The state of football in Kosovo and Geri Vranovci’s fight for footballing freedom

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Football unites, politics divides. An unfortunate cliché. This is a common theme in the game. Something almost so ubiquitous it is now undermined.

This is of particular pertinence to Kosovo. The World Bank described their economy as ‘unstable’; unemployment is at 45 per cent; and neighbours Switzerland have a GDP per capita of 23-times more. Although it gained independence from Serbia in 2008, Kosovo is thought of as UN-governed territory inside its sovereignty. For this reason they are not recognised by FIFA, nor are they UEFA members.

Football journalist James Montague highlights this as a real cause for concern: “What a lack of UEFA membership means is no national team and no UEFA funds to build Kosovar players in Kosovo. This might result in less players making it, but it is clear that UEFA not recognising Kosovo is a huge problem.”

This somewhat affects the exposure young players get. In an abstract way, there is some good to come from this. There is more commitment to the cause; a raw dedication that only so deplorable a situation can extract.

James Montague continued by mentioning how Sepp Blatter and FIFA are open to the situation but Michel Platini, Russia and Serbia are “dead against it”. This is true – Blatter met with Serbian FA president and Serbian prime minister earlier this year, saying: “Our intention is to provide people in Kosovo with the appropriate tools to follow their passion for football.”

Whether this materialises to benefit the kids of Kosovo, there is one who won’t be reliant on that. Geri Vranovci. Remember that name.

I interviewed this sixteen-year-old Kosovar from Gjilan, Kosovo. He’s a David Beckham-worshipper, studious about the game, flirts with celebrity status in his town and just really wants to play football.

Vinesh Parmar: “What are your thoughts on the state of football in Kosovo?”

Geri Vranovci: “I hate it. This is something that really bothers me. There is so much talent but limited exposure of it. That affects the mentality of the coaches here. They aren’t fully committed to training you and getting the scouting you deserve just because it’s harder to make players of youth here than the rest of the world.”

VP: “Do players like Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka give inspiration?”

GV: “Yes, a lot. They do for quite a number of players in this country. I think that’s important because they give the mental strength. They have what we want and make us realise that we can reach that level.”

VP: “Who are your favourite players and how would you identify your playing style?”

GV: “David Beckham would have to be my favourite of all time, but I think I am most similar to Cesc Fàbregas. He does what I love doing – connecting the play. I like to play patient football, even though my biggest asset is creating chances at speed in that attacking midfield role. That’s why I like watching Arsenal, they are my team.”

VP: “How much does football really mean to you?”

GV: “Everything. I train three times a week during the day, and every evening. Coaches want me to play for them but sometimes I just train alone. My social life revolves around my family. I eat well and rest a lot. Most importantly I just want my talent to be acknowledged, for the hard work I put in. Gjilan has a population of 133,000 and they all know I want to play football. I’ve become famous for that. If I don’t become a footballer, then I want to be a coach because I know support is rare.”

VP: “You talk about being acknowledged. Have people witnessed your talents outside of Kosovo?”

GV: “Yes they have. I was scouted here, very luckily, and I got a trial at Young Boys’ youth academy in Switzerland. I trained there for a week. From what I saw, I knew I could compete with the players there. The facilities were amazing. Nothing like I’ve seen. It made me want to achieve that dream even more. The coach was so impressed he told my dad to sell the house so that we could move to Switzerland.”

Even if his dad doesn’t sell his house, family support is in abundance. From his brother, Sali, in particular. He has taken to the infinite audience of the internet. Setting up a Twitter account (through which we were in contact), a Facebook page to which he updates videos of his brother training and playing, which are originally uploaded to YouTube.

He admitted the use of social media has helped him a lot, “It is the widest outlet I have. I couldn’t reach so many people without it. As family we are really trying to get Geri noticed.

“We all know of his talents and want him to succeed. The coaches do to, but we know they won’t help much. It is up to us. This is the perfect time for Geri to be professionally developed. We can’t wait much longer.”

This shows the lack of development of this natural pool of talent in Kosovo. It is a concerning factor for them. There is this forced independence on players to be represented. A strain not many in Europe have to struggle with. It can either really incentivise or permanently deter. The latter being a worrying scenario. Diminishing aspirations before they can even make head or tale of themselves.

But even amongst the doom and gloom, there is some good. The government of Kosovo are paying for an U16 futsal trip to Italy. Geri and his team won the championship in Kosovo and are going to compete internationally next year.

This is a positive in terms of the recognition and help – abroad as well as on home soil.

But this doesn’t fulfil what Geri wants to achieve. It’s almost a cruel in how it sells out his show only to cancel it every week after. He is effectively on his own from there on out. But not in an impossible situation.

Valon Behrami is playing for one of the best teams in Italy – Napoli. Xherdan Shaqiri is playing for possibly the best team in the entire world. Those are true success stories, where talent triumphs all. But there is one common factor there. Not that they both play for Switzerland, but that they don’t play for Kosovo.

Geri knows he has to take this step.

James Montague countered this view of potential lack of national identity beautifully: “I don’t think it dilutes allegiances too much. Football reflects the world around us, and the world around us is one of flux, of movement.

“Players themselves are comfortable with being both say Swiss and Kosovar. Shaqiri, Xhaka, Behrami were all intensely proud of their Swiss background and the chances it gave them. But also recognised their roots were born out of war and they could help in trying to right a wrong as they saw it. I don’t know why people see that as a threat to national identity. That IS Switzerland’s national identity, one which has a large Kosovar minority.

“This isn’t a new problem. Ferenc Puskás played for Hungary and then Spain after the Hungarian uprising. What is interesting here is how it represents the mixed backgrounds people now have because of population movements.”

Kosovo have been ranked the second best non-FIFA recognised team, yet aren’t part of the NF-Board. There is some resistance there. But if Geri gets a VISA and moves to England to stay with relatives, he’ll grab that opportunity with both hands.

This isn’t a story of a country tripping up talent; it’s about a boy whose talent transcends all.

Follow Sali Vranovci on Twitter – @VranovciSali

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