Euro 2020 still just a dream for pride of Kosovo

By Brian Homewood
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Euro 2020 still just a dream for pride of Kosovo

Euro 2020 Qualifier - Kosovo Training

By Brian Homewood

NEUCHATEL, Switzerland (Reuters) - Kosovo's remarkable rise in international football is often attributed to the passion of players representing a newly-independent country but coach Bernard Challandes says it has been as much about good football as pride.

Less than four years after being accepted as FIFA members, Kosovo are a tantalising two matches away from Euro 2020, having reached next month's playoffs after a remarkable run in which they went 15 matches unbeaten including wins over the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.

Kosovo's fearless attacking style has been as impressive as their results.

"I studied the potential of the team before I accepted the job and it was clear that these are good football players," veteran Swiss coach Bernard Challandes told Reuters in an interview.

"Like all players from Balkans, they love the ball, they have good technique, they like dribbling."

Challandes said that fitted his own belief.

"That is my football as a coach," said Challandes. "My football has always been positive, very offensive with high pressing and with risk. It's not about aesthetics, it's just clear in my mind that gives me a better chance of winning."

When he took charge in 2018, Challandes said his aim was to "build a team with a match philosophy, and with discipline".

Results, he said, were just the consequence of what you do.

However, results surpassed all expectations and Kosovo's rise in the last two years has been one of the most remarkable stories in international football.

The country of 1.8 million people, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, was finally accepted as a member of UEFA, and then FIFA, in 2016.

An estimated 800,000 Kosovars live abroad and much of Challandes's time has been spent trawling the Diaspora for potential players and watching videos in search of new recruits, often competing with Albania, Switzerland, Germany and other nations to win their allegiance.

While forward Mergim Berisha had accepted a call-up from Germany's Under-21 team and others have chosen Switzerland, many had picked Kosovo. Arguably the most important catch was forward Valon Berisha who played 20 times for Norway before switching in 2016.


BIGGER NATIONS

Challandes said he could understand why players might choose bigger nations and that he did not stand in their way.

"The players must decide with a football mind," he said. "A modern player wants to play at the European championship, at the World Cup, in a top league in Europe. The choice of national team is about how do he has a better chance of achieving these goals and, for me, that is fine."

But he added that players would inevitably face fierce competition for places if they chose Germany or Switzerland, and that playing for Kosovo had helped numerous players in their club careers. "It is a beautiful shop window," he said.

Challandes said Kosovo's history meant players had a special pride.

"These players are hungry, their families are behind them, the whole country is behind them and they feel that," he said. "It is very difficult for opponents to play in Pristina."

But he does not like to dwell on the political situation.

"I don't want to talk about that too much. I know it exists, that a lot of these players left the country with their families during the war or were born abroad, this all belongs to history," he said. "I just want to think about football."

Kosovo's first playoff will be away to North Macedonia and they must then beat either Georgia or Belarus, also away, to qualify for Euro 2020.

"It is still just a dream," Challandes said. "We have two very difficult matches to play, both away from home. I don't want too much pressure, I don't want to talk too much about the European championship."

"But every big achievement begins with a dream."


(Reporting by Brian Homewood, editing by Ed Osmond)