'It's England's turn,' say confident Kosovo, Europe's surprise team

AFP , Monday 9 Sep 2019

Kosovo will take the field in Southampton on Tuesday for their first ever international against England as surprise contenders at the top of Group A in Euro 2020 qualification.

Recent results have given the team ranked 120th in the world hope of an upset.

"To beat England, we'll have to fight like complete madmen," Swiss coach Bernard Challandes told Kosovo media.

It would be a coup for a team that only played their first official international in 2014.

"It's going to be difficult," said Frankfurt-born midfielder Besar Halimi, who plays for Sandhausen in the Bundesliga 2.

"England has an extraordinary team with players who play in the Champions League every year. You have to take it as an experience, give the best and hope to take points."

Because Serbia disputed Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence, the young country was not fully recognised by the international football bodies until 2015.

Kosovo, a poor country of some 2 million inhabitants, made their competitive debut in World Cup qualifying when a penalty by Valon Berisha earned a promising 1-1 draw away to Finland. They lost their next nine group games scoring only two more goals and conceding another 23.

The arrival of Swiss coach Bernard Challandes at the beginning of 2018 stabilised the team.

When they gained their first ever international win against Madagascar in March 2018, Albania were ranked 177th out of 221 football nations in the world.

Grouped with other teams from the bottom tier of European football, their debut in a UEFA competition, the Nations League, last year, brought victories over the Faeroes, Azerbaijan and Malta.

Topping their group means that, even if Kosovo fail to take one of the top two places in their Euro group, they will have another chance in the playoffs.

Yet, they enter Tuesday's game second in Group A, one point behind England and three ahead of the third-placed Czech Republic.

On Saturday, they came from behind to beat the Czechs 2-1 in Pristina.

"Our team is the Brazil of the Balkans! Kosovo!" said excited local taxi diver Agim Neziri.

The Kosovars kick off at St Mary's Stadium in Southampton on an unbeaten run of 15 games, the longest in Europe.

"Our victory against the Czech Republic was very important," said Swansea midfielder Bersant Celina. "Now it's England's turn."

They beat Bulgaria 3-2 in Sofia with a goal three minutes into added time by substitute Elbasan Rashani.

Then they came from behind against the Czechs without two injured pillars, midfielder Arber Zeneli and Werder Bremen forward Milot Rashica. Both will be missing against England.

Fenerbahce's Vedat Muriqi scored against both Bulgarians and Czechs.

The young team is built around children of the widespread Kosovan diaspora.

People fled first the rule of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, then the war of independence from Serbia in 1998-99 and also from a fragile economy.

Many talented Kosovo qualified players had already locked themselves into representing other countries, such as Lorik Cana of Albania and Swiss internationals Granit Xhaka, Valon Behrami and Xherdan Shaqiri.

Rashani, the hero of Sofia, and Zeneli were born in Sweden. Rasahani plays in Norway, Zeneli for Reims in the French first division. In total, the squad, which has an average age of just 23, is drawn from 14 different leagues, though now play in the Superleague of Kosovo.

"United, with the help of our supporters, Kosovo can achieve great things," said captain Amir Rrahmani, a defender who plays for Hellas Verona in Serie A.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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