The date 13 May 2016 is one for the history books for the Football Association of Kosovo, as it was on this date that the organisation was admitted as the 210th member of FIFA. Now, almost four months later, the next milestone is on the horizon, with the Dardanians set to begin their qualification campaign for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. On 5 September in Turku, they face Finland in the first competitive match in the team’s history.
“It’s a huge success that we’ve made this step – two years ago, nobody would have believed it possible,” said striker Albert Bunjaku in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com ahead of the trip to Finland. “I think I speak for every Kosovar when I say that it’s a very special honour to be a part of FIFA,” continued the 32-year-old, who scored the fledgling nation’s first official goal in a 2-0 win against the Faroe Islands back in June. “That was an absolute highlight for me,” he recalled.
Bunjaku has had a somewhat nomadic career. At the age of eight he settled in Switzerland with his parents, and after formative spells at, among others, Grasshopper and Schaffhausen, made a name for himself in Germany, playing for the likes of Paderborn, Erfurt, Nurnberg and Kaiserslautern. In the summer of 2014 he returned to Switzerland to join his current club St Gallen.
He also tasted international football before embarking on his Kosovo adventure, even appearing at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa in Switzerland’s 1-0 loss to Chile. However, turning out for the land of his birth is something else entirely. “I played for Switzerland at a World Cup, which was obviously great. But what’s developing here is a different thing completely. To be able to score the first goal for my motherland was simply unbelievable. It just had a different meaning.”
There remains much work to be done, but the team have already demonstrated that they are not to be taken lightly, losing just two games while drawing two and winning three since their first FIFA-recognised outing in March 2014. “You can obviously see that we’re only just starting and that everything’s still at that early stage. This is new territory for us all and we have to find our game and get used to playing together,” admitted Bunjaku. “But I think we’re on the right path. We need some time and then things will develop over the next few years.
“Practically nobody believed that we’d come this far so quickly and that we’d already be taking part in qualifying for a World Cup. We have a group chat among the team on WhatsApp, and when it was confirmed that we’d been accepted as a member of FIFA, it was just a brilliant moment for everyone. The chat was overloaded with messages,” recalled the man born in Gjilan, eastern Kosovo. “The work [under coach and near-namesake Albert Bunjaki] is a lot of fun and he’s a great coach. He gives us a lot of confidence and I think we’re going to have some great years together yet.”
Reaching Russia and a maiden FIFA World Cup will be no easy task, however. Alongside Finland, Kosovo have been drawn in Group I against Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine and Turkey, four teams that all featured at UEFA EURO 2016. Nevertheless, Bunjaku and his side are confident of making things uncomfortable for the bigger sides in their pool. “It’s very difficult to predict how it will go. We’re still at the start of our development and it’s already a huge honour for us to be part of this. But we’ll play with the ambition of giving as good an account of ourselves as possible and we won’t gift anyone anything. Our goal is to get points and win matches. If anyone shows weakness, we want to be there to exploit it.”
Ideally that plan will be put into action in the opening qualifier in Finland. “We’ve got a lot of young players, and for many of them it will be something completely new. I think one or two of them will obviously be nervous,” said Bunjaku, who, as one of the older heads in the squad, knows that the younger players will look to him for guidance. “But we have some experienced players in the group as well who can take responsibility and will embrace it, and so hopefully get rid of those nerves. I think it will be a cracking game and I believe we can compete.”
It is not just in Kosovo that supporters will keep a close eye on the new FIFA member’s first official, competitive match. The footballing family across the world will be watching closely too.