The remarkable Mr Vokrri: Kosovo’s football rise

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From Patrick Jennings
BBC Sport in Pristina
All day the term”wonder” kept coming up. Perhaps these tens of thousands of people spilling out into the roads of Pristina have seen yet another.
It was September 2016 when Kosovo played their first competitive international football game.
They extended an unbeaten streak with their most critical result however – a 2-1 home victory over the Czech Republic. It’s the longest run in Europe.
Kosovo have a good probability of reaching Euro 2020. And their second qualifier is against England on Tuesday (19:45 BST). They are relishing the possibility.
This nation of about 1.8 million individuals campaigned for eight years prior to being declared as Fifa and Uefa members 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.
This a young and troubled state from the heart of the Balkans should excel on the main phases of football wasn’t one man’s fantasy. But there is – along with his story will help clarify the origins of the team.
He was critical to Kosovo’s campaign for recognition also is a hero in his nation. Following his death last year at the age of 57, the home floor of the federal team was renamed in his honour: The Fadil Vokrri Stadium.
Like many individuals here, Vokrri’s life has been marked from the war which still raged in this region only just more than 20 decades back. By the tensions between Serbs and Albanians, and the cycle of vengeance and counter-vengeance that exist now.
And Vokrri was among very few – perhaps the only real one – able to speak across the divides that cost so many lives. Soccer was his speech.
After Vokrri was made president of the Football Federation of Kosovo he was starting from scratch. His offices were just two chambers in a Pristina apartment cube; 2 desks and two computers. It was 16 February 2008. Kosovo announced its independence the moment.
Vokrri was in control of an association with no cash, he had a team that didn’t possess the right to play with any official games, in an isolated nation with infrastructure.
What he did have was his reputation. He was the greatest footballer Kosovo made – although the new generation of talent that’s emerging may challenges soon that title.
He was charismatic, charming and persuasive. He and general secretary Errol Salihu would be the campaigners that the country needed.
“When we spoke in the home at this time, at the beginning my dad was thinking the procedure would be easy,” says Vokrri’s eldest son Gramoz, 33.
“Today we are recognized as a nation, it will be quickly, he said. He soon realised it’d be anything but simple, but he did not mind it that way.”
Gramoz resides in Pristina. If he was old he assist with his job and would accompany his dad. Like his father, he’s well known in the capital of Kosovo. Because acquaintances and allies cease to say hello conversation is interrupted every five minutes. Many remain. Are police officers, football agents, and generals from the Kosovo Liberation Army.
“My dad never left a political statement in his lifetime and only focused on soccer. Soccer is greater than everything else – that was his eyesight,” he says.
“It allowed my father to help attain our goal – of entering Uefa and Fifa.”
Vokrri was an adventurous with two great feet. If he wasn’t the most prolific goalscorer perhaps his flair and determination made amends. He was adored by the fans. They recognized in him among their own – even if he was not.
He grew up from Podujeva, a small city that now lies close to Kosovo’s northern boundary with Serbia. Back then, exactly it was a part of Yugoslavia. He was born in 1960. During his youth, Yugoslavia was a country composed of varied nationalities, languages and religions, more or less held together by its charismatic leader Josip Broz Tito.
It was an age when Kosovar Albanians like Vokrri were rarely celebrated. They seldom became symbols of Yugoslav satisfaction. But this talent was not possible to dismiss.
Vokrri was the very first to play for Yugoslavia – and that he would be the only 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 had begun in Llapi, his hometown team, before moving to Pristina. In 1986 he went to Partizan Belgrade and remained for 3 decades “the most beautiful” of his career, he said.
They won the league title in 1989 in 1987 and the cup. In between, Italian giants Juventus came calling – but Vokrri has been forced to turn down them. He had not completed the then-compulsory two years’ military service, so couldn’t go overseas. He completed his duties while playing for Partizan, satisfying mild jobs throughout the week in between matches.
However, leave the nation he’d, for reasons that were spiralling out of anyone’s control.
Many historians put President Tito’s death as the vital point from the collapse of Yugoslavia. They state he left a power vacuum which would be filled by resurgent rival nationalist factions.
Born in 1986, Gramoz was the very earliest of Vokrri along with his wife Edita’s three children. By 1989, the family had determined that they could remain in Yugoslavia no more. Vokrri settled on the Concept of leaving for France. In the summertime, he signed for Nimes.
“At this time, everybody in Yugoslavia knew that war would occur,” Gramoz says. “They just didn’t know where or when it would start.”
The next decade would be defined by years of suffering. During the 1990s, Yugoslavia was plunged into a bloody conflict where as many as 140,000 people were murdered.
From this combating emerged that the separate modern territories of today: Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the newly renamed North Macedonia. Kosovo was the last to declare itself an independent nation.
Lulzim Berisha was 20 when he took up arms. He also joined the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). It was 1998.
For the previous six years he had been at Pristina, still residing under Yugoslav ruler but playing football in what had been an unofficial Kosovan top flight setup following the institution of a separatist shadow republic there.
Matches were stored on demanding pitches in rural areas. Fans would gather on sloping hillsides to watch. The gamers would stop on the way and detain them. But always somehow they were able to get up word the road for the opposition to wait. Following the game, players would wash their bodies at a river.
When heavy fighting started in 1998 this soccer league stopped.
“I made a decision to join the KLA because of my country,” states Berisha. “I’d no military experience but that I saw many terrible things happening here. This has been why”
There was now conflict between the freedom fighters the KLA and Serbian police in the region of Kosovo. It led to a brutal crackdown. Civilians were driven out of their houses. There were killings, atrocities and expulsions at the hands of Serb forces.
The key turning point in the war arrived in 1999. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) had intervened in Bosnia and it did so again in Kosovo. A 78-day bombing campaign made Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic allow international peacekeepers in and to withdraw troops. Milosevic’s government collapsed a year later. He would 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 2006he had been discovered dead in his cell before his trial could be completed aged 64.
The land remained under UN guideline for 2 decades after Serb forces left Kosovo in 1999. About 850,000 people had fled fighting. An estimated 13,500 people were killed or went missing, according to the Humanitarian Law Centre (HLC). The HLC, with offices in both Pristina and Belgrade, continues to work on documenting the individual price of Yugoslavia’s wars – like the civilian victims of Nato’s bombardment.
As peace returned into the area, so did lots of the refugees of Kosovo. Kids were called after then UK prime minister Tony Blair – left in Albanian as a first title: Tonibler. There is enormous gratitude in Kosovo into the countries that intervened. Nowhere is it more obvious compared to Bill Clinton Boulevard in Pristina, where a giant picture of the former US president looks out across the traffic below.
Currently 41, Berisha uses words to describe his life as a soldier and the violence he observed.
Now he is one of the principal characters supporting the Kosovo federal team fan clubDardanet. The title means”the Dardanians” – the people of the ancient kingdom which dominated here.
Dardanet have just opened a new cafe pub that serves as their headquarters. Opposite an old tile factory whose chimneys grow into the sky, the call to prayer from a neighborhood mosque conveys over energetic conversation between the revived chain-smokers gesturing in their exterior seats. Another fuels are conversation about football of any kind and black espresso coffee. Serie A is the most passionately. That would be the Premier League.
Lulzim sucks sharply as a stage at the end of every sentence that is brief.
“We want every kind of people to come to the stadium. Every game we give 100 tickets for lovers. We need families to come,” he says.
With glee, a reel of tickets to the England match in Southampton is unfurled on the table next to us. That afternoon, they came. The banks to journey would be via too. Lulzim explains there will be a game in Hounslow on Monday, England Fans FC , against a British enthusiast club, before the Euro 2020 qualifier in St Mary’s of Tuesday.
Inside, the walls have been high with photos of Kosovo players, both new and older. Vokrri’s picture is everywhere. They describe themselves as”Children of Vokrri”. He has become a legend to the fan club. They produce banner ads, T-shirts and internet posts that take his image under messages like:”Hunting down on us.”
“Vokrri is a legend,” says Berisha. “He is our hero. He did. For the people.”
But pride of place at the fan club pub belongs to the match shirt worn by Valon Berisha after he scored Kosovo’s primary target in contest. That has been a 1-1 draw in Finland, a 2018 World Cup qualifier played September 2016.
It had been the culmination of many years’ hard work. Not long after, it seemed like things would go downhill.
Vokrri returned to Kosovo about five years following the war ended. With him at the helm, Kosovo efforts towards membership turned down in 2008. At that stage 51 of the UN’s 193 member nations had only recognised the nation. It appeared that a majority would be required.
Rather, they chose to play with unofficial matches against unrecognised states: Northern Cyprus, a group representing Monaco, a team representing that the Sami people of north Norway, Sweden, Russia and Finland.
The players in this time have been drawn almost exclusively in the pool that was . People who were forced to flee their houses or who had taken up arms and struggled.
There was another manner. One which was tantalisingly out of reach.
“At 2012, when Switzerland played a match against Albania, 15 of those players around the pitch have been qualified to signify Kosovo,” Gramoz states.
“My dad was in the match, watching with Sepp Blatter, then the Fifa president. Mr Blatter said to my dad:’Are you enjoying the game?’
“He replied:’It’s like seeing Kosovo A versus Kosovo B.'”
The significant step forward came in 2014, when Fifa enabled Kosovo to play games against its member nations – . There was significant opposition from Serbia.
Mitrovica was the location for Kosovo’s initial recognised friendly game. This town, together with all nearby Albanian and Serbian populations divided in two by the Ibar river, nonetheless requires the presence of Nato troops today, 20 years on from their birth as a peacekeeping force. Oliver Ivanovic, a prominent politician viewed as a Kosovo Serb leader, has been shot dead there in January 2018.
Albania goalkeeper Samir Ujkani decided to accept a call-up, as did Finland global Lum Rexhepi, Norway’s Ardian Gashi and Switzerland’s Albert Bunjaku. The opposition were Haiti. It finished 0-0.
“As an example, it turned into a big, huge success,” states Gramoz.
“It was a clear message in Fifa. The minute they enabled us to play friendly games we took it to mean:’Don’t stop, you will go into as full members – but we want time to prepare people.’
“Even if we didn’t have the right to perform our national anthem, it is OK. We play with football. {That

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