Kosovo route to world stage moved faster by sport than politics

    Story highlights

    • Kosovo's president to attend World Cup game
    • Says sport opens doors for political success

    (CNN)If you're a young country aiming to make an impact in the world of sport then an Olympic gold medal and World Cup debut offer the perfect start.

    For Kosovo, which gained independence from Serbia in 2008, the past year has proved the most significant in its sporting history.
      Judoka Majlinda Kelmendi won Kosovo's first ever Olympic medal -- a gold, no less -- in Rio while the nation's football team was authorized to compete for a place in the 2018 World Cup in Russia last May.
      For President Hashim Thaci, these two events proved sport can break down barriers where politics and diplomacy sometimes fail.

      Sport and politics

      "In sport we are moving much quicker than we are in politics," President Thaci told CNN in an exclusive interview.
      "Sport is opening doors for further success in politics through giving a positive image of Kosovo. Today the whole world knows about Majlinda Kelmendi.
      Kosovo's President Hashim Thaci  hands over the national flag to the Kosovar judoka Majlinda Kelmendi.
      "In Brazil, which hasn't yet recognized Kosovo as a state, we participated in the Olympics, the Kosovo flag was flying in the village, and the anthem was played.
      "At the moment there are 112 countries which recognizes Kosovo but our aim is to be recognized by all member states of the United Nations.
      "Our main obstacle is the UN security council but I believe soon enough we will be a member of the European Union, NATO and the UN."

      Struggle

      Kosovo declared independence from Serbia 10 years after a bloody conflict between Serb forces and Kosovar-Albanian rebels.
      The war between 1998 and 1999 led to thousands of deaths and the displacement of nearly 90% of Kosovo's population.
      It was between 1997 and 1999 that Thaci came to prominence as a leading figure in the Kosovo Liberation Army and even took part in peace negotiations.
      His transition from a revolutionary into a politician eventually led to him to becoming prime minister upon independence and recognizing a lifelong dream.
      President  Thaci was part of the Kosovo Liberation Army during the late 1990s.
      The creation of an independent state was a moment, Thaci says, he "never ever doubted," would happen.
      "Of course, our dream was to have our own state which was to be equal and free just like any other people or state in Europe," he said.
      "Finally, we have our own state, the dream is a reality and we have our own national team which can play internationally.
      "The team is a symbol of our state, it represents our identity, our flag, our national anthem, it's a source of pride. It's something which makes me proud to be Kosovar."
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      Emotion

      Kosovo held Finland to a 1-1 draw in Turku last month.
      Elected president in May 2016, Thaci has enjoyed Kosovo's rise on the sporting stage.
      Last month, Thaci was in Turku, Finland, to watch Kosovo claim a 1-1 draw in its first game of the qualifying campaign.
      Valon Berisha's penalty secured a first ever point and led to wild celebrations from the thousands of Kosovo fans at the stadium.
      It was a remarkable result given that six of the players in the squad had only been cleared to play by FIFA a matter of hours before kickoff.
      "I had profound emotions while watching the game," Thaci said.
      "Sport in Kosovo in general was isolated for more than two decades and it's only now that the people can dream and make those dreams a reality.
      Valon Berisha scored his country's first ever World Cup qualifying goal.
      "Winning Olympic gold closed the chapter of isolation for our athletes. It has opened opportunities for Kosovar talent and youth. This in turn will increase the quality of talent in athletes and also the sporting structure in the country.
      "Now we just started investing in young athletes and we can start identifying talent and work in providing them with infrastructure and training they need to become world-class athletes."

      Game time

      Some 11,000 Kosovo fans will travel to Albania for the game with Croatia.
      On Thursday, Thaci will travel to Loro Borici Stadium in Albania, where his country faces Croatia in its second World Cup qualifying match.
      His son, Endrit, a Real Madrid supporter, will also be there along with thousands of Kosovo fans making the short trip across the border.
      Work on Kosovo's national stadium in the capital city of Pristina is expected to be finished by March, but for now Albania is the only logical place to hold a "home" game.
      Not that it worries Thaci -- he cannot wait for kickoff.
      Kosovo played its first friendly game back in 2014 against Haiti.
      "It's a historic game for the country," he said.
      "Croatia plays world-class football but the ball is round, it's the same for both teams. I believe we can compete with Croatia with our talent.
      "What's more important is that this is a game between two friendly countries. It will be a celebration, a victory for sport because both nations were victims of war."