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Soccer-Kosovo set for debut on international stage

Source: Reuters - Tue, 4 Mar 2014 13:08 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Kosovo meet Haiti in first ever international

* Match marks climax of long struggle

* Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008

By Fatos Bytyci

MITROVICA, Kosovo, March 4 (Reuters) - Kosovo make their debut on the world soccer stage on Wednesday when they play Haiti in the ethnically-divided town of Mitrovica, an encounter loaded with symbolism for the young Balkan country's quest for international acceptance.

The friendly match marks the climax of a long struggle for the right to play international matches 15 years after NATO went to war to wrest control of the region from Serbia and halt a wave of ethnic cleansing.

Six years after it declared independence, majority-Albanian Kosovo has been recognised by more than 100 countries, but not Serbia or its big-power backer Russia. Without a seat at the United Nations, Kosovo is not a member of FIFA or UEFA.

Following negotiations with the Serbian FA, FIFA ruled in January that Kosovo may play friendlies against other nations as long as no national symbols, including flags, are displayed or anthems played.

The prospect has had soccer fans in Kosovo compiling their own 'dream team' of European stars who trace their origins to this small corner of Europe, a landlocked and impoverished country of 1.7 million people.

They may have to wait, however, to lure the likes of Manchester United winger Adnan Januzaj or Swiss internationals Xherdan Shaqiri (Bayern Munich), Valon Behrami (Napoli) and Granit Xhaka (Borussia Monchengladbach).

They are part of a generation of Kosovars whose families fled poverty and repression in the 1990s. Januzaj, courted by Belgium, Albania and England, declined an invitation to take part in Wednesday's match.

"Kosovo will always keep its doors open for them," national coach Albert Bunjaki told Reuters during a training session on Monday.

"This is a journey, and we expect others to join us in the future."

PM: "WE'LL WIN"

Only one member of the 22-man squad plies his trade in Kosovo.

The rest were either born in Kosovo or raised by Kosovar parents, but earn a living in the big-money European leagues.

"It's fantastic to be part of this team," 17-year-old Manchester City forward Bersant Celina, who grew up in Norway, told Reuters.

"It couldn't be better than this," he said, speaking in English. "I hope to get some playing time so I can show how good I am."

All 17,000 tickets for the game were snapped up within seven hours of going on sale. Some for the west wing of the stadium were available on the black market for ten times their original 10-euro price.

The game will be played in the former mining hub of Mitrovica, split at the River Ibar between ethnic Albanians in the south and ethnic Serbs, who reject Kosovo statehood, in the north.

Mitrovica has been a frequent flashpoint since the 1998-99 conflict, when NATO intervened with 78 days of air strikes to drive out Serbian forces behind the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanian civilians during a counter-insurgency war.

The town remains the focus of a NATO peacekeeping force that now numbers some 5,000 soldiers.

Police are expected to be out in force.

The stadium, named after revered Kosovo Albanian guerrilla fighter Adem Jashari, is situated on the south side, a short distance from the river and within sight of Serb homes in the north.

The venue is the best Kosovo has to offer, recently renovated at a cost of $1 million.

Kosovo's sporting infrastructure has largely fallen into disrepair, the result of isolation, war and political limbo during the region's decades-long fight for freedom from Belgrade.

Inspecting the stadium, Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, himself a former guerrilla fighter against Serbian forces in 1998-99, hailed what he said would be an "historic game".

"I'm no prophet, but we'll win," he said. (Editing by Matt Robinson)

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