The idea that ‘football is more than just a game’ is often reinforced by the significance ascribed to the sport. Many historians believe that winning the 1954 FIFA World Cup™ was a formative experience for a fledgling West Germany, and while Kosovo may not have gone as far as winning football's premier trophy, participating in a World Cup qualifier for the first time in September has given this young nation a significant boost – as well as having an immediate impact on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
So far Kosovo have played just two official matches in their footballing history. Coach Albert Bunjaki’s side began life as FIFA members with a 2-0 win over the Faroe Islands in June before travelling to Turku, Finland, for their first World Cup qualifier at the start of September. Several of those taking part in this historic game were cleared to play for their country just a few days before kick-off.
Paulus Arajuuri gave Finland the lead after 18 minutes before Valon Berisha converted a penalty on the hour mark to earn his side a well-deserved 1-1 draw. As Albert Bunjaku recently explained in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, becoming FIFA members was a “brilliant moment for everyone”. The experienced striker was part of the starting line-up against Finland and has been in the limelight as his team embark on their international adventure.
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) September 5, 2016
Kosovo’s reward for remaining unbeaten in their first two official internationals is a jump from 180th to 168th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, the fifth-biggest climb by any team this month. “We are all heroes,” said 25-year-old defender Fanol Perdedaj after playing the full 90 minutes of the qualifier against Finland. “It’s a dream come true for all of us. Our country has waited a long time for this day. We’re very, very proud.”
As if that was not enough, the Dardanians almost left Scandinavia with two wins from two games. “I could have made it 2-1, but the Finnish goalkeeper cleared my shot with a fantastic save,” Perdedaj recalled before thanking the Kosovo fans who made their way to the stadium in Turku. “My fellow countrymen are scattered across Europe and have given us amazing support – some of them have even come from New York,” he said. “I think everyone in Kosovo is sitting in front of their televisions this evening.”
Among those following the action at home was the country’s President, Hashim Thaci, who expressed his delight on Twitter during the match.
— Hashim Thaçi (@HashimThaciRKS) September 5, 2016
Prime Minister Isa Mustafa also underlined the significance of the occasion by tweeting: “This confirms that we are capable of playing in international competitions.”
The result was celebrated across the country, with many newspapers and other media outlets reporting high spirits in bars across the capital, Pristina, until long after midnight. “It’s a very good feeling; I’ve dreamed about scoring for Kosovo,” said goalscorer Berisha after the final whistle on an evening that will live long in his memory.
Despite this encouraging start, the team are well aware of the long road ahead. “Although we’ve shown that we can play football, we also know that we made mistakes,” said goalkeeper Samir Ujkani, “but we’re still a young side.” If this fledgling nation continues to make similarly large strides, they will soon be rising further up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. “We want to break into the top 100, and that’s a realistic target,” concluded Perdedaj.