The remarkable Mr Vokrri: Kosovo’s football rise

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From Patrick Jennings
BBC Sport at Pristina
All day that the term”miracle” kept coming up. Perhaps these tens of thousands of people spilling out into Pristina’s roads have seen another.
It was September 2016 if Kosovo played their first competitive football match.
They expanded an unbeaten streak with possibly their result – that a home triumph over the Czech Republic. It’s the longest run in Europe.
Kosovo have an excellent chance of reaching Euro 2020. As well as their next qualifier is against England on Tuesday (19:45 BST). They are relishing the possibility.
This country of roughly 1.8 million individuals campaigned for eight years before being declared as Fifa and Uefa members in 2016. The process started immediately after its declaration of independence from Serbia in February 2008. Some states – including Serbia – do not recognise its right to exist.
That such a troubled and young state from the heart of the Balkans should shine on soccer’s main phases was not the fantasy of 1 man. But there is one figure who’s admired here over all other people – and his story will help clarify the roots of this special team.
He can be a hero in the country, also was crucial to the effort for recognition of Kosovo for a football nation. After his death this past year at the age of 57, the home floor of the federal team was renamed in his honour: The Fadil Vokrri Stadium.
Like many people here, Vokrri’s life has been marked from the war which still raged in this region. From the tensions between ethnic Albanians and Serbs, as well as the cycle of vengeance and counter-vengeance that still exist today.
And yet Vokrri was among very few – perhaps the only real one – able to talk around the divides which cost so many lives. Soccer was his speech.
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 block; two computers and two desks. It had been 16 February 2008. Kosovo announced its independence.
Vokrri was in control of a institution with no money, he had a team which didn’t have the right to play with any official games, at an isolated state with infrastructure.
What he did have was his standing. He was the greatest footballer Kosovo created – however the new generation of talent that’s emerging may challenges soon that name.
He was charming, charismatic and convincing. He and general secretary Errol Salihu would be the campaigners the country needed.
“When we spoke in the home at the moment, at the beginning my dad was believing the procedure would be simple,” says Vokrri’s eldest son Gramoz, 33.
“Now we are recognised as a country, it will be quickly, he said. He soon realised it’d be anything but simple, but he didn’t mind it like that.”
Gramoz lives in Pristina today. If he was old he assist with his job and would accompany his dad. Like his dad, he’s well-known in the capital of Kosovo. As acquaintances and allies cease to say hello, Chat is disrupted every five minutes. Many remain. Are generals in the Kosovo Liberation Army, football agents, and also government officials.
“My father never made a political declaration in his own lifetime and only concentrated on football. Soccer is higher than everything else – which was his vision,” he states.
“It allowed my father to help achieve our goal – of entering Uefa and Fifa.”
Vokrri was an adventurous forwards with two good feet. His flair and decision made amends if he was not the most prolific goalscorer perhaps. He was loved by the fans. They recognised in him among the own – even when he wasn’t.
He grew up from Podujeva, a small city which today lies near Kosovo’s northern boundary with Serbia. Back then, exactly enjoy the rest of Kosovo, it had been a part of Yugoslavia. He had been created in 1960. Throughout his childhood, Yugoslavia was a communist country composed of diverse nationalities, religions and languages, all more or less held jointly by its charismatic leader Josip Broz Tito.
This was an age when Kosovar Albanians like Vokrri were rarely celebrated. They became symbols of Yugoslav satisfaction. But this gift was impossible to dismiss.
Vokrri was the first to play for Yugoslavia – and he would be the only one. His debut came at a 6-1 defeat by Scotland and scored the goal, the first of six in 12 caps between 1984 and 1987.
He’d started out in Llapi, his home team, before going 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 was forced to turn down them. He had not finished the then-compulsory two years’ military service, and so couldn’t go overseas. He finished his duties while playing for Partizan, satisfying mild jobs during the week between games.
But leave the nation he’d, for reasons which were spiralling out of anyone’s control.
Many historians place President Tito’s departure as the vital point from the collapse of Yugoslavia. They say he left behind a power vacuum which would be full of resurgent rival nationalist factions.
Born in 1986, Gramoz was the very first of Vokrri and his wife Edita’s three kids. From 1989, the family had determined that they could remain in Yugoslavia no longer. Vokrri settled on the Concept of departing for France. In the summertime, he signed Nimes.
“At this time, everybody in Yugoslavia understood that war could happen,” Gramoz says. “They just didn’t know where or when it would begin.”
Years of suffering would define the next decade. Throughout the 1990s, Yugoslavia was plunged into a bloody conflict where as many as 140,000 people were killed.
From this combating emerged that the separate modern territories of today: Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the recently renamed North Macedonia. Kosovo has been 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). This was 1998.
For the previous six years he had been in Pristina, still residing under Yugoslav rule but enjoying football in what had been an unofficial Kosovan top flight set up after the establishment of a separatist shadow republic there.
Matches were stored on pitches in remote, rural areas. On sloping hillsides to see fans could gather. Serbian police would stop the gamers and detain them . But they managed to get up word the road for the resistance. Players would wash their bodies that are helpless .
When fighting began in 1998 this soccer league stopped.
“I chose to combine the KLA for my country,” says Berisha. “I had no military experience but that I watched many terrible things happening here. This has been the reason.”
There was open conflict between Kosovo’s independence fighters the KLA and Serbian authorities. It resulted in a brutal crackdown. Civilians were pushed out of their homes. You will find atrocities, killings and expulsions in the control of Serb forces.
The turning point in the war arrived from 1999. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) had already intervened in Bosnia and it did in Kosovo. A 78-day bombing campaign made Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw troops and permit international peacekeepers in. 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 2006, he had been discovered dead in his mobile before his trial might be completed 64.
Following Serb forces left Kosovo in 1999, the territory remained under UN guideline for two decades. Around 850,000 people had fled the 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, has been focus on documenting the human cost of Yugoslavia’s wars – including the civilian victims of Nato’s bombardment.
As peace returned to the region, so did lots of Kosovo’s refugees. Children were called after then UK prime minister Tony Blair – born in Albanian. There is enormous gratitude in Kosovo. Nowhere is it more evident compared to Bill Clinton Boulevard at Pristina, in which a giant image of the US president seems out throughout the traffic below.
Currently 41, Berisha utilizes few words to describe his life he observed.
He is among the personalities behind the national team fan club Dardanet Now. The name means”the Dardanians” – that the people of the ancient kingdom that ruled here.
Dardanet have opened. Opposite an older tile mill whose chimneys rise into the sky, the call to prayer from a neighborhood mosque carries over lively conversation between the revived chain-smokers gesturing inside their outside chairs. The fuels are dark espresso coffee and dialogue about football of any type. Serie A is no longer the most passionately. That are the Premier League.
Lulzim stinks harshly as a staccato stage in the conclusion of every sentence that is short.
“We want every kind of people to arrive at the stadium. Every game we give 100 tickets for free to female fans. We want families to develop,” he states.
With glee, a reel of tickets to the England game in Southampton is unfurled on the desk next to people. That morning they arrived. The visas to travel would be also. Lulzim clarifies there will be a game against an enthusiast club in Hounslow on Monday, until the Euro 2020 qualifier in St Mary’s of Tuesday.
Insidethe walls are all high with photos of Kosovo players, both old and new. Vokrri’s image is everywhere. They describe themselves as”Children of Vokrri”. He has become a legend for the fan club. They create banners, T-shirts and internet posts that take his picture under messages such as:”Hunting down on us”
“Vokrri is a legend,” says Berisha. “He is our hero. For everything he did. For Those people.”
But pride of place at the fan club bar belongs to the match top worn with Valon Berisha when he scored the primary target in competition of Kosovo. That has been a 1-1 draw in Finland, also a 2018 World Cup qualifier played in September 2016.
It had been the culmination of many years’ work. Not long it looked like things would go downhill.
Vokrri returned from France to Kosovo about five years after the war finished. In 2008, the earliest attempts towards membership of Kosovo turned with him at the helm. At that point 51 of the UN’s 193 member countries had just recognised the country. It seemed a majority would be required.
Instead, they continued to play with unofficial matches against unrecognised countries: Northern Cyprus, a team representing Monaco, a group representing that the Sami inhabitants of north Norway, Sweden, Russia and Finland.
The players at this time were drawn almost entirely from the pool. Individuals who had been forced to flee their homes who had taken up arms and struggled.
There was yet another manner. One which was still tantalisingly out of reach.
“In 2012, if Switzerland played a match against Albania, 15 of the players on the pitch were not able to symbolize Kosovo,” Gramoz says.
“My dad was at the match, watching with Sepp Blatter, then the Fifa president. Mr Blatter said to my dad:’How are you enjoying the match?’
“He responded:’It is like seeing Kosovo A versus Kosovo B.'”
The major step forward came in 2014, when Fifa allowed Kosovo to play matches against its member countries – provided that certain conditions were fulfilled. There was substantial opposition from Serbia.
Mitrovica was the location for the initial recognised friendly match of Kosovo. This town, with nearby Albanian and Serbian populations divided in two from the Ibar river, but still needs the presence of Nato troops now, 20 years from their birth as a peacekeeping force. Oliver Ivanovic, a prominent politician seen as a Kosovo Serb leader, was shot dead therein January 2018.
Albania goalkeeper Samir Ujkani decided to take a call-up, as did Finland Lum Rexhepi, Norway’s Ardian Gashi and Switzerland’s Albert Bunjaku. The resistance were Haiti. It ended 0-0.
“As an example, it was a big, big victory,” says Gramoz.
“It was a crystal very clear message from Fifa. The minute they allowed us to play friendly games we took that to mean:’Do not stop, you will enter as full members – but we want the time to prepare folks.’
“Even though we did not possess the right to perform with our national anthem, it is OK. We play soccer. {That

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