‘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

The National - News - - SPORT FOOTBALL -

“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.”

Andy Mit­ten; EPA

Foot­ball fans in Pristina, Kosovo, are look­ing for­ward to the Euro qual­i­fier against Eng­land to­day, a game the Nor­way­based Fla­mur Kas­trati will miss

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