The remarkable Mr Vokrri: Kosovo’s football rise

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From Patrick Jennings
BBC Sport in Pristina
All day that the term»wonder» kept coming up. Maybe these thousands of people spilling out into the streets of Pristina have seen another.
This was September 2016 when Kosovo played their first international football match.
On Saturdaythey expanded an unbeaten streak with maybe their most significant result — that a home triumph over the Czech Republic. It is the longest run in Europe.
Kosovo have a very good chance of attaining Euro 2020. And their next qualifier is from England on Tuesday (19:45 BST). They are currently relishing the possibility.
This country of about 1.8 million individuals campaigned for eight years prior to being acknowledged as Fifa and Uefa members in 2016. The process started immediately following its declaration of independence from Serbia in February 2008. Some states — including Serbia — still do not recognise its right to exist.
This a troubled and young country from the core of the Balkans should excel on football stages wasn’t just one man’s dream. But there is 1 figure who’s admired here above all others — and his story will help explain the roots of this team.
He was critical to the campaign for recognition of Kosovo as a football nation, and can be a hero in the country. After his death this past year at the age of 57, the federal team’s home ground was renamed in his honor: The Fadil Vokrri Stadium.
Like many individuals here, Vokrri’s life was marked with the war which raged within this area. By the cycle of vengeance and counter-vengeance, and the tensions between Albanians and Serbs that exist today.
And Vokrri was among very few — perhaps the only real one — capable to talk across the divides that cost so many lives. Soccer was his speech.
That he had been starting from scratch, After Vokrri was made president of the Soccer Federation of Kosovo. His offices were two chambers at a Pristina apartment cube; 2 desks and two computers. It was 16 February 2008. The next moment, kosovo declared its independence.
Vokrri was in control of a institution with no money, he had a group which didn’t have the right to play with any official games, at an isolated nation with infrastructure.
What he did have was his standing. He was the best footballer Kosovo created — although that name might be contested soon by the exciting new generation of talent that’s emerging.
He was charming, charismatic and persuasive. General secretary Errol Salihu and he would be.
«After we spoke in the home at this moment, in the very beginning my father was thinking the procedure would be simple,» says Vokrri’s eldest son Gramoz, 33.
«Today we’re recognised as a country, it’ll be fast, he thought. He soon realised it would be anything but simple, but he did not mind it like that.»
Gramoz resides in Pristina today. He’d often accompany his father and assist with his or her work, when he was old enough. Like his father, he is well-known in Kosovo’s capital. Because acquaintances and allies stop to say hello Chat is interrupted every five minutes. Many remain considerably longer. Among them are soccer agents police officers, and former generals from the Kosovo Liberation Army.
«My dad never left a political declaration in his own life and just concentrated on football. Soccer is higher than everything else — that was his vision,» he says.
«It allowed my dad to help achieve our goal — of entering Uefa and Fifa.»
Vokrri was an adventurous forward with two great feet. His flair and determination made amends if he wasn’t the most prolific goalscorer perhaps. The fans loved him. They recognized in him one of their own — even if he wasn’t.
He grew up in Podujeva, a little city which now lies near Kosovo’s northern border with Serbia. Back then, exactly like the rest of Kosovo, it had been a part of Yugoslavia. He was born in 1960. During his youth, Yugoslavia was a communist country made up of diverse nationalities, languages and religions, more or less held jointly by its charismatic leader Josip Broz Tito.
It was an era when Kosovar Albanians such as Vokrri were seldom celebrated. They became symbols of Yugoslav satisfaction. However, this gift was impossible to dismiss.
Vokrri was the first to play Yugoslavia — and that he are the only one. His debut came in a 6-1 defeat by Scotland and believed 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 on to Partizan Belgrade and remained for three years «the most beautiful» of his career, he explained.
They won the league title in 1987 and the cup. In between, Italian giants Juventus came calling — but Vokrri has been forced to turn them down. He had not completed the then-compulsory two years’ army service, so couldn’t go abroad. He finished his responsibilities while playing for Partizan, fulfilling light jobs throughout the week between games.
However, leave the country he would, for reasons which were spiralling out of anyone’s control.
Many historians place President Tito’s departure as the essential point in the collapse of Yugoslavia. They say he left behind a power vacuum that would be full of resurgent rival nationalist factions.
Born in 1986, Gramoz was the very initial of Vokrri and his wife Edita’s three children. From 1989, the family had determined that they could stay in Yugoslavia no longer. Vokrri settled on the idea of departing for France. In the summer, he signed Nimes.
«At this time, everybody in Yugoslavia knew that war could occur,» Gramoz says. «They just didn’t know where or when it would begin.»
Another decade would be defined by years of suffering. During the 1990s, Yugoslavia was plunged into a bloody conflict in which as many as 140,000 people were killed.
From this fighting emerged that the separate modern territories of today: Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, along with the recently renamed North Macedonia. Kosovo has been the last to declare itself an independent state.
Lulzim Berisha was 20 when he took up arms. He joined the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). This was 1998.
For the previous six years he had been at Pristina, still residing under Yugoslav principle but playing soccer in what had been an unofficial Kosovan leading flight set up after the institution of a separatist shadow republic there.
Matches were held on pitches in remote locations. On sloping hillsides to observe, fans could collect. Serbian police would discontinue the gamers and detain them. But they managed to get word up the road for the opposition to wait. After the match, players will wash their bodies that are muddy at a river.
This soccer league stopped when heavy fighting started in 1998.
«I chose to combine the KLA for my country,» says Berisha. «I’d no military experience but that I watched many bad things happening here. This was why»
There was conflict between Kosovo’s independence fighters that the KLA and Serbian police. It resulted in a crackdown. Civilians were pushed from their homes. You will find atrocities killings and expulsions at the hands of Serb forces.
The main turning point in the war arrived from 1999. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) had intervened in Bosnia and it did in Kosovo. A bombing campaign forced Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw troops and permit international peacekeepers in. 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 2006he had been discovered dead in his mobile 64, before his trial may be finished.
Following Serb forces left Kosovo in 1999, the territory remained for two decades under UN rule. Around 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, continues to focus on documenting the human cost of Yugoslavia’s wars — including the civilian victims of Nato’s bombardment.
As peace returned into the area, so did many of the refugees of Kosovo. Children were appointed after then UK prime minister Tony Blair — rendered in Albanian. There’s tremendous gratitude in Kosovo to the states that intervened. Nowhere is it more obvious compared to Bill Clinton Boulevard at Pristina below.
Today 41, Berisha uses few words to describe his life as a soldier and the violence he observed.
He is among the primary characters behind the largest fan club Dardanet of the Kosovo team Now. The name means»the Dardanians» — that the individuals of an ancient kingdom which dominated here.
Dardanet have simply opened a new cafe bar that serves as their headquarters. Opposite an older tile factory whose chimneys rise into the sky, the call to prayer by a local mosque carries over energetic conversation between the animated chain-smokers gesturing inside their outside seats. The fuels are dark black espresso coffee and dialogue about football of any sort. Serie A is the very passionately. That are the Premier League.
Lulzim stinks harshly because a stage at the end of every brief sentence on his teeth.
«We want every kind of people to arrive at the stadium. Every match we give 100 tickets for fans. We need families to come,» he says.
With glee, a reel of tickets for the England game in Southampton is unfurled on the table next to people. That morning they arrived. The visas to travel really are through. Lulzim explains there will be a suit against a British enthusiast club at Hounslow on Monday, until Tuesday’s Euro 2020 qualifier at St Mary’s.
Inside, the walls are all high with framed photos of Kosovo players, new and older. The picture of vokrri is. They describe themselves as»Children of Vokrri». He’s become an icon to its fan club. They create banners, T-shirts and online posts that take his picture under messages for example:»Looking down on us.»
«Vokrri is a legend,» says Berisha. «He’s our hero. For whatever he did. For Those people.»
But pride of place in the fan club pub belongs to the match top worn with Valon Berisha after he scored Kosovo’s first target in official contest. This has been a draw in Finland, a 2018 World Cup qualifier played in September 2016.
It was the culmination of several years’ labour. Not long it looked like things would only go downhill.
Vokrri returned from France to Kosovo roughly five years after the war ended. Football’s world governing body Fifa turned Kosovo’s earliest efforts towards membership. At that stage the nation had been recognised by 51 of the 193 member countries of the UN. It seemed that a majority would be required.
Instead, they continued to play with unofficial matches against unrecognised states: Northern Cyprus, a group representing Monaco, a group representing that the Sami people of north Norway, Sweden, Russia and Finland.
The players at this time have been drawn from the national pool. People who had been forced to flee their houses or who had taken up arms and struggled.
There was yet another manner. Tantalisingly out of reach.
«At 2012, when Switzerland played a match against Albania, 15 of the players around the pitch have been not able to signify Kosovo,» Gramoz states.
«My father was in the match, seeing Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president. Mr Blatter said for my father:’How are you loving the match?’
«He responded:’It is like watching Kosovo A vs Kosovo B.'»
The major step forward came in 2014, when Fifa enabled Kosovo to play friendly matches against its member nations — as long as certain conditions were met. There was substantial opposition from Serbia.
Mitrovica was the place for Kosovo friendly match that is recognised. This city, using local Albanian and Serbian populations divided in two from the Ibar river, nonetheless needs the presence of Nato troops today, 20 years from their birth as a peacekeeping force. Oliver Ivanovic, a prominent politician seen as a Kosovo Serb leader, has been shot dead outside his party offices therein January 2018.
Albania goalkeeper Samir Ujkani decided to accept a call-up, as did Finland international Lum Rexhepi, Norway’s Ardian Gashi and Switzerland’s Albert Bunjaku. The opposition were Haiti. It ended 0-0.
«For us, it turned out to be a big, huge success,» states Gramoz.
«It turned out to be a very clear message from Fifa. The minute they allowed us to play friendly games we took that to mean:’Don’t stop, you will enter as full members but we want the time to prepare people.’
«Even though we did not possess the right to perform with our national anthem, it’s OK. We play soccer. {That

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