dardanët, Lorik Berisha, prefers to use the term “national team” to describe the Kosovo as opposed to “representation” but insists that others are free to describe them as they wish. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

“As the Dardanët, we have never said that we have two national teams; we have always said that there is only one Albanian nation and one national team,” Berisha says. “But still, we prefer to call it [Kosovo’s] national team. For example, if Kosovo were to play against Albania, we can’t say that the Kosovo ‘representation’ is playing against the ‘national team’ of Albania.”

Regardless, Berisha says that everyone has the right to describe the team as they wish, either as a representation or as a national team.

K2.0 also asked TKZ to comment on this subject, but the group declined, replying that the topic deepens the separation between Kosovo and Albania into “us and them” and that “any comparison with this tendency is unacceptable.”

Something of a rivalry has grown between the Albanian and Kosovar teams since Kosovo’s recognition, with the federations competing over young talent, and many former Albania players labelled as ‘traitors’ after switching to Kosovo.

"Anyone we face during the group stage is our rival, except Albania, since this will always be a fraternal match.”

Lorik Berisha, Dardanët

 

Bayern Munich’s Meritan Shabani, Werder Bremen’s Milot Rashica and Malmö FF’s Egzon Binaku — all children of emigrants from Kosovo — have all divided opinion during the race between the two national teams for young talents playing in Europe; Shabani and Rashica have opted for Kosovo, while Binaku decided on Albania.

However, while TKZ refused to declare whether they support the Kosovo national team, Dardanët does not have the same hesitation to talk about this topic, and openly express their support for the national team of Albania.

Berisha says that the Dardanët don’t see Albania as a rival. “Our goal is to qualify for the European Championships, and anyone we face during the group stage is our rival, except Albania, since this will always be a fraternal match,” he said, speaking before the draw for the qualifying games was made.

While Kosovo and Albania avoided each other in the draw for the senior sides, this widely dubbed “fraternal match” will be played out at under‐21 level, as the two sides have been drawn in the same group for the qualifications for the 2021 under‐21 European Championships.

Sociologist Halimi also claims that both flags are complementary, adding that “both symbols are an integral part of history and can’t be changed, because the relation citizens have created with those symbols is not to do with the present, but with the past.”

An entangled history

The links between football, politics, nationalism and identity aren’t limited to Kosovo’s relatively new national team.

In the 1980s, Kosovo experienced intensified repression by the Yugoslav state against Albanians, with systematic arrests, detentions and police brutality, as well as the suspicious deaths of Albanian soldiers while completing national service in the Yugoslav Army. The situation worsened in 1981 after student demonstrations which, with their focal demand of Kosovo becoming a republic, were judged as “hostile” and “counter-revolutionary” by the Yugoslav state.

At that time, FC Prishtina was the only Kosovar team competing in the Yugoslav First League, and for many the team began to be perceived as the national team of Yugoslav Albanians. Their matches often gathered 35-40,000 Albanians, not only from Kosovo but from across cities in Yugoslavia with an ethnic Albanian population, with fans constantly monitored by state security.

FC Prishtina’s golden age in the 1980s, when Fadil Vokrri was their star player, was seen as a victory against oppression for many of Yugoslavia’s Albanians. Photo courtesy of the Football Federation of Kosovo.

Whenever FC Prishtina defeated any of the Yugoslav football giants, especially the two teams from Belgrade — Red Star and Partizan — it had the tendency to be received in Kosovo as a victory over Serbian nationalist policies. Chants from the terraces at these matches were explicitly political, while older generations speak of every goal feeling like a retaliation against repressive state policies.

At the beginning of the 1990s, after Slobodan Milošević had come to power and Serbian nationalist policies had intensified further, Albanians were expelled from stadiums and other sports venues, as they were from schools, the University of Prishtina and hospitals. But amongst this segregation, Kosovar Albanians mobilized and created a parallel system in football, alongside those in education and health.

Willing villagers agreed to release their fields for the football teams and, for a decade, a whole generation played football in muddy fields, where streams were used as showers, and vans as dressing rooms. The police did not simply allow this to happen and often interrupted matches by beating and arresting sportspeople and fans for the sole reason that they wanted to play football.

After the war ended, Kosovar Albanians returned to the stadiums and sports halls, and sports leagues began to function again. Initially, the enthusiasm of freedom and the return to the stadiums also brought a large interest in football. The media paid more attention, while fans flocked to the stadiums, often overcrowding them, especially in the first edition of the Kosovo Football Championship in 1999-2000.

The careers of many talented players started in meadows and finished before they had a genuine international team to represent.

But, over time, the interest from both the media and the donors began to fall, and consequently, the interest of fans also waned, with the number of fans in the stadiums becoming smaller and smaller.

At that time, a combination of the best players from the Kosovo League was created, forming a team that was considered to be the embryo of the future national team. But until the recognitions by UEFA and FIFA in recent years, this team had very little opportunity to play matches.

Although liberated from the fear of the state repression of the ’90s, Kosovo football was not yet liberated from international isolation, and generations knew only the experience of playing domestically with each other — the careers of many talented players started in meadows and finished before they had a genuine international team to represent.

The nascent national team did play sporadically, with its first unofficial “friendly” match — against the National Team of Albania — held in Prishtina in 2002, but for the next three years it did not play again. In November 2005 the team toured Turkish Cyprus, playing against Cyprus and Sápmi, then in April 2006 it played against Monaco, before playing Saudi Arabia in June 2007.

But after the very first game against Albania, none of these further pre-independence “friendly” matches were played in Kosovo, and that wouldn’t change until Kosovo again hosted Albania in Prishtina on February 17, 2010, on the second anniversary of the state’s independence.

Later, even before accession to international organizations, Kosovo was allowed to play official friendly matches.

The first, against Haiti in March 2014, did not really look like a usual friendly match, which are often characterized by low attendances and a lack of enthusiasm by the crowds. The 17,000 tickets for the match sold out within hours, and the stadium was awash with blue and yellow.

It was a sign that this nation had been hungry for the internationalization of the sport.

“We did not expect this to be such a big event,” said the surprised coach of Haiti before the match. “We have already understood the importance of this game.”

Kosovo’s president, prime minister, and minister of culture, youth and sport all released statements with emotional tones before the game, and the afternoon shift was canceled for pupils in Mitrovica, the city where this historic meeting took place. The chosen location was full of symbolism — the first official match as Kosovo in the “ethnically-divided city,” in a stadium bearing the name of Adem Jashari, the KLA commander upheld as a hero by many Kosovar Albanians.

After Haiti came other friendlies with Turkey, Senegal, Oman, Equatorial Guinea and, of course, Albania, before recognitions by FIFA and UEFA finally saw Kosovo playing friendlies as a full member from June 2016.

Kosovo’s footballers are now setting about creating their own history.

Throughout this long and difficult journey for Kosovo football, the person at the heart of everything was Kosovo football legend, Fadil Vokrri. The former center forward, who back in the ’80s had enthused fans by scoring against the Yugoslav teams during the golden era of FC Prishtina, in 2008 became president of the Football Federation of Kosovo. It was largely due to his significant engagement that Kosovo football managed to break the chains of isolation and be accepted as an equal member in UEFA and FIFA.

But on June 9, 2018, Vokrri suddenly died from a heart attack. Deputy Secretary General of FIFA, Zvonimir Boban, an ex-AC Milan star, hailed his Yugoslav national team predecessor. “I rarely met with him the last few years, but he was a great man,” Boban said. “I hope we will meet in another world to play football.”

The newly renovated City Stadium of Pristina, the “nest” of the Kosovo national team and the arena where Vokrri had scored goals a quarter of a century earlier, was given his name. On September 10, in the ninth minute of the first match that Kosovo played in Prishtina after the former number nine’s death, the entire stadium stood to honor the man who gave so much to Kosovo football — both as a player and as a federation president.

In his wake, Kosovo’s footballers are now setting about creating their own history. They have risen from the humble times in the ’90s to winning a UEFA competition, igniting a passion for the new team and raising questions of nationhood in the process.

But, despite the growing enthusiasm for the Kosovo national team, there has been no apparent weakening of enthusiasm for the national team of Albania, with the latter’s success in reaching the finals of Euro 2016 roared on in Kosovo’s streets and bars — albeit before Kosovo had played competitively. Just like with the complexities of identity, cheering for one does not necessarily exclude supporting the other.K

Feature image: Agan Kosumi.

* Editor’s note: This article was updated after publishing to clarify that Yugoslavia existed in different forms from 1918 onward. 

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  • 18 Feb 2019 - 08:48 Carl Hammerdorfer: Nicely written and researched, gentlemen. Thanks for shedding light on this. You probably know this book - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_Soccer_Explains_the_World. If not, you will enjoy it. You may also wish to share your article with Foer.
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