On Friday night (March 24) in Shkoder, Kosovo found themselves on the wrong end of a fourth consecutive defeat in World Cup qualifying group I, this time losing 1-2 to Iceland. Despite the loss, Kosovo put in perhaps their most assured performance yet, maintaining more possession of the ball and having as many attempts at goal as their opponents, who just last summer had appeared in a European Championship quarter final.
However, two mistakes from Kosovo’s full backs in the first half left the side with an insurmountable task. First, right back Fanol Perdedaj was caught stranded up the field. Hastily attempting to recover his position, Perdedaj’s attempted clearance only managed to present the ball to Arnor Traustason, who was able to find Iceland’s star man Gylfi Sigurdsson in space in the penalty area. Sigurdsson’s shot could only be parried by Kosovo goalkeeper Samir Ujkani, leaving Bjorn Sigurdarsson to tap into an empty net.
Ten minutes later, Iceland’s Birkir Saevarsson got in behind Kosovo’s left back Benjamin Kololli, who recklessly dived into a tackle, bringing down Saevarsson and conceding a penalty. Sigurdsson stepped up to make it 0-2.
It was tough on Kosovo who had started the match well, looking composed in possession and with a clear game plan. Herolind Shala and Hekuran Kryeziu at the base of the midfield had controlled the early exchanges, frequently getting on the ball and working positions from which Milot Rashica and Valon Berisha could attack the opposition defence. Berisha hit the bar with the score still 0-0, meaning Kosovo maintain their record of hitting the frame of the goal in every game so far.
Fresh faces bring belief
Despite the disheartening half time scoreline, Kosovo maintained the support of the crowd, who willed the team on all the way to the final whistle. Pre-match expectations amongst supporters in Shkoder had been that a draw would be a very good result, with few expecting victory. The bookmakers agreed, making Iceland firm favourites.
Any optimism that Kosovo could cause an upset was generated by their new arrivals. Three new players joined the squad for the match against Iceland; Besart Berisha, Donis Avdijaj and Atdhe Nuhiu.
Despite this being Kosovo’s fifth world cup qualifier, the same issues of uncertainty of eligibility were still unsettling the squad. Berisha, Nuhiu and Avdijaj had all previously represented other national teams, meaning that once again the team was sweating on decisions from FIFA over whether players would be permitted to represent Kosovo — Nuhiu and Avdijaj were confirmed just days before the game.
Earlier in the day on Shkoder’s Rruga Kole Idromeno, where fans of both sides had gathered before the game, four football shirts had almost camouflaged in with the mass of dark blue and yellow of Kosovo and Iceland’s light blue, but came from another place entirely. They carried the traditional blue and white stripes of Sheffield Wednesday, a team based over 2,500 km away in northern England. All four shirts had the same name printed on the back: Nuhiu.
The proud owners of the shirts were a group of relatives from Presevo, who all have familial connections with the Sheffield Wednesday striker, and one of Kosovo’s latest recruits. A member of the group, Blerim Miftari, told K2.0 that with Kosovo still in its first year in FIFA competitions, they needed time and patience to establish their team. He added that while a win against Iceland was possible it was also unlikely, and that he’d be delighted just to see Nuhiu play and a Kosovo goal. Both wishes would be fulfilled.
Less than three minutes into the second half, Iceland failed to clear a set piece and the ball was lofted into the penalty area towards Besart Berisha and Amir Rrahmani. The ball bounced perfectly for Rrahmani, who comfortably dispatched the ball into the top corner of the net.
The celebrations were cut short by the assistant referee’s flag, which was raised due to Berisha being in an offside position when the cross was delivered. Goalscorer Rrahmani, lurking behind the striker had been onside, but Berisha’s attempts to play the ball had rendered him active. The goal did not stand, Kosovo still trailed by two.
Despite the setback, the Loro Borici stadium had come alive, and an electric atmosphere filled the air as Kosovo continued to press. Less than five minutes later, they had their goal.
Again Iceland failed to fully clear a corner. Rashica played the ball back into the penalty area and a defensive header could only find Valon Berisha. A delightful piece of skill from Berisha kept the ball in play and took him past Sigurdsson, before he delivered the ball to Shala, who was patiently waiting on the corner of the penalty area. Shala lifted the ball goalwards and Nuhiu towered over his defender to bury a header into the bottom corner of the net. 1-2. Kosovo’s first ever home goal in a FIFA competition, from a debutant given clearance to play just days earlier; his cousins from Presevo watching on from the stands must have been ecstatic.
Whistles pierced the Shkoder night sky as Iceland came forward after the game was restarted. They grew even louder as a free kick was awarded and Iceland took nearly 2 minutes to take it. The opposition’s experience in winding down the clock was exhibited expertly over the next 20 minutes, as they betrayed their image of plucky underdogs and showed the hardened professionalism of a veteran side.
Kosovo brought on substitutes Avdijaj and Bersant Celina, which re-energized both the crowd and Kosovo’s attacking endeavour. A thrilling run and long shot from new boy Avdijaj nearly found a way past Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson.
Bernard Berisha was also introduced late on, and caused endless problems for the Icelandic defence, but no real glimpses of an equaliser materialized before the full time whistle signalled another defeat for Kosovo.
A Nordic education
It’s not just Iceland’s ability to wile away minutes and hold on to a lead in a hostile environment that Kosovo can learn from their opponents. In manager Albert Bunjaki and captain Samir Ujkani’s pre-match press conference, questions focussed on physicality, relying on stereotypes both of Nordic football being tough and physical, and of Kosovar Albanians being slight and tricky.
Bunjaki pointed out that Kosovo now have two players approaching 2 metres tall in Besart Berisha and Nuhiu and that Iceland’s strength lies more in familiarity, with many of the team having played together since the age of nine. His assertions bore out during the game, with Kosovo scoring from a powerful header and Iceland’s goals being created by intelligent and intricate interplay.
Iceland’s success over the last years has been far more structural than physical. Over the last 10 years, Iceland has invested intensely in football. Where teams used to train alongside horses, now there exist indoor halls with capabilities for year round football training open in almost every town on the small island.
Indoor football halls are also a common sight in Kosovo, with three in Prishtina alone, and proficiency at indoor football has already translated into Kosovo’s futsal team experiencing early success, beating both Cyprus and Norway since recognition. Iceland have shown how, with the correct investment, teams trained indoors can flourish in an outdoor stadium.