An 86th-minute equaliser, followed by a 94th-minute winner in Kosovo’s thrilling friendly win over Latvia back in 2017 may not have made waves in the world of European football but it was a turning point for a country that had only gained independence in 2008 and had only taken part in their first qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup.
They lost all but one game in that qualifying campaign and scored just three goals, so few could imagine that after a final day defeat to Iceland, the small country would embark on a 15 game unbeaten run that has given them a serious chance of qualifying for the European Championships next summer.
Now lying second in Group A, behind England, Kosovo know that a few more wins will secure their place at a major tournament for the very first time.
Manager Bernard Challandes has not only captivated a nation with his passionate press conferences, he’s put together a side from across Europe, who are proud to play for their homeland.
Manchester City goalkeeper, Arijanet Muric, currently on loan at Nottingham Forest, committed his future to Kosovo last summer after months of talks. Having been born in Switzerland, he represented Montenegro’s under 21 side before becoming a full international with Kosovo and his story is replicated across the squad.
Huddersfield full-back Florent Hadergjonaj is another who was born in Switzerland and even played a friendly for the Swiss national side, although he refused to play for them in a competitive game, when both nations hoped to convince him to play for them. He said at the time:
“I will play only the friendly match with Switzerland, for qualifying matches I did not accept to play.”
Earlier this year, the Football Federation of Kosovo confirmed that Hadergjonaj had received his Kosovan passport and was eligible to represent the country in competitive games, he hasn't looked back since. According to the official FIFA rules a player can change nationality as long as:
“He has not played a match (either in full or in part) in an official competition at ‘A’ international level for his current association.”
Bersant Celina, another Man City youth product, is arguably the country's most talented outfield player, playing in the number ten role for his national side and also playing a key role in a Swansea side who currently top the Championship table.
He played for Norway at youth level but switched over to represent Kosovo in a friendly in 2014, as an unused substitute in their first sanctioned match against Haiti.
A familiar name to fans of the Football League, Sheffield Wednesday striker Atdhe Nuhiu also represents the Balkan side and has scored twice, but is a little way off Arber Zeneli, the Stade Reims winger and Kosovo’s record goalscorer with seven goals to his name
For the past decade, proud Kosovans have had to watch on as some of their potential players have gone on to represent their rivals. In an interview with the BBC, Gramoz Vokrri, son of the legendary president of the Football Federation of Kosovo, Fadil, said:
“In 2012, when Switzerland played a match against Albania, 15 of the players on the pitch were eligible to represent Kosovo.
“My father was at the game, watching with Sepp Blatter, then Fifa president. Mr Blatter said to my dad: 'How are you enjoying the match?'
"He replied: 'It's like watching Kosovo A versus Kosovo B.'"
Now we are finally seeing the talent that Kosovo has generated with several quality players, many of whom escaped a country ravaged by war in the late 1990s, uniting in one team.
The Kosovo capital, Pristina, has been the hometown of many modern-day celebrities, with
singers Rita Ora and Dua Lipa both being born in the city but now ‘The Land of Freedom’ has an entire squad of superstars to get behind as the nation unites behind this enthralling side.
Don’t rule them out of causing England serious problems and if they do manage to get a result and continue their unbeaten run, it will be the greatest sporting result in the short history of their country.