The remarkable Mr Vokrri: Kosovo’s football rise

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By Patrick Jennings
BBC Sport in Pristina
All day that the term»wonder» kept coming up. These tens of thousands of people spilling out into Pristina’s roads have seen yet another.
It was September 2016 if Kosovo played their first competitive football game.
They extended an unbeaten run with their most important result — that a 2-1 home victory over the Czech Republic. It’s the longest run in Europe.
Kosovo have a good likelihood of attaining Euro 2020. As well as their next qualifier is against England on Tuesday (19:45 BST). They’re currently relishing the prospect.
This country of about 1.8 million individuals campaigned for eight years prior to being acknowledged as Fifa and Uefa members at 2016. The process began immediately following its declaration of independence from Serbia. Some countries — like Serbia — still do not recognise its right to exist.
That such a troubled and young nation from the center of the Balkans should excel on football stages wasn’t the fantasy of 1 man. But there is one figure who’s admired here above all others — and his story helps explain the roots of the team.
He was crucial to Kosovo’s effort for recognition also is a hero in the nation. Following his death last year at the age of 57, the home ground of the team was renamed in his honor: The Fadil Vokrri Stadium.
Like so many people here, the war that still raged within this area only just more than 20 years back marked Vokrri’s life. From the freezing cycle of counter-vengeance and vengeance, and the tensions between Serbs and Albanians that exist today.
And Vokrri was one of very few — perhaps the only one — capable to talk across the divides which cost so many lives. Football was his speech.
After Vokrri was made president of the Soccer Federation of Kosovo he was starting from scratch. His offices were two rooms in a Pristina apartment block; 2 computers and 2 desks. It had been 16 February 2008. The day kosovo declared its independence.
Vokrri was in charge of an association with no money, he had a federal team which didn’t possess the right to play with any official games, at an isolated nation with little infrastructure.
What he did have was his reputation. He was the greatest footballer Kosovo made — though the new generation of talent that is emerging may challenges soon that name.
He was charming, charismatic and convincing. He and general secretary Errol Salihu would be the campaigners that the nation needed.
«After we talked at home at this moment, in the beginning my father was thinking the procedure would be simple,» states Vokrri’s eldest son Gramoz, 33.
«Today we are recognized as a country, it will be quickly, he thought. He soon realised it would be anything but easy, but he did not mind it like that.»
Gramoz resides in Pristina. After he was old he assist with his or her work and would often accompany his father. Like his dad, he’s well-known in Kosovo’s capital. As acquaintances and allies stop to say hello Chat is disrupted every five minutes. Many stay considerably longer. One of these are soccer agents government officials, 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 greater than everything else — that was his vision,» he states.
«It enabled my dad to help achieve our aim — of entering Uefa and Fifa.»
Vokrri was an adventurous forwards with two feet. If he was not the most prolific goalscorer his flair and decision made amends. The fans adored him. They recognized in him among their own — even if he wasn’t.
He climbed up from Podujeva, a little city that today lies close to Kosovo’s northern boundary with Serbia. Back then, just enjoy the rest of Kosovo, it had been a part of Yugoslavia. He had been born in 1960. Throughout his youth, Yugoslavia was a communist country made up of varied nationalities, religions and languages, more or less held together by its own charismatic leader Josip Broz Tito.
This was an age when Kosovar Albanians like Vokrri were seldom celebrated. They became symbols of Yugoslav satisfaction. However, this ability was impossible to dismiss.
Vokrri was the very first to play for Yugoslavia — and that he are 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 had started out at Llapi, his hometown club, before moving to Pristina. In 1986 he moved to Partizan Belgrade and remained for three decades «the most beautiful» of his career, he explained.
They won the league title in 1989 in 1987 and also the cup. In between, Italian giants Juventus came calling — but Vokrri has been made to turn down them. He had not finished the then-compulsory two years’ army service, and so couldn’t go overseas. He completed his duties while playing for Partizan, fulfilling light jobs during the week in between games.
But leave the nation he’d, for reasons which were spiralling out of anybody’s control.
Many historians place President Tito’s departure as the important 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 along with his wife Edita’s three children. From 1989, the family had determined that they could stay in Yugoslavia no more. Vokrri settled on the Notion of leaving for France. In the summertime, he signed up for Nimes.
«At this moment, everyone in Yugoslavia understood 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 battle in which as many as 140,000 people were killed.
From this fighting arose the different modern territories of today: Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and 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 at Pristina, still residing under Yugoslav ruler but playing soccer in what had been an unofficial Kosovan top flight set up following the institution of some separatist shadow republic there.
Matches were held on pitches in rural areas. Fans could gather on sloping hillsides to see. Serbian police detain them and would stop the players. But always they were able to get word up the street for the resistance. Players would wash their muddy bodies .
This football league ceased when heavy fighting began in 1998.
«I made a decision to combine the KLA because of my nation,» says Berisha. «I’d no military experience but I saw many terrible stuff happening here. That was the reason.»
There was now open conflict between Kosovo’s freedom fighters that the KLA and Serbian police. It resulted in a crackdown. Civilians were pushed from their homes. There were atrocities, killings and forced expulsions in the hands of Serb forces.
The turning point in the war came from 1999. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) had intervened in Bosnia and it did in Kosovo. Even a 78-day bombing campaign made Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw troops and allow international peacekeepers in. Milosevic’s government dropped a year later. He would later be held at the United Nations (UN) war crimes tribunal for genocide and other war crimes carried out in Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia. In 2006he had been found dead in his cell aged 64, prior to his trial might be completed.
The land remained for nine years under UN guideline, Following Serb forces left Kosovo in 1999. Around 850,000 people had fled fighting. An estimated 13,500 individuals were killed or went missing, according to the Humanitarian Law Centre (HLC). The HLC, with offices in both Pristina and Belgrade, continues to operate on documenting the individual price of Yugoslavia’s wars — including the civilian victims of Nato’s bombardment.
As peace returned to the region, so did many of the refugees of Kosovo. Kids were called after then UK prime minister Tony Blair — left as a single first title: Tonibler in Albanian. There’s tremendous gratitude in Kosovo. Nowhere is it more obvious than on Bill Clinton Boulevard in Pristina below.
Currently 41, Berisha uses few words to describe his life as a soldier and the violence he witnessed.
Now he is among the personalities supporting the Kosovo federal group’s largest fan clubDardanet. The name means»that the Dardanians» — the individuals of an ancient kingdom that ruled here.
Dardanet have only opened a brand new cafe bar that serves as their headquarters. Opposite an older tile factory whose chimneys rise high into the sky, the call to prayer by a local mosque carries over energetic conversation between the animated chain-smokers gesturing inside their exterior seats. The fuels are dialogue about football of any type and black espresso coffee. Serie A is no longer the very passionately discussed. That would be the Premier League.
Lulzim sucks sharply on his teeth as a staccato stage in the conclusion of every sentence that is short.
«We need every sort of people to come to the stadium. Every match we give 100 tickets for to female fans. We need families to come,» he says.
With glee, a reel of tickets to the England game in Southampton is unfurled on the table next to us. They came. The banks to journey are via. Lulzim clarifies there will be a game England Fans FC against an fan club, at Hounslow on Monday, ahead of the Euro 2020 qualifier at St Mary’s of Tuesday.
Insidethe walls are packed high with framed photographs of Kosovo players, old and new. The image of vokrri is everywhere. They describe themselves as»Children of all Vokrri». He has become a legend for the fan club. They produce banner ads, T-shirts and internet posts that carry his picture under messages such as:»Hunting down on us.»
«Vokrri is a legend,» says Berisha. «He’s our hero. For everything he did. For Those people.»
But pride of place at the fan club pub is owned by the game shirt worn by Valon Berisha when he scored Kosovo’s primary target in contest. That was a draw in Finland, a 2018 World Cup qualifier played in September 2016.
It had been the culmination of many years’ work. Not so long it seemed like things would go downhill.
Vokrri returned to Kosovo roughly five years after the war finished. Football’s world governing body Fifa turned down Kosovo’s earliest attempts towards membership. At that point the nation had been recognised by 51 of the UN’s 193 penis countries. It appeared that a majority will be required.
Instead, they chose to play with unofficial matches against unrecognised countries: Northern Cyprus, a group representing Monaco, a team representing the Sami inhabitants of north Norway, Sweden, Russia and Finland.
The players at this time were drawn almost entirely in the domestic pool. Individuals who had been forced to flee their houses who had taken up arms and struggled.
There was another manner. Tantalisingly out of reach.
«In 2012, when Switzerland played a match against Albania, 15 of those players on the pitch were qualified to signify Kosovo,» Gramoz states.
«My dad was at the game, watching with Sepp Blatter, and the Fifa president. Mr Blatter said to my dad:’Are you loving the game?’
«He replied:’It is 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 substantial opposition from Serbia.
Mitrovica was the location for the initial match that is recognised of Kosovo. This city, using nearby Albanian and Serbian populations divided in 2 by the Ibar river, nonetheless needs the presence of Nato troops now, 20 years on from their arrival as a peacekeeping force. Oliver Ivanovic, a prominent politician viewed as a Kosovo Serb leader, has been shot dead outside his party offices there.
Albania goalkeeper Samir Ujkani chose to accept a call-up, as did Finland international Lum Rexhepi, Norway’s Ardian Gashi along with Switzerland’s Albert Bunjaku. The resistance were Haiti. It finished 0-0.
«As an example, it turned out to be a big, huge victory,» says Gramoz.
«It was a clear message from Fifa. The minute they allowed us to play friendly matches we took it to mean:’Don’t stop, you will enter as full members but we need the time to prepare folks.’
«Even if we did not possess the right to perform our national anthem, it is OK. We play with football. {That

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