Ever since Dardan Saraci and his friends started organizing street football matches, Sunday has been football day in Lipjan. On this day, the people that usually frequent the city’s cafes now prepare for football — either as players or as spectators.
Twenty-four-year-old Saraci proudly explains how cafe owners often tease him and his friends, saying that they’ve taken over Sundays in Lipjan. “They come and hang out ’til 11 but then everyone leaves!” they joke.
Four years have passed since Saraci and his friends channeled their passion for football into organizing an amateur street football league in their city, which they call ‘Liga Total.’ Since then, similar leagues have been organized in other cities, including Ferizaj, Mitrovica, Kacanik, Kamenica and others.
What unites them, besides a passion for football, is their attempts to address the absence of things for young people to do in their respective cities.
According to a report published in 2016 by the International Foundation of Election Systems (IFES), 73 percent of young people, aged under 25 in Kosovo, have never been involved in any cultural, political or sports events. In the report, members of civil society highlight that the lack of youth engagement in these activities is caused by a lack of adequate spaces for organizing them.
The Law for Empowering and Including Youth was adopted in 2009 so as to create opportunities for involving young people in these kinds of events, and lays out obligations for both the central and local levels of government.
The law obliges the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport, to develop, adopt and implement a strategy in cooperation with the local level. Local institutions meanwhile are responsible for providing financial and human resources for implementing youth programs, while municipalities must provide adequate public spaces for youth activities.
In order to ensure young people are involved in developing these activities, the Youth Action Council (YAC) are tasked with helping to provide research for local institutions, to help them improve the situation.
But regardless of all this legal regulation, institutional obligations often remain unfulfilled, and as a result, youth organizations are neglected. But this has not stopped people from working outside of the system, like Saraci and his friends, who organize activities themselves with no institutional support.
The group behind Liga Total have been passionate about football since childhood and for many years played every week. But by 2013 their ritual had become something of a routine. To break it, Saraci and his friends sought out new sporting challenges.
In just a few weeks, the search produced results and soon they started to test their abilities against four other teams in Lipjan, against which they had never played before.Their spontaneous initiative attracted a lot of people and within a month, three divisions were created, each having 16 teams.
“When we saw that the number of teams was growing, then we understood that we had initiated something important. Realizing this, we also became more dedicated, so that everything would run as smoothly as possible,” Saraci says.
At the end of September 2017, Liga Total began its fifth season. Currently, around 600 young people are engaged in it every week. They have managed to recruit referees, book the pitch on a long term basis, provide physiotherapists and photographers, and form a commission that sets the timetable. The teams even have their own leadership hierarchies, coaches and sponsors.
With the event being so well-organized and the teams almost at a professional level, it quickly attracted a lot of spectators. The number of people who come to support their respective village teams is as big as it is in matches played between professional clubs. Some matches in the amateur league have been attended by more than 1,000 people.
“They resemble ultras,” Saraci says, smiling.
Posted by Liga Total Lipjan on Thursday, June 29, 2017
Liga Total has also attracted the attention of local businesses, which have considered the matches to be good marketing opportunities. In fact, the only financial support that has been given to the organizers and teams came from local businesses.
“Some businesses have invested over 12,000 euros over a period of six months,” Saraci says. “In some cases players are paid 100 euros per match.”
Such income is significant for young people, especially considering the fact that unemployment levels among the youth reach 55.9 percent, according to the Kosovo Agency of Statistics.
In 2014, Liga Total was organized in Kacanik, with the same format that was used in Lipjan. Its communication chief is 19-year-old Shefket Dashi. He says that he wanted to be involved with the league because of his love for football, and the lack of opportunities to play in his city.
This lack of opportunities largely comes from a lack of facilities. In 2015, the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport initiated a project for building a sports hall in Kacanik and invested over 700,000 euros in two separate phases. According to its webpage, construction should have been finalized by the beginning of 2017.
However, there were delays in the construction of the 3,000 square meter hall, which will eventually include areas for playing football, handball, basketball and other sports. The Director for Education and Culture at the Municipality of Kacanik, Enver Kamishi, told K2.0 that they hope that cooperation with the ministry will mean that this project is finalized next year, but gave no further details on when it is likely to be completed.
It is a situation that has left the youth of Kacanik with very little access to sport. “With the exception of a few annual events, which are organized by the high schools, this city lacks sports activities,” Dashi says.
Liga Total in Kacanik manages to survive with payments of just 15 euros made by each participating team for every match played. Instead of having local businesses sponsor the teams like in Lipjan, in Kacanik this role is played by the diaspora.