Euro 2020 play-off more than just a game for Kosovo
It's just football, some say, but for Kosovo, one match means so much more than that.
Not only can their European Championship play-off semi-final against neighbours North Macedonia tomorrow morning (Singapore time) take Kosovo a step closer to the rescheduled Euro 2020, but it is also being seen as a chance for them to stand up and be noticed as an independent country.
A victory in Skopje will enable Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, to edge closer to a major tournament for the first time.
The game has been dubbed by the media as "the most important match in Kosovo's history", and even coach Bernard Challandes, 69, sees the Skopje showdown as "not just a football game".
"We are in the new country of Kosovo and the football team is so important for the people," the Swiss-born boss said in a press conference.
Sport is a frequent arena for tensions with Serbia. The scars still run deep after the bitter war between the two, which ran from February 1998 to June 1999.
The Serbs attempted to block Kosovo from joining Uefa and Fifa in 2016, but their failure on that score makes the Kosovars the newest side in the qualifiers.
The fact that none of the 24 players selected for the match ply their trade in the domestic league is a remnant of Kosovo's violent past - a majority of the squad are descendants from ethnic Albanian refugees that fled the violent regime of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic during the 1990s.
Some of them are good enough to play in Europe's top leagues. Captain Amir Rrahmani is at Napoli while Samir Ujkani and Mergim Vojvoda both play for Torino.
Another Italy-based player is Lazio's Vedat Muriqi - he is in the squad for Skopje although a recent positive Covid-19 test makes him a doubtful starter.
"A lot of players got good contracts, but they must never forget their roots and what it means to play in the Kosovo shirt," said Challandes.
The European newcomers, who struggled during the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, went on a remarkable 15-game unbeaten run before falling to England 5-3 in September 2019.
But they finished third in their group, ahead of Bulgaria and Montenegro, to secure their play-off spot.
If Kosovo win tomorrow, they will still have one more hurdle in their bid to reach the Euros - a play-off final against either Georgia or Belarus. - AFP