Written for BBC Radio Four’s From Our Own Correspondent, broadcast on November 10, 2016:
The fans of Kosovo’s national side are in good voice – even though the team’s so new that they don’t yet have many songs to sing. “We want victory!” they chant in the bus taking them to their first official home game, a World Cup qualifier against Croatia. One of their leaders shouts out each letter of the word ‘Kosovo’ – and the rest of the bus yells it back. Before they set off, the supporters sang and danced as fireworks fizzed and sparkled in front of them.
But not all football fans in Kosovo are so excited. Most people in Kosovo are ethnic Albanians – and for years they’ve supported the national team of Albania. After the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, players from Kosovo pulled on the red and black shirt of the Albania team.
Relations between the two countries are very close. Although the Croatia match was officially a home game, it was actually played in Albania – because Kosovo doesn’t have a stadium that meets international standards.
So when Kosovo was finally admitted to FIFA earlier this year, fans and players faced a choice: should they switch their allegiance to the Kosovo team or stick with Albania?
The debate got emotional. Players who left the Albania team for the Kosovo one were branded traitors by some commentators in Albania. And some fans from Kosovo decided not to support the new team and to remain loyal to Albania.
When I meet Fitim Xharra in a café in Kosovo’s capital Prishtina, he’s keen to calm things down. Xharra is a co-founder of the Red and Black Fans – the main supporters’ group for the Albania team. But he insists they’re not against the Kosovo side. “We just see things differently,” he says. “For us, the Albanian national team represents Albanians all over the world.”
Fans on both sides of this divide told me it shouldn’t be mixed up with politics. But the discussion does reflect a bigger debate in Kosovo – about identity and about how close relations between Kosovo and Albania should be.
Kosovo’s main opposition party even wants to hold a referendum on joining the two countries together – though that’s explicitly banned by the Kosovan constitution.
Football and politics collided when the Kosovo team played its first World Cup qualifier, away to Finland. Pointedly, the opposition party leader Visar Ymeri, wished only the Albania team well. He didn’t even mention the Kosovo team. Fisnik Ismaili, another MP for the party, says that was a mistake. But he still thinks it would be better if players from Kosovo and Albania played for a single team.
That argument looked stronger in sporting terms after Croatia thrashed Kosovo 6-0 — and Ukraine beat them 3-0 a few days later.
Ismaili was once a member of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which fought against Serb rule in the 1990s. He complains that it’s hard to support a team that uses symbols imposed by international powers. He’s talking above all about Kosovo’s flag, which was designed not to offend anyone. It features a golden map of the country on a blue background, with six stars to represent the biggest ethnic groups – Albanians, Serbs, Turks, Gorani, Roma, and Bosniaks.
Kosovo Albanians identify much more strongly with the Albanian flag, with its black double-headed eagle emblazoned on a red backdrop. “When you cover your dead with that flag, when you cover your friends with that flag, how can you really accept another?” Ismaili says.
Albanian identity is obviously important to many people in Kosovo. But many also want to focus for now on building their own country. They know a so-called Greater Albania is a non-starter politically. It would spark fear and anger around the Balkans, especially in Serbia, raising the chances of a return to war. International powers just wouldn’t allow it.
Some people believe the new national team could help citizens feel a stronger connection with the young state of Kosovo. And that even might make them less tolerant of rampant corruption among ruling politicians.
“This is the first time that the general population will feel touched by an international recognition,” Agron Demi, the head of a Kosovo think tank, tells me. He believes sport can strengthen a developing sense of Kosovan identity. It might even make the flag “more likeable”.
Some Kosovo Albanians say being asked to pick one of the two national teams – or two identities – is a false choice. They see themselves as both Kosovars and Albanians and will now just support both teams.
But identity is complex, even in the tribal world of sport. When I ask philosophy scholar Dritan Dragusha whether he’s for the Kosovo or the Albania team, he replies immediately with just one word: “Liverpool”.