It’s June 9, 2018.
I’m in the kitchen talking to my mother, who is preparing lunch. It’s almost ready, I set the table, and once I’ve finished, I go to the living room to call Dad. I see him sitting on the couch, staring at the screen of his smartphone pretty focused. He raises his head and tells me something. I don’t distinguish the first words, but the last one comes to me loud and clear: “…died.”
His voice breaking with emotion, he looks down and says: “Vokrri is dead.”
I don’t want to believe it. I hurry to look at the screen of his smartphone. It’s opened on an article and Dad continues to scroll up and down. But it’s true, Fadil Vokrri has died.
I go to the bathroom so my father doesn’t see me cry. I look at myself in the mirror, and I see my crazy red face, my shiny eyes and the sadness painted on my face. What are you doing? I wonder to myself. I’m crying about someone I’ve never met, a footballer I’ve never seen playing.
Fadil Vokrri has always been my idol, my hero, even though I’ve never been lucky enough to meet him in person.
November 20, 2018, Prishtina. Kosovo is playing against Azerbaijan. The boys are fighting for victory in the Nation’s League group; it is probably the most important match for our national team. We immediately took the lead with Zeneli’s goal, and the stadium seemed to explode.
Then in the ninth minute, something happens, everything stops. A large image of Vokrri’s face comes out of the screen, and the whole audience applauds for a minute. At the ninth minute, like his jersey number.
I cry again; I cry even louder. This time I’m not at my parents’, I’m in my dorm room. I thank God for being alone and I can cry as much as I want without having to go to the bathroom to hide.
We win the game, we destroy Azerbaijan, and we take first place in the group. An indescribable joy, an achievement that no one would ever have expected, maybe just him. He, the father of this national team. He has always believed in us. Especially when we didn’t even exist, when we weren’t even a country, but only a tiny autonomous region whose existence nobody knew about. If there was one person who deserved to enjoy this show, it was him.
I keep staring at the screen, the happy faces of my fellow countrymen. Meanwhile, I thought of a scene from the movie “Interstellar”, when Newton’s Third Law comes up:
“The only way humans have figured out how to move forward is to leave something behind.”
I’ve always said to myself that the bigger the dream you want to achieve, the more things you’ll have to be willing to lose. Thanks to the guys in our national team, we have reached an incredible milestone, and we’re still hoping to reach the European Championships thanks to the amazing qualification group played by them, but unfortunately, we have lost our hero.
Now the stadium bears his name and it could not be otherwise; this is only the slightest thanks that all our people owe him. We will remember him forever. All of us will talk about Fadil to their children and grandchildren; we will never forget him. That’s the best thanks we must give him to always talk about what he was able to do for our land.
My father’s Fadil
Fadil Vokrri has always been my idol.
I grew up listening to my father telling me about his exploits, the golden years of KF Prishtina, the victory in the Second League and the miracles in the Yugoslav First League. The victory against Red Star in Belgrade, a crazy first year that ended with representing Yugoslavia in the Mitropa Cup and the Sundays in Prishtina with drums playing from the early hours of the morning and the stadium that could hardly contain the heat of the fans.
Prishtina was in the First League, and much of the credit was his, Fadil’s. Even those who had the honour of playing with him said: “Our task was to pass the ball to him, then he would take care of it.”
My father has always been a great fan of football in general, but his favorite was Fadil. Every Sunday he tried to figure out a way to get to the stadium and to watch him. Sometimes there was not enough money at home and the last thing he could do was ask my grandparents for some money to watch a football match.
A young guy had to help the family, instead of wasting time watching football. Every time he was able to find a solution and he enjoyed those marvellous moments. Watching Fadil meant the Albanian Kosovar people were alive. Probably this is the only thing he never had to tell me: That he felt alive in those moments.
He always told me that I could never imagine what kind of footballer Fadil was, how strong he was, what goals he was able to score and how many teams wanted him including Juventus. I grew up in Italy and Juventus has always been one of the teams that was only interested in the best players: Platini, Zidane, Ibrahimović and Cristiano Ronaldo.
I spent most of the time trying to imagine Prishtina in those years, what kind of footballer Fadil could be, how talented he was, what goals he was able to score. I used a lot of my imagination, but I didn’t have anything to watch. For a long time, I didn’t believe my father’s stories, even though when I went to play football, I sometimes came onto the pitch as Fadil did. Dad used to tell me that he was the last one to go on and throw the ball on the field by rolling it like goalkeepers do when they have the ball in their hands, and they throw it on the ground to send it with their feet.
I did it to make my father’s dream come true, to make him feel the same emotions. I never asked him if he noticed or not. In my heart, I hope so, even if making his eyes shine like when he talks about those years and Fadil’s goals is something impossible.
Then came YouTube and one day, by mistake, I searched for Fadil and I was enchanted by what appeared before my eyes: Fadil’s goals wearing the Prishtina jersey, then Partizan Belgrade and the Yugoslav national team. He had to be a considerable talent to be part of that national team. That meant Dad was right; all those stories were not exaggerated.
I would have loved Fadil too; he would have made me crazy with joy if only I had had the honor of seeing him live. He represented my people, brought Prishtina into the First League, played for Partizan Belgrade and succeeded in bringing Serbs and Albanians together and playing in the amazing Yugoslav national team.
My people understand what it means not to exist, not to be on the map, but to have someone that keeps you alive. We have tried many ways not to die, to keep breathing, not to be swallowed up and Fadil has been fundamental in all this. He kept us alive by playing football, by showing his talent, letting people admire him and spreading his name all over Europe. People would know that that talented guy came from Kosovo.
I grew up telling people that I came from Kosovo and people asked me where Kosovo was, or they pointed out that there was no Kosovo on the map. So I ended up being silent and continuing to promise myself that one day I would show the whole world that Kosovo exists, that we are on the map, too.
We too can be good at what we do, just as my hero was.
Fadil probably never knew how many people he made happy while making art with the ball. I always remember my father’s words, the ones he uses every time to conclude the umpteenth story of those years.
“We were poor at that time, we didn’t have enough food, but we were lucky because every Sunday we could watch Fadil playing football. We did not need anything else.”
Feature image: Illustration by K2.0.