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Win, Lose, Or Drone, Kosovo Soccer Team Eager To Focus On The Field, Not Politics

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Kosovar players celebrate with fans after their second goal in a match against Bulgaria in June. Kosovo won 3-2.

Kosovo's national team aims to crush any notion that soccer games are merely a convenient drop zone for political messaging efforts emanating from the Balkans.

It would like to stick to football, thank you.

And to the remarkable run that put Kosovo -- which declared independence from Serbia in 2008 -- on the cusp of an invite to next year's UEFA Euro championships after just three years of international experience.

Its squad suffered a major setback when it lost its crucial Euro qualifier match 2-1 against the Czech Republic, a perennial Euro invitee whose Euro bid was also on the line, in the western Czech city of Plzen on November 14, leaving its only chance via playoffs as a UEFA Nations League group winner.

But the game came off without incident despite Czech concerns that politics could diminish from the competition.

"We're going there to play football, and whatever happens around it, we don't like it, but it's not that it affects us that much," Agim Ademi, a former player who is now president of the Kosovar Football Federation, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service last week in anticipation of the Czech match.

"We have one goal: to go out there and play football and present ourselves as best we can -- and of course to have a good result," he said.

Since 2016, the results have been good enough to take the predominantly ethnically Albanian country of around 1.8 million to 114th in FIFA's global rankings of 209 national teams.

The team, known as the Dardans, enjoyed an unbeaten streak of 14 international matches, including a victory over the Czech team two months ago in Pristina, before falling to England on September 10.

Kosovo fans celebrate a win against the Czech Republic on September 7 in Pristina at a Euro 2020 qualifier match.
Kosovo fans celebrate a win against the Czech Republic on September 7 in Pristina at a Euro 2020 qualifier match.

Manned mostly with young players from Kosovo's diaspora, the team is a powerful symbol of the 1.8 million Kosovars' campaign for respect abroad, due in part to the importance that Pristina has long attached to sports and culture to buttress its efforts for international recognition.

Only three of the Kosovar team's current players are over 30, but everyone on the team is at least a decade older than the country they are representing.

Drone Goal

Some 116 countries now recognize Kosovar sovereignty, which is opposed by Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Russia, among others.

Belgrade's ongoing campaign to resist Pristina's independence at every turn -- and encourage countries to reverse their recognition -- hints at the depth of continuing ethnic and national divisions in the Balkans, where a series of bloody wars accompanied and followed the gradual breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

One of the longest-running conflicts pitted mostly ethnic Albanians in the special autonomous region that is now Kosovo against predominantly Serb forces of the rump Yugoslav Army.

The narrative of political disruption at games has dogged Kosovo and other Balkan teams since a drone stunt about Kosovar statehood and its fallout halted a match in Belgrade five years ago.

A melee involving fans and team representatives broke out after a drone carrying a "Greater Albania" message invaded the stadium, prompting a Serbian player to snatch it out of the air when it approached the field.

Those fears were rekindled in September when authorities in Pristina announced the arrest of eight Czech Republic team fans for allegedly plotting to fly a pro-Serbian message over Kosovo's home leg of its Czech Euro-qualifier matchup.

The Kosovars came from behind to win that match 2-1, with no major incidents taking place.

Fanning The Flames?

Czech President Milos Zeman, whose country saw a wave of Balkan immigrants in the 1990s and who has previously cast doubts on Kosovo's right to statehood, repeated those doubts during a visit to Serbia just four days after the Pristina match.

After meeting with Serbian officials in Belgrade, the 75-year-old Zeman expressed his "personal opinion that a war crimes-led state should not be located in the community of democratic countries."

A spokesman later said the president "would ask [the Czech government] whether it is possible to review the recognition of Kosovo."

Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek stressed that Prague had recognized Kosovar statehood and had "proper relations [with Kosovo], just as with Serbia."

Czech authorities had announced heightened security ahead of the November 14 match.

The Czech Football Association noted that some Czech people have reservations with respect to Kosovo's independence and announced a ban on signs in the stadium in Plzen.

"Heightened security will accompany the match in part because, according to media reports, several Czechs who had objects supporting Serbia, which doesn't recognize the independence of Pristina, were detained before the first clash in Kosovo," the football federation said. "A portion of the Czech public, led by President Milos Zeman, has objections to [Kosovar sovereignty]. The Czech Football Association appeals to fans to abstain from political displays."

Police in Plzen called in reinforcements from nearby regions and had a police helicopter, a canine unit, and mounted police on hand for the match.

City authorities also promised to have their own drones and drone pilots, part of a new integrated protection service, available just in case.

Twenty-four teams will be invited to the Euro 2020 championships, which will be held in 12 cities across Europe.

The Spanish city of Bilbao is among them.

Spain's central government has battled separatist movements in the Basque region and Catalonia and has blocked Kosovar national symbols from karate and other sporting events in the past. That has forced UEFA at least once to move youth matches to avoid breaking the European football ruling body's commitments to Pristina.

Next up for Kosovo is an England rematch, in Pristina this time, on November 17 -- a meeting that's lost any Euro 2020 significance but will provide another measure of how far the Dardans, and their still-partially recognized country, have come.

"The results come if we play well," Kosovo trainer Bernard Challandes said this week.

Written and reported in Prague by RFE/RL senior correspondent Andy Heil based on an interview by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondent Arton Konushevci and with contributions by the Balkan Service's Krenare Cubolli.
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