By early afternoon on Monday, six hours before Albania were to take on Macedonia in the opening game of World Cup qualifying Group G, Shkoder was already buzzing with the feel of a big matchday. While the cobbled streets of the city center had become a heaving mass of red and black amidst the endless double headed eagles and patriotic slogans, the other striking sight was the place names emblazoned on t-shirts and flags; Tetova, Gjilan, Prishtina, Kumanovo, Ulqin, Drenas.
As qualification for World Cup 2018 gets underway, it has become a more complex time than ever to be an ethnic Albanian and a football fan. History and economics have scattered the Albanian people across a range of states and, for the first round of qualifiers, ethnic Albanian players were named in the squads of no fewer than six different national teams, most notably the newly FIFA recognized Kosovo national team.
Working out which ethnic Albanian is choosing to represent which national team at the moment seems to be a challenge even for FIFA. The decision is nearly as complex for those watching from the stands and in the bars. On the night that the Kosovo national team made their World Cup qualifying debut and ethnic Albanians played against each other in Albania vs Macedonia, the issue was thrown into particularly sharp focus.
‘Too used to Albania’
In the Loro Borici stadium, entire stands were dedicated to fan groups from Macedonia and Kosovo; Ballistet from Tetovo, Plisat from Prishtina and Iliyrian Elite from Kumanovo. In Shkoder, one thing was clear: Fans from outside the Albanian state are still supporting the Albanian national team with gusto.
One is Kreshnik Hyseni from Podujeva, Kosovo, a member of the official supporters group for the Albanian national team, Tifozat Kuq e Zi. That the Kosovo national team are making their debut in a World Cup qualifier made no difference to him; Hyseni was always going to be in Shkoder. He has been to every Albania home match since 2009 and has made trips to Denmark, Slovenia and Austria supporting the Kuq e Zi.
Whilst Hyseni wishes the Kosovo team all the best, he told K2.0 he has no emotional connection to them and said he will continue to support Albania for the rest of his life. The reason for this is explicitly political and historical. “People didn’t fight for this,” he told K2.0. “Our heroes died for a united Albania, [for] all 10 million Albanians to have one state, one nation.”
Another Kosovar in Shkoder for the night was Vetevendosje deputy in the Kosovo Assembly, Fisnik Ismaili. When asked if he would be supporting Kosovo as well, Ismaili told K2.0 he is “too used to Albania.” Ismaili has supported Albania for over 20 years and told stories of being one of only eight Albania fans in Belfast, of a mammoth trip from Kosovo to Dublin and Geneva via London and Zurich to see two games in four days (Albania lost both), and of praying his son would be born in time for him to make it to St. James’ Park in Newcastle to see England vs Albania.
Yll Rugova is another Kosovar with seemingly little room in his heart for another national team. “Since being a kid everyone around me was watching Albania,” he told K2.0. “Those games were very emotional, as a kid I used to cry if Albania lost a game. So in my memory there are a lot of emotions whenever I think of the Albanian national team. Maybe one day I will feel the same for the Kosovo team. But I am far from it right now.”
Other fans in Shkoder are more excited about the possibility of supporting not one, but two national teams. Klevin is 19 and from Elbasan but with Kosovar roots on his father’s side. He was in the Loro Borici stadium on Monday night to support Albania but will be back in a month to support Kosovo. When Kosovo equalise against Finland in Turku he erupts with delight; most fans around him are considerably less enthusiastic but give an impressed nod at the news.
Fans from Albania seem to have mixed feelings toward the new Kosovo team. Ermal Kuka is the online editor of Panorama Sport, the leading sports newspaper in Albania. Kuka will be rooting for Kosovo but believes that the ideal for most fans is to see only one team for all Albanians. It’s a view shared by Besmir from Peshkopi, in Shkoder to see Albania, who he has followed for 10 years. “As far as I’m concerned, the Kosovo team doesn’t exist,” Besmir told K2.0. “There should only be one team. It would be like us from Korab declaring we have a team.”
Kuka believes the handling of the situation with Milot Rashica and Alban Meha — who recently applied successfully to FIFA to switch nationalities from Albania to the Kosovar team — by the two federations exacerbated the situation. “The Football Federation of Kosovo saw it as something of a victory over the Albanian federation,” he told K2.0. “It shouldn’t be like that.”
Two teams in the heart
In Prishtina, supporters’ feelings naturally seemed a lot more sympathetic to the Kosovo team, though without abandoning their support for Albania. Hundreds of fans gathered in Skanderbeg Square where two screens were erected either side of Skanderbeg himself, showing both Kosovo against Finland and Albania’s match with Macedonia; blue and yellow seeping into red and black in front of the respective screens for each match.
Like Klevin, there were plenty of fans in Prishtina with space for two teams in their heart. Majlinda Gashi told K2.0 that her “heart beats for both of them,” and insisted that she’d be unable to watch a game between the two sides.
Gezim Ajupi, wearing a t-shirt proclaiming support for Kosovo but holding an Albania scarf, had made the journey to the square in order to be able to watch both teams. “I support both because we are Albanians,” he told K2.0. “We are the only people in the world that has two national teams. I wish for a victory for Albanians from Albania and Kosovo.”
Whilst the square offered fans a chance to see both games, a limited amount of televisions and the simultaneous kick off times meant that for many of the bars in the center of Prishtina, decorated in both Albanian and Kosovar flags, only one game could be screened. Most opted for Finland vs Kosovo, including Miqt Pub whose owner Dardan Ibrahimi told K2.0 that he was showing the Kosovo match as it was a historic occasion.
“I supported Kosovo tonight because I don’t believe in borders and nationalities,” he told K2.0 after the game. “But the draw tonight is a sign that [despite the] politics of borders and the non-recognitions of [Kosovo] that have been isolating us for many years, we still showed that we have a lot of energy. It is the first time the players played together but they showed a lot of energy and got a good result.”
Overall, support in Prishtina seemed almost equally divided between Albania and Kosovo, though Valon Berisha’s equalizing goal for Kosovo from a penalty after an hour may have tipped the scale in favor of the Dardanians (the nickname being coined for fans of the Kosovo team). Chants of ‘Kosovo! Kosovo!’ rang out across central Prishtina and as the game in Shkoder succumbed to the weather, attention focussed on willing another Kosovo goal over the line.
It’s this success that Ibrahimi thinks will build a lasting support for Kosovo: “I think one day we will have a better team than Albania and everyone will love Kosovo. Take Majlinda Kelmendi for example,” he told K2.0, referring to the judoka who last month won Kosovo’s first ever Olympic medal. “Suddenly everyone started to love our anthem, our flag… probably the victory changes people. The energy will change.”
‘Because we’re Albanian’
While a debate is opening up in Kosovo surrounding loyalties to different national teams, there seems to be no such concerns for Macedonian Albanians. Despite the presence of three ethnic Albanians in the Macedonia squad, the choice of who to support for the Albanian community in Macedonia seems entirely clear cut.
On being asked why they would be supporting Albania against Macedonia, a spokesperson for Ballistet, a supporters group for KF Shkendija from Tetovo who brought over 400 fans to the game in Shkoder, told K2.0 that “a more meaningless question could not be formulated even if we put all the academics in the world together.”
In Skopje’s old town, the streets surrounding Skanderbeg Square were awash with Albania flags and shirts whilst the bars played a patriotic hit parade of Albanian songs. Ahead of the game, K2.0 asked young fans which team they were supporting and all but one answered very matter-of-factly that they supported Albania. When asked why they all gave the same answer: “Because we’re Albanian.”
The one exception was an ethnic Turkish fan who didn’t want to give his name to avoid getting in trouble with his friends. He insisted he was supporting Macedonia as he “lives in this country,” but he also revealed that if Turkey was playing Macedonia things would be different.
Albania’s opening goal after 10 minutes sent the Skopje crowd into raptures, though the ecstasy was soon quelled by technical difficulties in Skanderbeg Square causing the installed screen to freeze. Fans rushed into nearby cafes and bars to see a replay of Sadiku’s early strike. Chants of ‘Shqipni’ erupted every time a Macedonian chance was thwarted.
On the other side of the bridge the situation could not have been more different; it seemed as though hardly anyone was watching the game. Barely a sound was heard even after the Macedonia equaliser. To an outsider, crossing the bridge might have seemed like walking through two separate realities, though it is not the first occasion that there have been stark differences in the center of Skopje. It has become somewhat customary for Skanderbeg Square to be the hub of ethnic Albanian celebration and gatherings while Macedonia Square, in the center of which stands a statue of a Warrior on a Horse, is considered the side of ethnic Macedonians.
In colloquial terms the two sides are often referred to as the ‘Macedonian’ and the ‘Albanian’ sides, which hints at the remaining division between the two ethnic groups here, reinforced by the clear distinction in support for the two national teams.
However, whilst the division remains, relations between the communities seemed peaceful in Skopje on Monday night. Crossing the Stone Bridge, two young fans confidently entered Macedonia Square with Albanian flags tied around their necks. They said that they had been warned by some of their friends not to cross the bridge with their flags, but responded, “this is our country too, we’re not scared.” Disappointed at not finding a public screening of the match in Macedonia Square, the two fans returned to Skanderbeg Square.
On the football pitch Kosovo enjoyed a positive start to their campaign with a respectable point in Finland, after coming from behind to draw 1-1. The match between Albania and Macedonia was eventually settled nearly 18 hours after it kicked off after a freak storm interrupted the game on Monday night — Bekim Balaj scored an 89th minute winner to the delight of the thousands of fans who returned the following day to watch the final 14 minutes.
While that match was eventually resolved, the complex issues over Albanian identity will continue. When Albania and Kosovo return to action next month, once again playing on the same days, it will add another chapter to the ongoing debate.K