A secret mission for Kosovo

On the Road With Football's Outsiders: A World Cup Odyssey James Montague

Editor’s Note: CNN is serializing extracts from Thirty-One Nil, a new book from author James Montague, who traveled the globe documenting qualifying games for the World Cup. Here, Montague meets Kosovo’s football administrators on a top secret job. And they don’t want to annoy the Serbs. Or the Russians.

Chapter 5

Zurich, Switzerland, September 2012

Fadil Vokrri and Eroll Salihu are sitting side by side in a booth in a roadside diner on the outskirts of Zurich. They look out of place, slightly suspicious, crammed together on a red leatherette banquette that is too small for two grown men. They look like they are about to negotiate an arms deal or arrange a gangland hit.

Eroll looks nervous; Fadil not at all. From a distance they appear smartly dressed. Vokrri has dark hair and is heavyset, wearing his suit in a dismissive, careless manner that suggests he would rather be wearing something else. He constantly pulls at the collar of his shirt, whose top two buttons are permanently undone.

It is clear that Vokrri is the boss. Eroll is taller, thinner, with blond hair and white shirtsleeves and tie. He looks like a sensible lab technician, the good cop to Vokrri’s brooding bad cop. Eroll explains their predicament because only he speaks English. It is true. They are not from round here. And they do have an important mission to undertake in Switzerland. They have to be careful, though, Eroll explains.

Fadil Vokrri (L) and Kosovo prime minister Hashim Thaci.

What they are doing is highly sensitive with the potential to upset a lot of people. The Serbs for one. The Russians for another. And let’s not even begin with the Swiss, in whose country Vokrri and Eroll’s action is about to be played out. “It is politically sensitive,” Eroll agrees. “It is right, also.” He stops talking when the waitress brings Vokrri’s Coke (Diet) and our coffees (black).

Vokrri and Eroll are not drug dealers or people smugglers or on the run from the Albanian mafia, as far as I am aware. They are both ex-footballers from the former Yugoslavia. Both had played in the country before the Yugoslav civil war, and later in Turkey after it.

Vokrii had a brief spell in France, too, and had also played for the Yugoslav national team before its disintegration. He was considered the finest player ever to represent Yugoslavia from Kosovo. Because he was the only player from Kosovo ever to represent Yugoslavia, which is why the two men are here, in Zurich.

Fadil Vokrri is president of the Football Federation of Kosovo, the FFK. Eroll is his loyal general-secretary. The opening shots of European qualification for the World Cup finals in Brazil have been fired, but Kosovo is not among the 53 teams in the draw.

They are an unrecognized nation, with an unrecognized national team. Yet, like every territory from the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo has produced an inordinate amount of talent. The problem is that, with no recognition by UEFA and FIFA, their talent has ended up elsewhere. Fadil and Eroll are here because they have had enough of seeing their players turn up in other national teams.

In a few days’ time Switzerland will play Albania in Lucerne. Kosovars see themselves as ethnically Albanian and Switzerland has a huge Kosovar population who fled there after the final battle in Yugoslavia’s long, bloody disintegration, the 1999 Kosovo war.

Of the probable 22 players who will start in Lucerne, nine had either been born in Kosovo or had Kosovar parents who had fled the war, players like Bayern Munich’s Xherdan Shaqiri and Napoli’s Valon Behrami, who play for Switzerland, and Albania’s captain Lorik Cana, who plays for Lazio.

“It’s very special for me to see two different national teams with players born in Kosovo; in fact, it’s like watching Kosovo A team play Kosovo B,” laughs Fadil.

“The real national team cannot be presented internationally.” Kosovo’s quest for recognition has been thwarted at every step thanks to wider geopolitical issues, especially at the U.N., and also with the European Union, where five member states stubbornly refuse to recognize it.

We have to be sensitive with the Switzerland Football Association. We do not want to be exposed.

Kosovo’s attempted membership of UEFA and FIFA has met the same fate for the same reasons. The 1999 Kosovo war failed to achieve full independence from Yugoslavia. It remains unrecognized by the United Nations as Russia, a staunch ally of Serbia, has a veto on the Security Council. Within UEFA 37 of its 53 members recognize Kosovo, but it is not enough.

UEFA changed its statutes so that, to become a member, you have first to be a member of the United Nations. Now the Kosovo team has been stuck in limbo, partially recognized but not enough. As a result the territory has been hemorrhaging players to other leagues and to other national teams. There has been some movement, though.

A few months ago, Sepp Blatter announced that Kosovo will be allowed to play friendly internationals against other FIFA members, a move which has caused a huge row in Serbia.

Serbia has always maintained that Kosovo is, historically, an inviolable part of its territory, essentially colonized by the Kosovars. An enclave of Serbs, making up 5% of its population, still live in Kosovo. Later this month FIFA’s executive committee in Zurich will sit down and discuss the practicalities of Kosovo playing friendly matches against other members.

So Fadil and Eroll are here with a petition they have drawn up, demanding that Kosovo be allowed to play. When Switzerland and Albania were drawn in the same group for 2014 World Cup qualification, the two men had hatched a plan. They would pull all the strings they could to get the big-name Kosovar players on both sides to sign it and present it to FIFA.

Unsurprisingly, this has become a hugely sensitive topic, so much so that Blatter postponed a decision on Kosovo’s friendlies for six months. Elections were taking place in Serbia and there was a fear that increasing Kosovo’s visibility might inflame an already fervently nationalistic atmosphere.

Blatter knows the situation very well and knows it is an injustice. But Platini? I can’t understand him.

The issue of Switzerland’s Kosovar players has become hugely controversial there, too. Many of the players have been raised in Switzerland from birth, have been given a quality of life they would have been unlikely to experience in Kosovo and brought up through Switzerland’s first-class training academies. Switzerland has given these talented players every opportunity to make the most of their gifts. The fear is that they may turn their backs on it.

That morning SonntagsBlick published a front-page story on the issue with the headline “The Fear of Kosovo.” Next to it was a photograph of Xherdan Shaqiri, one of Europe’s most talented young players and the one the Swiss fear losing above all others. But the subtext was clear. The players’ allegiances were being questioned.

Fadil understood the idea of divided loyalties. He was part of Kosovo’s best football side, FC Prishtina, from the capital. Back in the mid-1980s, Kosovo wasn’t one of the six socialist republics that officially made up Yugoslavia, but it was an autonomous province. In 1974 Tito had given Kosovo virtually the same rights as the Bosnians, Croats, Serbs, Slovenians, Macedonians and Montegrans.

Eroll played for FC Prishtina, too, a little later, but Fadil was the undisputed star. As we talk, nervous middle-aged men in suits approach ever few minutes, bowing and scraping in the hope of getting an autograph. Even the 21-year-old waiter asks for Fadil’s autograph, midway through serving him.

At first FC Prishtina was just another team from another part of Yugoslavia, whose identity had been moulded by its host republic, such as Dinamo Zagreb from Croatia, Red Star Belgrade from Serbia, Željezničar Sarajevo from Bosnia. Between 1983 and 1988, FC Prishtina survived in the top division of Yugoslav football. They even beat the mighty Red Star Belgrade in Belgrade in their first season.

Admittance to UEFA and FIFA. This is the first goal. And then work with the youth ...

“Then it began, repression against all Yugoslavs by the Serbs,” says Fadil of life after 1989, when Slobodan Milošević became president of Serbia and rolled back all of the antonymous gains that Kosovo had made under Tito. “But football was a beautiful story. Everybody in Kosovo was behind the club and it was a symbol of resistance. It was the only sphere in life where Albanians could express their love for football and other things.”

The team also featured the father of the current Albanian captain, Lorik Cana. The club made them the most famous men in Kosovo. “FC Prishtina was not only a football club it means something more. Resistance,” Fadil explains. “It was a great time, a great generation. We were really a symbol of all the things they could not express in other ways.”

The authorities were always on the lookout for any signs of overt Kosovar nationalism that spilt over the boundaries of what was acceptable. “The most significant (sign of this) was against Red Star Belgrade,” recalls Eroll. Red Star had long been a bastion of Yugoslav and Greater Serbian nationalism.

“There was one game where 60 people were jailed because they were singing.” Eroll clears his throat and sings. “Eh, Oh. Eh, Oh.” He is singing to the tune of “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” It didn’t sound like something that would land 60 people in jail.

Lorik Cana (left) in action during the match against Switzerland in Lucerne.

“They said it was similar to Enver Hoxha (pronounced Hodger),” the former Albanian dictator, Eroll explains.

Fadil’s performances got him noticed by the bigger sides in the Yugoslav league and he signed for Partisan Belgrade. But unlike at Red Star (a team that would later become such an overt channel of Serb nationalism that many of its ultras would end up fighting for Arkan’s Tigers, the most feared and brutal of all Serbian paramilitary groups during the civil war), Partisan had a history of tolerance and of signing players regardless of their ethnicity. “I was very well accepted,” Fadil recalls of his time there.

He was voted players’ player of the year in 1987 and made most of his 13 appearances for Yugoslavia while at the club.

“Partisan had a tradition of playing all nationalities,” he says. “Even now I am very accepted by all Partisan fans. Partisan played a lot of Albanian players. They recruited the player because of the talent not because of the political reasons.”

It was because of this that he saw playing for the national team as a moment of pride rather than betrayal. By playing for Yugoslavia he was representing Kosovo on the world stage.

“I was proud to represent Kosovo and play for Yugoslavia,” he says. But he doesn’t believe that the Yugoslav system wasn’t prejudiced. “I am sure that if I was not Albanian, with my quality I would have played a lot, a lot of games,” he says a little regretfully. “I played just 13 times. As a player I never thought about it. As a sportsman you don’t want to think that could happen. But it is related.”

By the time the 1999 war broke out Fadil was a French citizen, starring for Nimes in the French league. “It was the most difficult time in my life,” he recalls. “My entire family, my brothers, sisters, were all there. And we couldn’t help anything. It was the worst time I’ve ever had.”

Milosevic suspended everything. You must understand what the destruction was like.

Eroll, though, saw how it all played out. Kosovo remained welded to the shrinking rump of a Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia. “Until Slobodan Milošević we were equal part of the national team,’ says Eroll, referring to Yugoslavia’s final, brutal president. “In 1991 we quit the league and formed our own.”

This wasn’t as easy as it sounds. “5% of Kosovo are Serbs, and took over all the stadiums. Milošević suspended everything. You must understand what the destruction was like.” Yet, according to Eroll, the illegal Kosovo league continued. Under threat of beatings and arrest the teams would every week meet to play.

“We play on our improvised fields and then washed in rivers afterwards,” Eroll says. “We just survived,” he says of those bleak years between 1991 and 1999. “After games the police would beat, arrest, put pressure. We were put in jail. They would always ask us: ‘Why are you playing in illegal games?’ It was difficult times.”

Then came the American and British bombing of Belgrade. The Kosovo War left an imperfect peace behind; a state of limbo between recognition and full independence. Kosovo now enjoyed a degree of autonomy, that was true.

The U.N., which had held the reins in Kosovo since the conflict, had, only a few days before, handed over control of all governmental affairs to the Kosovars. A statue of Bill Clinton stands in Pristina. Both he and Tony Blair, Eroll says, remain hugely popular, regarded as saviors of the nation.

“We have had one problem,” Fadil deadpans. “The U.S. is not strong enough in football. It is not strong like in politics.”

A statue of former U.S. President Bill Clinton was unveiled in Pristina in 2009.

When Fadil was elected as president of the FFK in 2008, his mandate was clear. “The first task was international recognition,” he says. “Admittance to UEFA and FIFA. This is the first goal. And then work with the youth because 20 years of isolation is a unique case in the heart of Europe.”

But the U.N. requirement remains, and Kosovo can do little about it even if Sepp Blatter had announced that Kosovo should be allowed to play international friendlies against FIFA members. UEFA president Michel Platini was vehemently against the move.

“Blatter knows the situation very well and knows it is an injustice.” Fadil says. “He has goodwill and is very positive. He says: ‘sports for all.’ But Platini?” he adds mockingly. “I can’t understand him. He doesn’t want the risk, even though 22 out of the 25 countries in the European Union recognize us.”

It is this perceived injustice that has brought the two men, dressed as smartly as they can manage, into the diner in Zurich. With the discussions on how and when and against whom Kosovo might be allowed to play friendly matches dragging on, they have come prepared to embark on a more direct campaign: guerrilla action to secure their interests. Eroll slides a piece of paper on to the table in front of me. The headline reads:

DECLARATION FOR THE RIGHT TO KOSOVO TO PLAY INTERNATIONAL FOOTBALL.

The petition sets out six points for those who sign it to agree with, namely that they support Kosovo’s right to play international football. Fadil and Eroll will fill the blank spaces at the bottom of the paper with the names and signatures of some of Europe’s most talented players. Starting with the Swiss team.

They are just waiting for the right moment to meet them all. Eroll’s phone rings. It is someone close to the Swiss camp, staying in a hotel a few miles drive from here. “We have to be ... sensitive with the Switzerland Football Association,” Eroll says when he puts the phone down. “We do not want to be exposed.” We are to leave straightaway and drive into the hills and wait for instructions. The meeting is on.

Copyright James Montague, 2014. From Thirty-One Nil: On the Road With Football's Outsiders: A World Cup Odyssey, published by Bloomsbury in the UK at £12.99 from May 22, 2014.