‘KOSOVO AGAINST ENGLAND IS HUGE FOR US’
▶ For Kastrati and fellow Kosovans, today’s Euro 2020 group qualifier against a country they ‘love’ is a special occasion, writes Andy Mitten
“We had a team meeting in Pristina and our coach showed us a movie about how this team had come together,” explains Flamur Kastrati when asked to recall playing in Kosovo’s first official game in 2014.
“The coach picked up some earth between his hands and said: ‘Show the country what we are fighting for’. That made us so inspired. We took the bus to Mitrovica, a 30-minute drive away, for the game. It took much longer.”
Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo, is a divided city with Serbs living on one side of the river and Kosovans on the other.
“It’s an unofficial border with a small bridge dividing the city,” says the forward, 27.
“Nobody I know would cross the bridge. People were walking to the game from miles around. The roads were blocked. People were kissing the bus, the police couldn’t clear a path for us. They were falling to their knees and crying when they saw us. The stadium was sold out. We were the best team but drew 0-0 [against
Haiti]. Maybe somebody didn’t want us to win that night.
“It was an incredible feeling but people were scared too. We noticed something flying above us and were worried. It was a Kosovan flag from a small plane or helicopter, but we were worried because there was a lot of tension.”
Where we are speaking seems a world away. Norway’s Kristiansund is hometown to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The population of the town is only 25,000 yet the local football team is in Norway’s top-flight.
Christian Michelsen, whom Solskjaer has known since childhood, is doing an excellent job as coach.
The team enjoyed their July friendly against Manchester United in Oslo. Michelsen has some local players from a town which produces footballers and he’s recruited well from further afield.
Kastrati is one. His calm life now is in contrast to his background but as the Norwegian domestic season winds down, he’s looking forward to today’s game – the Euro 2020 qualifier against England in Pristina. “Kosovo against England is a huge event for us. In Kosovo, we have a lot of love for England and the US because they helped us. Tony Blair is popular and Bill Clinton too. There’s a statue of Clinton in Pristina, the capital.”
Kastrati tells his story. “My parents are from a city, 40 minutes from Pristina. My father is one of six boys. Before the war really started, the oldest brother moved to Norway in 1988. Norway understood the situation and allowed Kosovan people in.
“My father decided to follow his brother in 1989. He found a really tough life. He needed to learn Norwegian and he couldn’t even speak English so he couldn’t communicate with people.
“My father had between five and eight jobs per day just to survive. He cleaned nightclubs, he delivered pizza, he worked in construction.”
Kastrati’s grandfather told him about fleeing from Serb paramilitaries as 1.2 million Kosovan Albanians were displaced. Kastrati was born in November 1991 in Oslo, but has always been made aware of his roots. He is grateful for his upbringing in Norway, though. “It’s the country which gave me a life, an education to make me who I am today,” he explains. “I’m thankful for this. I feel Kosovan and I feel Norwegian.”
His journey on the football pitch had its ups and downs as well. “I started playing in a club called Grei in a tough part of Oslo with a large immigrant population. There were people from Africa, from Kosovo and even from Serbia. We were not best friends.”
Kastrati then joined Skeid, a second-division club with a reputation for promoting youth. “My coach told me: ‘If you have the hunger and professionalism, you will become big’. Those words opened my eyes and I decided to go all in. I played in the Norway Cup, a big youth tournament.
“I scored a lot of goals and a Danish scout told me that Chelsea wanted to see me for one week. I went there, three of us from Kosovo.
“One was Valon Berisha who scored twice against England recently [in the 5-3 defeat at Southampton in September].
Good lad, good player. He’s at Lazio. At Chelsea, we met the really top young players in the world. Lots of Spanish, Portuguese, Brazilian and English.”
The trial wasn’t in vain, though. “I had a boost from that trip to Chelsea and the physical side and the tempo stood out for me.”
Kastrati represented Norway at all levels from the Under-19s to the U23s. An impressed Steve McClaren got FC Twente to sign him up.
Kastrati then went to Germany’s second tier with Osnabruck, Duisburg and Erzgebirge before returning to Norway in 2013. “I went to Stromsgodset. We won the league, beating Rosenborg. I loved it. We played in the Europa League against big teams.”
That year, 2013, saw him contacted by neighbouring Sweden. “Things started to happen with the Kosovan national team,” he recalls.
“Albert Bunjaki was an assistant manager in Sweden and he was asked if he could help with the national side.”
Bunjaki left Kosovo in 1991 after a conscription call from the Yugoslav army. He was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in absentia and changed his name when he arrived in Sweden where he continued to play and then manage.
“He contacted me and I didn’t know what to do. I’d played for Norway at U21s,” Kastrati said. “I loved Norway, I loved Kosovo. Norway had a national team, Kosovo didn’t.”
But Kastrati accepted the offer to become a Kosovan international.
Like Catalonia, Kosovo had played unofficial games, the first against Albania after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in 1993. They also played after the Kosovo war in 2002 and the declaration of independence in 2010. But it wasn’t until 2014 that they were recognised by Fifa.
Kastrati’s manager Michelson thinks that he can get back into the Kosovan team if he continues playing as he is. “That’s my ambition and if I have a season like I’m having now I’m 100 per cent sure I’ll get back in there,” he says.
“I speak to the players every day. We have a Whatsapp and Snapchat group. We can’t wait to play England again.”
Football fans in Pristina, Kosovo, are looking forward to the Euro qualifier against England today, a game the Norwaybased Flamur Kastrati will miss