The remarkable Mr Vokrri: Kosovo’s football rise

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By Patrick Jennings
BBC Sport in Pristina
All day that the term”miracle” kept coming up. These tens of thousands of people spilling out into the roads of Pristina have seen yet another.
This was September 2016 when Kosovo played their first global football match.
On Saturday, they extended an unbeaten streak with their result – that a home triumph over the Czech Republic. It’s the longest run in Europe.
Kosovo already have an excellent probability of attaining Euro 2020. Along with their next qualifier is against England on Tuesday (19:45 BST). They’re currently relishing the possibility.
This country of roughly 1.8 million people campaigned for eight years before being declared as Fifa and Uefa associates in 2016. The process started immediately following its declaration of independence from Serbia in February 2008. Some countries – like Serbia – do not recognise its right to exist.
That such a troubled and young nation from the core of the Balkans should shine on the most important phases of football wasn’t 1 man’s fantasy. But there is – and his story will help explain the roots of this special team.
He can be a hero in his nation, also was critical to Kosovo’s effort for recognition for a football country. Following his death last year at the age of 57, the national team’s home ground was renamed in his honour: The Fadil Vokrri Stadium.
Like so many people here, Vokrri’s life was marked with the war which raged in this area. From the tensions between Serbs and ethnic Albanians, as well as the cycle of vengeance and counter-vengeance that exist today.
And Vokrri was one of very few – maybe the only one – capable to speak around the deep divides that cost so many lives. Soccer was his speech.
When Vokrri was made president of Kosovo’s Football Federation that he had been starting from scratch. His offices were two rooms at a Pristina apartment cube; 2 desks and two computers. It had been 16 February 2008. The day kosovo announced its independence.
Vokrri was in control of a institution with no money, he had a team that didn’t possess the right at an isolated nation with little infrastructure.
What he did was his standing. He was the greatest footballer Kosovo produced – although that name might be contested soon.
He was convincing, charismatic and charming. He and general secretary Errol Salihu would be.
“After we spoke at home at the moment, in the very beginning my father was thinking the procedure would be easy,” says Vokrri’s eldest son Gramoz, 33.
“Today we are recognized as a country, it’ll be fast, he thought. He soon realised it’d be anything but easy, but he didn’t mind it that way.”
Gramoz resides in Pristina today. If he was old he help with his job and would often accompany his dad. Like his father, he is well-known at the capital of Kosovo. Chat is interrupted every five minutes because acquaintances and allies cease to say hello. Many remain longer. Are police officers, football agents, and also former generals from the Kosovo Liberation Army.
“My dad never made a political statement in his lifetime and only focused on soccer. Soccer is higher than everything else – that was his vision,” he states.
“It allowed my dad to help attain our aim – of entering Uefa and Fifa.”
Vokrri was an adventurous forwards with two feet. If he was not the most prolific goalscorer perhaps determination and his flair made amends. The fans adored him. They recognized in him among the own – even if he wasn’t.
He grew up from Podujeva, a little city which now lies close to Kosovo’s northern boundary with Serbia. Back then, exactly enjoy the rest of Kosovo, it had been part of Yugoslavia. He had been born in 1960. During his youth, Yugoslavia was a country composed of diverse nationalities, religions and languages, all more or less held together by its charismatic leader Josip Broz Tito.
It was an era when Kosovar Albanians like Vokrri were rarely celebrated. They seldom became symbols of Yugoslav satisfaction. However, this talent was impossible to dismiss.
Vokrri was the first to play for Yugoslavia – and that he would be the one. His debut came in a 6-1 defeat by Scotland and scored the goal, the first of six at 12 caps between 1984 and 1987.
He’d started out in Llapi, his hometown club, before moving to Pristina. In 1986 he moved to Partizan Belgrade and remained for three years “the most beautiful” of his career, he said.
They won the league title in 1989 in 1987 along with the cup. In between, Italian giants Juventus came calling – but Vokrri had been made to turn down them. He hadn’t finished the then-compulsory two years’ military service, so couldn’t go abroad. He also completed his responsibilities while playing for Partizan, satisfying light tasks during the week in between games.
However, leave the country he’d, for reasons which were spiralling out of anyone’s control.
Many historians put President Tito’s passing as the essential point in the collapse of Yugoslavia. They state he left a power vacuum that would be filled by resurgent equal nationalist factions.
Born in 1986, Gramoz was the very earliest of Vokrri along with his wife Edita’s three kids. By 1989, the family had determined that they could stay in Yugoslavia no longer. Vokrri settled on the Concept of leaving for France. Up for Nimes, he signed in the summertime.
“At this moment, everybody in Yugoslavia understood that war could happen,” Gramoz states. “They just didn’t know when or where it would start.”
The next decade would be defined by years of anguish. During the 1990s, Yugoslavia was dropped into a bloody conflict where as many as 140,000 people were murdered.
From this combating arose that the separate contemporary lands of now: Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, along with also the newly renamed North Macedonia. Kosovo has been the last to declare itself an independent state.
Lulzim Berisha was 20 when he took up arms. He also joined the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). It was 1998.
For the past six years he’d been in Pristina, still living under Yugoslav ruler but enjoying soccer in what had been an unofficial Kosovan top flight setup following the establishment of a separatist shadow republic there.
Matches were stored on rough pitches in rural areas. On sloping hillsides to see, fans could gather. Serbian police would stop the gamers on the way and detain them . But somehow they were able to find word up the road for the opposition to wait. Players would wash their bodies .
This soccer league stopped when heavy fighting began in 1998.
“I made a decision to combine the KLA for my nation,” says Berisha. “I had no military experience but that I watched many bad stuff happening here. This has been the reason.”
There was now open conflict between the independence fighters that the KLA and Serbian police in the area of Kosovo. It led to a crackdown. Civilians were pushed from their houses. You will find killings, atrocities and expulsions at the hands of Serb forces.
The turning point in the war came from 1999. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) had already intervened in Bosnia and it did in Kosovo. Even a bombing campaign pushed Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic allow international peacekeepers in and to withdraw troops. Milosevic’s government collapsed a year later. He’d later be held in the United Nations (UN) war crimes tribunal for genocide and other war crimes carried out in Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia. In 2006, he had been found dead in his cell prior to his trial could be finished aged 64.
After Serb forces left Kosovo in 1999, the land remained under UN guideline. About 850,000 people had fled the fighting. An estimated 13,500 individuals were killed or went missing, according to the Humanitarian Law Centre (HLC). The HLC, with offices in Pristina and Belgrade, has been focus on documenting the human cost of Yugoslavia’s wars – like the civilian victims of Nato’s bombardment.
As peace returned to the area, so did many of Kosovo’s refugees. Kids UK prime minister Tony Blair – rendered in Albanian. There’s enormous gratitude in Kosovo. Nowhere is it more obvious compared to Bill Clinton Boulevard at Pristina, where a image of the previous US president seems out across the traffic below.
Berisha uses few words to describe his life he witnessed.
He’s among the characters supporting the Kosovo national group’s largest fan club : Dardanet today. The name means”that the Dardanians” – the people of an ancient kingdom which ruled here.
Dardanet have just opened a new cafe pub that serves as their headquarters. Opposite an old tile factory whose chimneys grow into the skies, the call to prayer by a neighborhood mosque carries over energetic conversation between the revived chain-smokers gesturing inside their outside chairs. The fuels are black espresso coffee and talk about football of any kind. Serie A is not the most passionately discussed. That are the Premier League.
Lulzim stinks harshly on his teeth as a point at the end of each sentence that is short.
“We need every sort of people to arrive at the stadium. Every match we provide 100 tickets free of female fans. We want families to come,” he says.
On the table next to people, a reel of tickets for the England game in Southampton is unfurled with glee. They came. The banks to journey would be also. Lulzim clarifies there will be a suit England Fans FC , against an fan club, at Hounslow on Monday, ahead of the Euro 2020 qualifier in St Mary’s of Tuesday.
Inside, the walls are high with photos of Kosovo players, both new and old. The image of vokrri is. They describe themselves as”Children of all Vokrri”. He has become a legend to the fan club. They create banners, T-shirts and online posts that take his image under messages for example:”Hunting down on us”
“Vokrri is a legend,” says Berisha. “He is our hero. He did. For Those people.”
But pride of place in the fan club pub is owned by the game shirt worn with Valon Berisha if he scored the primary goal in contest of Kosovo. That was a draw in Finland, also a 2018 World Cup qualifier played in September 2016.
It was the culmination of several years’ labour. Not so long it seemed like things would only go downhill.
Vokrri returned to Kosovo from France about five years following the war finished. In 2008, the first efforts towards enrollment of Kosovo turned down with him at the helm. At that point the country had been recognised by 51 of the UN’s 193 member countries. It seemed that a majority will be required.
Instead, they chose to play with unofficial suits against unrecognised states: Northern Cyprus, a team representing Monaco, a group representing the Sami inhabitants of north Norway, Sweden, Russia and Finland.
The players at this time have been drawn almost exclusively from the pool that was . People who had been forced to flee their homes only a few decades before, or who had taken up arms and fought.
There was another way. One which was tantalisingly out of reach.
“At 2012, when Switzerland played a game against Albania, 15 of the players around the pitch were eligible to symbolize Kosovo,” Gramoz states.
“My father was at the game, watching with Sepp Blatter, and the Fifa president. Mr Blatter said to my father:’Are you loving the game?’
“He replied:’It’s like visiting Kosovo A vs Kosovo B.'”
The significant step forward came in 2014, when Fifa allowed Kosovo to play matches against its member nations – as long as certain conditions were fulfilled. There was opposition from Serbia.
Mitrovica was the location for the first recognised friendly game of Kosovo. This town, with nearby Albanian and Serbian populations divided in 2 from the Ibar river, but nonetheless needs the presence of Nato troops now, 20 years from their birth as a peacekeeping force. Oliver Ivanovic, a prominent politician observed as a medium Kosovo Serb leader, has been shot dead outside his party offices there.
Albania goalkeeper Samir Ujkani decided to take a call-up, as did Finland Lum Rexhepi, Norway’s Ardian Gashi along with Switzerland’s Albert Bunjaku. The resistance were Haiti. It ended 0-0.
“As an example, it turned out to be a big, huge victory,” states Gramoz.
“It turned out to be a crystal very clear message from Fifa. The moment they allowed us to play friendly matches we took it to mean:’Do not quit, you will go into as full members – but we need the time to prepare folks.’
“Even though we did not have the right to play our national anthem, it’s OK. We play soccer. {That

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