In-depth | Sports

Seeking a sporting chance

By - 16.02.2018

Delayed recognitions leave Kosovo sports playing catch up.

Last Friday (Feb. 9), the flag of Kosovo flew for the first time in a Winter Olympics opening ceremony, held aloft by skier Albin Tahiri. President Hashim Thaci, in attendance in Pyeongchang, spoke on Twitter of his “incredible emotions” at seeing “our Republic of #Kosovo presented in the @Olympics stadium.”

Whilst for many it will be recorded as a momentous day in Kosovo’s developing sporting history, for Qendrim Guri, it was just another work day. When the ceremony began at 11:30 Kosovar time, the former cyclist, who was presented in an Olympic stadium himself less than 18 months previously, had already been working for nearly five hours deep under the ground in a mine in Gadime.

Guri was a member of Kosovo’s debut Olympics team at the Rio games in 2016, competing in the men’s road race. He did not qualify automatically for the competition but was selected for one of the additional places offered to Kosovo by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), as he was one of Kosovo’s most respected cyclists, having won several national competitions and been named ‘cyclist of the year’ by Kosovo’s Cycling Federation on three occasions.

But since returning from Brazil in August 2016, Guri has not once got back onto the saddle of his professional bike.

After representing Kosovo at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Qendrim Guri quit cycling as he was disillusioned at a lack of support to help him compete at an elite level. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Guri sustained injuries representing Kosovo both in Rio and at the 2015 European Games in Azerbaijan. The lack of state assistance with his recovery left him feeling disillusioned with cycling in Kosovo. “I was full of disappointment from this sport, because no one cared for me as a sportsman,” he says.

However, his decision to give up the sport was ultimately financial. In 2015, Guri qualified for assistance from the Kosovo Olympic Committee, with a contract guaranteeing him 500 U.S. dollars (approximately 400 euros) per month up until June 2016.

But payments rarely arrived monthly as promised, instead often being made every three months. Guri only received the final total he was owed in June 2017, 10 months after the Olympics had finished. Even at this juncture, the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport attempted to block the transfer of money, eventually relenting after pressure in the media.

“You cannot work for six months, for example, and get the salary in the sixth month,” Guri states. “There is a lot of cycling talent in Ferizaj but there is no support. You need your own money to finance it. If I had an average salary, I would continue with cycling, immediately. For me, even 300 euros per month would be sufficient to continue.”

His experiences have left Guri with a deeply cynical view on the state’s relationship with sport. “I know how it is when you have politicians around you,” he says. “Two or three weeks before you go to the Olympics, they call you for interviews, come to take photos but when you get back they do not respond to your phone calls. They don’t even want to know about you.”

Guri is not the only athlete to have represented Kosovo internationally that has since made a decision to move on. Armend Xhoxhaj represented Kosovo at the European Games in Baku, making a quarter final appearance in the men’s light heavyweight boxing competition.

In January 2017, Xhoxhaj announced that he was giving up on any attempt to appear at the 2020 Olympics, leaving Kosovar amateur boxing to pursue a career in professional boxing in Germany. His complaints were similar to Guri’s, citing a lack of organization and financial assistance.

A year later, in January 2018, KFF Hajvalia, who became Kosovo’s first representative in the UEFA Women’s Champions League in 2016, briefly withdrew from the Kosovo Women’s League halfway through the season due to stadium and financial issues. Rrahim Pacolli eventually provided the resources required for the team to be reinstated, and Hajvalia will attempt to defend their championship title when the season resumes in spring.

The inglorious career paths of many landmark Kosovar sportspeople paint a dispiriting picture of sports in Kosovo after 10 years of independence, especially for those athletes born and being shaped as sportsmen and sportswomen within the country.

Though Albin Tahiri became Kosovo’s first representative at the Winter Olympics, he was born, raised and trains in Slovenia — the Kosovo state’s input into him has been almost exclusively financial. “They have mountains but the infrastructure is really bad,” Tahiri told Reuters in South Korea. “The chairlifts are really old, especially, the slope is not prepared all the time.”

Tahiri’s case is not rare. Kosovo’s sporting structures are rarely producing the talent that is being showcased on the world stage following the success of recognition by international sporting organizations.

When the Kosovo football team made its debut in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Finland, only three of the players that started the game — Amir Rrahmani, Milot Rashica and Bernard Berisha — had ever played for a Kosovar club. All three had left the country to play abroad before their 21st birthdays.

There is, of course, a glaring exception. On Saturday (Feb. 10), the day after Tahiri’s appearance at the Winter Olympic opening ceremony, two judokas from Peja’s Ippon Judo club won two more International Judo Federation medals at the organization’s Grand Slam in Paris. Distria Krasniqi added a bronze to her impressive and growing medal collection, while Akil Gjakova won the first gold of his career, adding to a staggering tally of 136 IJF medals for the club, including Majlinda Kelmendi’s unforgettable Olympic gold.

The Ippon Judo Club in Peja has produced a whole host of international medal winners. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

An interview that Krasniqi’s gave to K2.0 last year revealed how this has been made possible, as she outlined a rigorous training schedule that features a minimum of two sessions every day, six days a week and strict policies on social media and free time.  

It’s a schedule put in place by the club’s founder, Driton Kuka, himself an excellent judoka, who was denied a chance at international competition due to the turbulent political situation in the Balkans in the ’90s. While state representatives have also basked in the glory of the team’s success, Kuka has been outspoken on delayed payments and the misuse of his athletes.

It is also notable that Kosovo’s greatest homegrown success is in a sport that requires minimal infrastructure.

Close to a decade in the cold

But if, by and large, Kosovo’s structures are not creating or supporting athletes 10 years into the country’s independence, it is important to look at how the story of sport has unfolded in that time.

Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence in 2008 is still remembered fondly by those that run the country’s biggest sports federations. Both Eroll Salihu, general secretary at the Kosovo Football Federation (FFK) and Elvira Dushku, his counterpart at the Basketball Federation (FBK), describe it as a huge moment. “It was a symbol of equality and inclusion,” Salihu says.

However, it turned out to be something of a false dawn for Kosovar sport. “Everybody thought that during 2008 everything would start to change. That first the Olympic Committee would be recognized by the International Olympic Committee and that the federations would start to compete at an international level,” Dushku recalls. “But nothing happened, we had to wait seven years.”

Kosovo’s Olympic Committee was eventually recognized by the International Olympic Committee in December 2014, triggering a flood of recognitions for Kosovo’s sports federations, with the basketball and football federations joining FIBA and FIFA in April 2015 and May 2016 respectively.

General secretary of the Basketball Federation of Kosovo, Elvira Dushku, says there is a drive to professionalize club infrastructure, so that it is not just left to coaches to do everything. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

In the years in between, the two federations both ran on an almost skeleton crew, with five or six employees working out of a couple of rooms in the communist era House of Sport in Prishtina.

These small scale operations were also reflected at club level. “You have some clubs where two or three, or even one person does everything,” Dushku says, before explaining that post-recognition the professionalization of clubs across Kosovo has been one of the federation’s key priorities. “Through education and workshops we are trying to teach people how to manage a club so it’s not just the coach who has to do everything. Clubs have to be managed to professional standards.”

This isn’t the only residual effect of the best part of a decade out in the cold. “I used to say, football has survived in Kosovo, because we cannot speak about development,” Salihu says.

“We are a poor country and if the government saw no affiliation or membership they would not intervene.”

Eroll Salihu

He describes the lengthy application process to FIFA and UEFA as a big disappointment, and points to many areas where football stagnated, not just due to a lack of financial assistance. Coaches, referees and administrators were all left out of international conferences and conventions on the sport. “You were always… let down,” he says. “On all issues related to football, you couldn’t compete.”

It wasn’t just the money provided by the international organizations that led to federations having reduced budgets. Salihu explains that the government were reluctant to invest their small budget in the federations before ingratiation into the world of international sport.

“We are a poor country and if the government saw no affiliation or membership they would not intervene,” he says. K2.0’s research last year into how sport has been financed supports Salihu’s claim, with sport regularly receiving relatively meagre financing until the last few years, in which it has seen a splurge.

As well as infrastructure issues, the FFK had difficulty in keeping Kosovar players motivated. “We had so many talented players,” he says. “It was shameful for Europe, but I saw that they didn’t care. We were the only land in south-eastern Europe that was isolated, totally isolated… in the 21st century!”

Making up for lost time

The 10th anniversary of Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence has seen many critical voices over the lack of progress the Kosovar state has made in its first decade. There is a body of evidence to suggest that the same criticisms can apply to sport, but in many senses, the Kosovo sporting world is not a 10-year-old, but still a small toddler, only allowed to grow since recognition.

Both Salihu and Dushku say that for years, the football and basketball federations had almost a sole aim, to enter FIFA and FIBA, whilst trying to keep their sports alive in the meantime. Now, both federations have moved to much larger premises and the staff and aims have increased dramatically.

“Things go so fast, just now I’m working on a project to build 12 artificial turf pitches, it’s a big step for us,” says Salihu, before also outlining his excitement at other infrastructure projects getting underway.

Eroll Salihu, general secretary at the Kosovo Football Federation, is trying to lead the development of youth and women’s participation in football, after years of just trying to keep the sport alive. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Dushku though, is less enthused at the speed of development. The problem is not just financial, though she says that “money is always a problem when it comes to the Ministry of Sport.”

She believes that whilst the Department of Sport within the ministry, is focussed on increasing the capacity of basketball halls at the Palace of Youth and Sport to 3,000 seats, in line with FIBA requirements, they are ignoring other technical issues, like internet access and toilet facilities.

This led to FIBA inspectors being “unsatisfied” with the standard of Kosovo’s venues on the eve of their debut in qualification for the 2019 FIBA World Cup in September last year, with the federation only narrowly avoiding punishment.

But regardless of infrastructure, the focus of both general secretaries is inclusion, growing the areas of their sports that have been neglected, especially the participation of young people and women and girls. Since FIBA recognition, the number of youth basketball teams in Kosovo has grown from 30 to 88, though the federation wants to see more.

Salihu states that women’s football is a priority of his federation and points to two UEFA-licensed women in senior positions with the women’s national team — manager Afërdita Fazlija and her assistant Sanije Krasniqi — as well as the gender balance within the federation itself, where he says 40 percent of the administration are women.

The FFK has also established an under-16 girls’ league, not always common in the Western Balkans, and launched nationwide scouting and inclusion projects for girls and young women.

Dushku meanwhile hopes to restore women’s basketball to the days when she played in European competitions in front of full halls across Kosovo, a far cry from the state of the women’s game today. The FBK are set to launch a FIBA-assisted project that aims to increase girls’ participation in the sport, with a focus on rural areas — a search they hope will uncover more tall girls for the national teams.

While Salihu and Dushku are helping build Kosovar sport for the future, they are both members of the numerous previous generations of Kosovar sportsmen and women that had their careers hampered by politics.

Salihu was a member of the KF Prishtina team that pulled out of the Yugoslav First League in 1991, before playing in the parallel leagues set up in Kosovo in the ’90s. Dushku played in the post-war, pre-independence era, denied a chance to represent her country, and only given flickering glimpses of international club competitions.

In the 10 years that have passed since that Declaration of Independence yet more generations were denied the opportunity to fulfill their potential. The damage done by the delay in recognitions and a lack of state support have left Guri and countless other athletes uncared and unprovided for — with issues carrying over into the period after Kosovo’s federations joined international organizations.

Ten years in, the future is still only just beginning. No more generations can be lost.K

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

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